Thomas Jefferson and James Madison Signed Ship's Passport, 1805

This rare official document, dated December 19, 1805, is signed by both Thomas Jefferson as the nation's third President and James Madison as Secretary of State. The document, partially printed in columns and finished by hand in ink, consists of ship's papers for the brig Danube, then moored in New York and bound for Cuba. 

In four columns printed and engrossed in French, Spanish, English, and Dutch is the Danube’s manifest. The paper names Charles Hathaway as its "master and commander," identifies its tonnage at 193 66/95 “tons or thereabouts” and cargo as “laden with Beef, Pork, Lard, Butter, flour, Wine, figs, Glassware, Hardware, Porter, one Gig. Cheese Nankeens, Dry Goods, Hams, Lumber."  It indicates its destination as "Trinidad" in Cuba. The document contains oaths that the named ship is owned by “one or more of the citizens of the United States, and to him or them only.”

Along the middle right, the manifest is signed “Th: Jefferson," above the signature of his Secretary of State “James Madison," and is countersigned by “David Gelston” Deputy Collector of Customs. This rare document also contains an embossed paper seal of the United States and red wax seal affixed at middle left. In four columns below are official printed and engrossed requests for safe passage, again in four languages. It asks of those that encounter the ship, and “who shall see these patents, or hear them read” to “please receive the said matter [the brig Danube] with goodness, and to treat him in a becoming manner, permitting him, upon the usual tolls and expenses, in passing and repassing, to pass, navigate, and frequent the ports, passes, and territories, to the end to transact his business, where, and in what manner he shall judge proper.”

Ship’s papers are documents legally required to be carried by an oceangoing vessel, as a certificate of registry, logbook, and cargo manifest. Ship’s papers have occupied a prominent place in the history of maritime law and in treaties of commerce and navigation.  Signed presidential authorization such as this, granting the right to sail the high seas and dock in a country's ports, was a valuable privilege. Before conferring such privilege, officials were required to establish the legitimacy of a vessel, its cargo and its personnel, and the ship's papers were intended to authorize its mission. In the wrong hands, especially during the tense and vulnerable conditions of wartime or, as in the perilous years of America's beginnings, when privateers often seized ships and their cargo, a fraudulent or forged approval could be dangerous. Having presidential-signed ship papers stating your neutrality on the open waters helped offset some of the risk involved in the dangerous yet lucrative trade business.

This ship’s paper is an amazing remainder and reminder of our early Cuban trade history. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, Cuba was fast becoming the richest colony in the world; and it was the United States that reaped the most benefits through trade. The principal item of U.S. export to Cuba was flour, and the U.S. exported approximately 125,000 barrels annually to Cuba starting in 1797, which represented almost 13 percent of all American flour exports. Other exports included provisions, oil, and timber-goods. In 1803, writer from the Richmond Inquirer observed that without trade to the Spanish Caribbean and South America, "a considerable quantity of provisions and lumber would thus remain in our magazines without any profit, at the same time we should be shut out from the principal markets in which we obtain our real circulating medium." American prosperity depended in no small part upon the Cuban demand for U.S. foodstuffs and the corresponding supply of Spanish American specie that flowed up through Cuba. It was trade with Cuba and other South American colonies that allowed the Jeffersonian emphasis upon an agriculturally based foreign trade to be both proper and profitable in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. 

This is a one-of-kind item, delving into the early American history of maritime law and our trade network with Cuba during our nascent years as a country.


Very good condition. Partially printed, partially inscribed. Document was issued folding, now flat. Toned sheet with some light dampstaining and a 5" tear at top right that has been archivally repaired. A small chip at top has been professionally repaired, with a minute amount of the printed text replaced in facsimile. The larger of the two seals is cracking with small portions chipped away. Signatures are legible and strong, with only light fading to ink. Document Dimensions: 16"H x 20" W. 

Document is archivally framed to the highest standards, with two portraits on either side, in a custom built wooden frame with acid-free black mats, gold spandrels, museum glass, and a custom gold leaf plaque.

Framed Dimensions: 31" H x 64" W x 3" D. 

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