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New Acquisition: 1794 Sea Letter Signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

In recent posts, I have pointed out that while the Law Library’s rare books collection is in principle a collection of printed books, we sometimes have the good fortune to acquire unique documents created by important Americans in the course of their public careers. One example of these was a document signed by two 17th-century women who were leaders in the communities of Nantucket and Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard). Another example was a manuscript copy of Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent in the hand of Henry Clay. In this post, I would like to introduce another interesting document that the Law Library has recently added to its rare books collection, an 18th-century sea letter bearing the signatures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

A sea letter for the schooner Two Friends signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in 1794

A sea letter for the schooner Two Friends signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in 1794. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

This item is a sea letter that was issued for the schooner Two Friends, which sailed from the Port of Salem on May 25, 1794. A sea letter, like a ship’s passport, was a document that the United States required American vessels to carry in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was meant to identify the ship, to document its nationality, and to serve as evidence of treaty privileges or of neutrality when the ship arrived in foreign ports or when it was boarded by naval officers of nations at war.

The issue of furnishing United States ships with sea letters appeared first in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (United States–France), signed on February 6, 1778. The language of the treaty is as follows:

To the End that all manner of Dissentions and Quarrels may be avoided and prevented on one Side and the other, it is agreed, that in case either of the Parties hereto should be engaged in War, the Ships and Vessels belonging to the Subjects or People of the other Ally must be furnished with Sea Letters or Passports expressing the name, Property and Bulk of the Ship as also the name and Place of habitation of the Master or Commander of the said Ship, that it may appear thereby, that the Ship really & truely belongs to the Subjects of one of the Parties, which Passport shall be made out and granted according to the Form annexed to this Treaty.” (Art. 27 [25].)

The same requirement appeared in nearly identical language in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (United States–Dutch Republic) September 6, 1782 (Art. 25); in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (United States–Sweden) signed on April 3, 1783 (Art. 11); and with some differences in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (United States–Prussia) signed on September 10, 1785 (Art. 14).

Petitions for sea letters appear in the Journals of the Continental Congress from 1783. (Coughlin, p. 372) Under the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress issued sea letters to ships bound for the far east beginning in 1784. By a resolution on February 12, 1788, the Congress delegated responsibility for issuing them to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. (Jefferson, pp. 645-648.)

It was some time before the United States began issuing sea letters or ship’s passports pursuant to its treaty obligations. France went to war against Prussia in 1792; both countries were parties to treaties with the United States that required the U.S. to issue sea letters or ship’s passports during time of war. But the United States temporized. The Washington administration had been anxious to maintain its stance of neutrality regarding the growing conflict in Europe. The Treaty of Alliance with France (1778) created a military alliance between the United States and France, but Washington and his cabinet believed that entering a war on France’s behalf would be disastrous for the United States. (Bemis, p. 34.) When France declared war on the United Kingdom and the Dutch Republic in February of 1793, the danger to the United States increased significantly. (Jefferson, pp. 645-648.) The decision to issue sea letters (which made a claim of neutrality) pivoted in part on whether recognizing Revolutionary France as a successor to the Kingdom of France would require the United States to ally itself in defense of the new republic. Later that year, France eventually communicated its preference that the United States remain neutral so that trade lines between the two nations would remain open and unmolested by British naval forces. This gave Washington assurance to recognize the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, but also to maintain neutrality. (Bemis, p. 34.)

A distinctive form of ship’s passport emerged following the Treaty of Peace and Amity, signed at Algiers September 5, 1795 (Art. 4). Passports that were issued to ships traveling to the Mediterranean Sea and the Barbary States are often referred to as a Mediterranean Pass or Mediterranean Passport. These were modeled after British documents used for the same purpose and were frequently printed on vellum with a wavy line of indenture across the top edge which was used for authentication. (Stein, p. 111.) An act of Congress on June 1, 1796, provided that all ships and vessels of the United States that departed for the port of any foreign nation must acquire such a ship’s passport at a cost of $10 paid to the Collector of the port of embarkation. It required that the Secretary of State provide a form for that passport, and that it must be approved by the President of the United States. It also provided that the master of any ship that failed to comply faced a fine of $200. Use of these documents continued throughout most of the 19th century.

Image of the seal of the United States and the signatures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Heller on the sea letter for the schooner Two Friends.

The seal of the United States and the signatures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Hiller on a sea letter for the schooner Two Friends. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

By contrast, after the war of 1812, the government sought to limit the use of sea letters. On April 10, 1815, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander J. Dallas (who appeared in this post, but who is famous now for supplying the earliest published reports of cases decided by the United States Supreme Court) sent an executive circular to the Collector of Boston that clarified the United States policy on issuing sea letters. In it, he claimed that it had “never been the usage of this government to grant sea-letters but in time of war, and then only in consequence of the stipulations of treaties to ascertain our flag to the belligerent parties.” President James Madison was therefore of the opinion that issuing sea letters was no longer necessary, “except in cases where vessels are bound on voyages beyond the Cape of Good Hope.” (Unpublished circular (56.2 General Records of the Office of the Secretary 1789-1977/56.2.1 Letters Sent).)

The sea letter that the Law Library recently acquired was signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on March 20, 1794. It was also signed by Joseph Hiller, Collector for the Port of Salem. As with many early sea letters, the text appears in three languages: English, French, and Dutch (it was later customary to print sea letters in four languages, English, French, Dutch, and Spanish). (Stein, p. 112.) It records Osman Gage as master of the ship, which it describes as “lying at present at the Port of Beverly and bound for Surinam [sic] and laden with fish, provisions, oil, and lumber, to depart and proceed with this said Schooner on his said voyage, such Schooner having been visited, and the said Osman Gage having made oath before the proper officer that the said Schooner belongs to one or more of the citizens of the United States of America, and to them only.” On the verso of the document, dated two months later, it records that Nicholas Thorndike is now the master of the ship and that it was departing for Trinidad from the Port of Salem, after an apparent delay.

In 1793, the schooner Two Friends was involved in a customs violation case, which arose from the illegal off-loading of sugar in Beverly, Massachusetts. In the course of a deposition, Osman Gage, who was serving as first mate to ship master Nicholas Thorndike, made statements that show that the schooner was carrying enslaved people in the Caribbean who were bought and sold between the islands of Haiti and Cuba. It did not, however, transport them to the United States. In this respect, the Two Friends is an example of a broader phenomenon. While the Massachusetts legislature banned the slave trade in 1788, ships that sailed from its ports continued to engage in the slave trade in the course of their travels. In 1800, the United States Congress made it unlawful to engage in the slave trade between nations, and in 1808 it enacted legislation to prohibit the importation of enslaved persons into the country. Widespread domestic trade in enslaved people continued until after the Civil War. It is unlikely, given the workaday quality of a document of this sort, that either Washington or Jefferson, both of whom owned enslaved people, were aware of the activities of the schooner Two Friends in the Caribbean in 1793, but this document, and others like it, underscore how embedded slavery and the slave trade were in the fabric of American society at that time and for much of the nation’s history.

Sources:

Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the foundations of American foreign policy. New York, Norton [1973, c1949].

Coughlin, Magdalen. “The Entrance of the Massachusetts Merchant into the Pacific.” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4 (Dec. 1966), pp. 327-352.

Jefferson, Thomas. Papers / Julian P. Boyd, editor; Lyman H. Butterfield … [et al.]. Vol. 25, 1 January–10 May 1793, ed. John Catanzariti. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Stein, Douglas L. American Maritime Documents 1776-1860 Illustrated and Described. Mystic, Ct.: Mystic Seaport Museum, c1992.

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2 Comments

  1. Brian
    April 13, 2022 at 9:19 am

    Nathan: very good write up as well as very informative. But, the very last sentence states, at the very end states: “It is unlikely, given the workaday quality of a document of this sort, that either Washington or Jefferson, both of whom owned enslaved people, were aware of the activities of the schooner Two Friends in the Caribbean in 1793, but this document, and others like it, underscore how embedded slavery and the slave trade were in the fabric of American society at that time and for much of the nation’s history.”

    Specifically the part: “…underscore how embedded slavery and the slave trade were in the fabric of American society at that time and for much of the nation’s history.” Was not Slavery completely abolished with the Thirteenth [sic] Amendment, in 1865? If so, I would hardly say that 1865 is “much of the nation’s history. Far from it.

  2. David Lavery
    April 14, 2022 at 9:03 am

    Will this be scanned and available at a higher resolution. I’m keen to see the two seals better. Thank you for this excellent post.

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