Mediterranean Ship’s Passport
This passport illustrates clearly one of the interesting aspects of the passport/sea letter process. The passports were actually issued by the Collectors of Customs in the various ports. With the slowness of transportation, it was impossible for the President and Secretary of State to sign documents in a timely manner for specific ships. Therefore, blank passports were signed by the President and the Secretary of State and sealed with the Great Seal of the United States. Then groups of these signed documents were transported to the ports, where they would be issued as needed by the Collectors of Custom. As a check, they were usually notarized at the time of issuance and the document carried both the date of issuance and the signature and seal of the notary. This process occasionally resulted in a posthumous issuance of a passport after the signing President had died.
This sea letter was signed by President Millard Fillmore who as Vice President succeeded Taylor upon Taylor’s death. Fillmore served the remainder of the term from July 9, 1850 until March 4, 1853. As vice-president he presided over the Senate’s debates on Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 bill to determine the extension of slavery into the newly acquired lands of the west. When he became President he demonstrated his alliance with the moderate Whig’s when he selected Daniel Webster as Secretary of State and he endorsed the Clay compromise, which became law. Daniel Webster is also a signer of this sea letter. He has served as Secretary of State nearly a decade before under President John Tyler. With Fillmore, Webster worked to pass the compromise of 1850, which helped to keep the Union together. He created a controversy when he criticized European monarchism. He had other initiatives under way when he died in office in 1852.
This passport is printed on vellum and as is typical of Mediterranean passports, the top is scalloped where the top portion was cut off and sent to United States consuls in the Mediterranean for later matching with the passport held by the ship. It bears the Great Seal of the United States on the lower left.
[Description provided by J. Revell Carr, former President and Director, Mystic Seaport: The Museum of American and the Sea]