Sea letter, Brigantine Neptune, July 26, 1793


Sailing into contested waters has always been a risky venture; in the years following the American Revolution, merchant vessels and whaling ships could carry a sea letter--a standardized document signed by the President and the Secretary of State, to declare their nationality and claim protection under various international agreements. Printed in three or more languages, the boilerplate text appeals to the “MOST Serene, Serene, most Puissant, Puissant, High, Illustrious . . . Lords, Emperors, Kings, Republics, . . . Burgomasters, Schepens, Consullors..." to treat the vessel and crew with respect. There are numerous examples of sea letters in the business records collections held at the Library. The documents often provide important information about the destination and purpose of the vessels that carried them. This one is from the Arnold family business records; printed in French, English, and Dutch, it bears the (slightly worm-eaten) signatures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as some pencil doodling on the Great Seal.

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