Thomas Jefferson and James Madison Sign an Ornate, Engraved Passport For the Ship Two Marys, Which Would Be Confiscated By France For Violations of Napoleon’s Milan Decree

Napoleon’s Continental System, which was designed to isolate Britain and prevent it from receiving supplies, began with the promulgation of the Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806. This declared the British Isles “to be in a state of blockade;” prohibited the trade of any British goods, and authorized any vessel engaged in...

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Thomas Jefferson and James Madison Sign an Ornate, Engraved Passport For the Ship Two Marys, Which Would Be Confiscated By France For Violations of Napoleon’s Milan Decree

Napoleon’s Continental System, which was designed to isolate Britain and prevent it from receiving supplies, began with the promulgation of the Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806. This declared the British Isles “to be in a state of blockade;” prohibited the trade of any British goods, and authorized any vessel engaged in such trade be seized and its cargo taken. The British followed suit soon thereafter, though U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe was informed that no action would be taken against any vessels from neutral nations. Napoleon’s Milan Decree of November 1807 was designed to enforce his measures by arming French and allied vessels with a broader power of seizure of cargo and ships. Because the Milan Decree dictated that any vessel engaging in commerce with Britain, or any which allowed itself to be inspected by the British, was thereafter denationalized and subject to seizure, the line of neutrality being supposedly thereby blurred.

The case of the Two Marys shows this in action. The “Reports of Cases Adjudged and Determined in the Supreme Court of New York” deals directly with the case of this vessel. “Having met with a gale of wind and being near Belle Isle she went there for a pilot and was chased by a British cruiser under the lee of the island. Having taken in a pilot she lay to about an hour about a league from shore and distant about 30 miles from Nantz, the fog being so thick that the ship could not safely proceed, and while in this situation about a league and a half from the principal fort and nearly in reach of cannon shot the ship was taken possession of by a French boat and carried in under the guns of the fort, and there claimed as a prize; and was afterwards condemned under the Milan decree of the 17th December 1808 for having been visited by a British cruiser.”

Document signed by both President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, folio on vellum, Washington, August 7, 1806, with an engraving at top of a sailing ship and a harbor scene dominated by a lighthouse, being a passport for the Ship Two Marys out of New York, master Caleb Johnson. A previous ship of Johnson’s, The Ann, had been seized by the Spanish a year earlier. Johnson’s experience, having two ships under his command seized in a two year period, illustrates how disruptive to American commerce the war in Europe was proving to be.

These passports, given to ships rather than individuals, were issued to U.S. vessels engaged in foreign trade, and are among the most attractive of presidential signed documents.

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