Multi-language Sea Letter
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 unissued Mediterranean passport was signed by President Zachary Taylor who served for only 16 months before dying while in office. Although a southerner, who made his home in Baton Rouge, he strongly supported a nationalist position and was prepared to use military force to keep the union together when arguments over extending slavery into newly acquired territory threatened of destroy the union. The document also bears the signature of the Secretary of State John M. Clayton, who had served both in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before becoming Secretary of State. Serving such a strong-willed President, Clayton had little latitude in diplomatic affairs, and he resigned as Secretary of State immediately after Taylor’s death.
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]