Trading With the Enemy in the War of 1812: The Famous Case of the Brig Joseph, Convicted of Aiding the British

Document signed by James Madison as President and James Monroe as Secretary of State, authorizing the Joseph to commence its infamous journey

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The Brig Joseph was an American-owned vessel whose captain was Charles L. Sargent. It sailed from Boston on the 6th of April, 1812, having on board a cargo of cotton, ashes and turpentine, with its initial destination being Liverpool, England. The cotton was for British mills and the ashes and turpentine were...

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Trading With the Enemy in the War of 1812: The Famous Case of the Brig Joseph, Convicted of Aiding the British

Document signed by James Madison as President and James Monroe as Secretary of State, authorizing the Joseph to commence its infamous journey

The Brig Joseph was an American-owned vessel whose captain was Charles L. Sargent. It sailed from Boston on the 6th of April, 1812, having on board a cargo of cotton, ashes and turpentine, with its initial destination being Liverpool, England. The cotton was for British mills and the ashes and turpentine were naval stores of use to the Royal Navy. From England the Joseph was to go to the north of Europe, and then return to the United States. The brig arrived at Liverpool, and having discharged her cargo there, went to Hull, England, and took on a cargo of mahogany, and on the 30th of June, 1812, sailed for St. Petersburg, Russia. It did this under the protection of a British license, granted on June 8, to continue in force until the first of November following, authorizing the export of the mahogany to St. Petersburg, and the importation of a return cargo to England.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. When the Joseph arrived at St. Petersburg, Sargent received news of the outbreak of the war. Sargent later claimed that he consulted with John Quincy Adams, then the American ambassador to Russia, if there was any law against his returning to England with a license taken before the war, and was answered that there was none. The cargo of mahogany not being sold, in October the brig took on board a cargo consisting of hemp and iron, bound from St. Petersburg to London. Winter set in and the Joseph put into the neutral port of Carlscrona in Sweden. It sailed for London in the spring of 1813, and delivered its cargo; and on the 29th of May, 1813, sailed for the United States. When it arrived in the U.S., it was seized as a prize under the law preventing trading with the enemy.

This resulted in a famous lawsuit, over which the noted Judge Joseph Story presided. The captain, Sargent, alleged that his reason for taking the cargo of hemp and iron to England was to enable him to recoup his expenses at St. Petersburg, and that going to England was the only safe mode of effecting his return to the United States. He also claimed Ambassador Adams had authorized his course of conduct, though he presented no proof of that.

Judge Story was unimpressed with Sargent’s explanation. “The trading with the public enemy, for which condemnation is sought,” he wrote, “is the taking in and carrying a cargo on freight to England, after a full knowledge of the war.” He doubted that John Quincy Adams had given any such authorization, saying, “I confess myself much inclined to doubt, whether the opinion, in the extent and manner it is now supposed, ought to be imputed to him. We have no written statement from himself.” Story pronounced “the brig Joseph and her appurtenances, good and lawful prize to the captors.”

This is the original passport issued to the Brig Joseph to leave Boston. Document signed by James Madison as President and James Monroe as Secretary of State, with location of Boston and date of April 6, 1812, authorizing the Brig Joseph, commanded by Charles L. Sargent, to carry a cargo of cotton, ashes, and turpentine to Liverpool, England. An extraordinary memento of a landmark case that defined trading with the enemy.

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