Rare John Adams Ships Papers of a vessel captured by a corsair during the Quasi-War with FranceJohn Adams Four-Language Ships Paper Signed "John Adams" as President and "Timothy Pickering" as Secretary of State, one page, 19.5" x 15.5". Philadelphia, August 11, 1798. Ships papers issued to "Robert Knox master or commander" for the safe passage "of the Brig called Jane of the burthen of 132 7/95 tons or thereabouts, lying at present in the port of Philadelphia bound for Antigua and laden with Sundry Merchandize..." Countersigned "Geo Latimer Collr" of the port of Philadelphia and also a prominent merchant. Because ships leaving U.S. ports needed ships papers before a voyage, the documents were signed by the President and Secretary of State ahead of time and forwarded to the port. The Collector of the Port would then fill in the required information and sign the document. American ships could not sail the open seas without this properly authorized passport issued in four languages in four columns, left to right, French, Spanish, English, and Dutch. The titles of any foreign officer or official who might board the brig are listed in the lower half of this document with the assertion that Knox "has declared upon oath, that the vessel, called the Jane of Philadelphia of the burthen of about 132 7/95 tons, which he at present navigates, is if the United States of America, and that no subjects of the present belligerent powers have any part or portion therein, directly nor indirectly, so may God Almighty help him."
The 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and France pledged mutual support and protection of trade. In 1793, France declared war on England and the French insisted that America actively participate in their war because of the treaty. The U.S. replied that the treaty had been with King Louis XVI and that it had been rendered void with the French Revolution and the end of the monarchy. By mid-1796, French privateers began seizing American ships on the high seas. In the next 12 months over 300 merchant ships were captured. On May 28, 1798, President John Adams instructed all armed vessels of the United States "to seize, take and bring into any Port of the United States...any armed Vessel sailing under Authority, or Pretense of Authority, from the Republic of France, which shall have committed, or which shall be found hovering on the Coasts of the United States for the purpose of committing, Depredations on the Vessels belonging to Citizens thereof; and also to retake any Ship or Vessel of any Citizen or Citizens of the United States, which may have been captured by any such armed Vessel." On July 7, 1798, President Adams signed into law "An act declaring the treaties heretofore concluded with France, no longer obligatory on the United States" and the undeclared war, known then and now as the Quasi-War, had begun in earnest. On the verso of this document appears "capturé par le corsaire le narbonnais" in ink indicating in French that the brig Jane was captured by the corsair le narbonnais. Narbonne was a seaport town on the Mediterranean coast of France founded by the Romans in the second century B.C. Corsairs were very fast ships, mostly used by Algerian pirates. This document may have been taken as a souvenir by a French seaman on the corsair. When Benjamin Stoddert became the first Secretary of the Navy on June 18, 1798, only one American naval vessel was on active duty. By the end of the year, a force of 20 ships was planned for the Caribbean. Before the Quasi-War with France ended in 1800, the force available to the Navy approached 30 vessels, with some 700 officers and 5,000 seamen. Research has not revealed what happened to this vessel or if it was captured on its way to or from the Caribbean island of Antigua, a British colony. The document has been repaired on verso at splits in the folds, one in the center affecting Latimer's signature and there are usual folds. Adams signature is large, dark, and bold. Paper seals of the U.S. government and the collector's office have been affixed with red wax at the left. Ironically, there is a fleur-de-lis design in the 1795 watermark of the laid paper upon which this document was printed, the traditional symbol of French royalty. Rarely do Ships Papers of a captured American vessel appear on the market. This one is in fine condition.
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