An interesting commentary on the international authority (or lack of same) that WashingtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s signature had, and the first presidential passport for a seized ship we can recall seeing .
The United States declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and France that followed the French Revolution, but after the Jay Treaty and renewed American trade with the British, the French were outraged. France began to seize American ships trading with Britain and refused to receive a new United States minister...
The United States declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and France that followed the French Revolution, but after the Jay Treaty and renewed American trade with the British, the French were outraged. France began to seize American ships trading with Britain and refused to receive a new United States minister when he arrived in Paris in December 1796. The French inflicted substantial losses on American shipping. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering reported to Congress on June 21, 1797 that the French had captured 316 American merchant ships in the previous eleven months. This was the unofficial beginning of what is known as the Quasi-War. The hostilities caused insurance rates on American shipping to increase at least 500 percent, as French marauders cruised the length of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The administration had no warships to combat them; the last had been sold off in 1785. The United States possessed only a flotilla of revenue cutters and some neglected coastal forts.
In his annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, newly inaugurated President John Adams reported on Franceâ€™s refusal to negotiate and spoke of the need â€œto place our country in a suitable posture of defense.â€ Congress responded by authorizing the President to acquire, arm, and man no more than 12 vessels, of up to 22 guns each. Under the terms of this act, several vessels were purchased and converted into ships of war. On July 7, 1798, Congress rescinded treaties with France, and the act was followed two days later by Congressional authorization to attack French vessels.
Document Signed as President, 11 1/2 by 17 inches on vellum, Philadelphia, December 8, 1796, picturing at top a beautiful graphic of a lighthouse and sailing ships, one of which flies the American flag. The document is a passport allowing the Brig Thomas, Mark Fernald captain, burthen 131 tons and with a crew of seven men, to â€œpass with her company, passengers, goods and merchandise without any hindrance, seizure or molestation…â€ The passport is countersigned by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. This wonderful, engraved form is a rare one for a Washington signed document to take, as we have only seen a few over the years.
Despite carrying Washingtonâ€™s signature on its passport, this very ship and very captain were not permitted to pass unmolested; they fell victim to the French cruisers in 1797. And as if to illustrate the chaos that the French-British war brought to trade and diplomacy, the brig in French possession was in turn seized by the British, who brought it to Plymouth for salvage.
Literally a century later, after a U.S./French treaty provided that claims of Americans against the French arising from these seizures would be assumed by the United States government, Congress gathered the claims, determined which were valid, and paid them to successors in interest of the original damaged parties. The paid claims are listed in the â€œFrench Spoilation Claims Allowed by Congress,â€ and this list includes the Brig Thomas and Captain Fernald, along with the sum Congress allocated to satisfying the claim: $6,232.
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