An 1801 Four Language Ship’s Passport (or Four Language Sea Letter) signed by President Thomas Jefferson (3rd President) and countersigned by Acting Secretary of State Levi Lincoln, Sr. (who had just been appointed as Attorney General  (see info below).

The signatures on this ship’s paper, dated April 15, 1801, constituted authorization of the 14 ton brig named “Smilax” under the command of Captain “John Nichols of Glassenbury, master or commander of the Brig called the Smilax…lying at present in the port of N. York bound for London and laden with Flour, Rye, Meal, Corn, Rice, Madera, Butter, Harry Indian Meal, Ginsang, Saffron, Peppers, Lumber, Books, Bees Wax.”

The document is written in the four major languages of the day… French, Portuguese, English, and Dutch, and provides the protection of the U.S. Government for the ship for this specific voyage. This paperwork also proves that the ship is not running contraband.

Both signatures are dark clear examples.
In very good condition, with overall creasing, toning and small areas of paper loss along the intersecting folds, a tear to the lower left edge, and both seals missing.
An incredibly rare document signed very early in Jefferson’s term, in the small period of time before Madison stepped in as Secretary of State.

When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1901 (the first transition between Presidents in United States history), he moved as quickly as possible to fill his cabinet positions.
Although he had appointed James Madison to be his Secretary of State, Madison did not arrive in Washington until May 1st due to illness. In the interim, Jefferson asked Massachusetts representative and newly appointed Attorney General Levi Lincoln, Sr. to act temporarily as Secretary of State, which he did from March 5, 1801 until Madison assumed his duties on May 2, 1801.
This is only the second such Thomas Jefferson and Levi Lincoln dual-signed document we know of to hit the market.

Sold with Letters of Authenticity from both The Autograph Source and independent third-party authenticator Beckett Authentication Services.



Levi Lincoln Sr. (May 15, 1749 – April 14, 1820) was an American revolutionary, lawyer, and statesman from Massachusetts. A Democratic-Republican, he most notably served as Thomas Jefferson’s first Attorney General, and played a significant role in the events that led to the celebrated Marbury v. Madison court case. He served two terms as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, acting as Governor for the remainder of Governor James Sullivan’s term after his death in December 1808. Lincoln was unsuccessful in his bid to be elected governor in his own right in 1809.

Born in Hingham, Massachusetts, Lincoln was educated at Harvard, and studied law with Joseph Hawley before establishing a law practice in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was active in local politics, and participated in the convention that drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779. He supported Quock Walker, a former slave seeking confirmation of his freedom under that constitution in 1783. He entered national politics with his election to the United States House of Representatives in 1800, but was immediately tapped by Jefferson to become Attorney General. Lincoln served Jefferson as a consultant on the politics of New England, and was influential in the distribution of patronage in the region. He served on a commission that resolved claims emanating from the Yazoo land scandal in Georgia, and advised Jefferson on matters related to the Louisiana Purchase.

He returned to Massachusetts, where he remained politically active in the state. He established Republican dominance in Worcester, even though the state was dominated by Federalists. He was elected lieutenant governor under James Sullivan in 1807, but failed to win election in his own right in 1809 in a highly partisan election. He retired from politics in 1811, declining nomination to the Supreme Court because of his health. His descendants were a major influence in Worcester for much of the 19th century.


The term “Sea Letter” has been used to describe any document issued by a government or monarch to one of its merchant fleet, which established proof of nationality and guaranteed protection for the vessel and her owners. However, it the Sea Letter use by the United States after 1789 that is of particular interest here.
The 1822 edition of The Merchants and Shipmaster’s Assistant described the Sea Letter as “a document which specifies the nature of the cargo and the place of destination, and says that is was only required for vessels bound to the Southern Hemisphere.  In 1859 the document was defined as part of the ship’s papers when bound on a foreign voyage, it is written in four languages, the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch, and is only necessary for vessels bound round Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.”
The Sea Letter was a remarkably standardized document, which changed little during the time that it was used. Usually printed on heavy grade paper, approximately 16″ x 20″ in size, the first Sea Letters carried only three languages instead of four. However, they soon became known as Four Language Sea Letters.
The statement within the document conveys in part that the vessel described is owned entirely by American citizens, and requests that all Prudent Lords, Kings, Republics, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lord, Burgomasters, Sheens, Consolers, etc., treat the vessel and her crew with fairness and respect.

The signatures of the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and the customs collector appear in the middle portion of the document.
Sea Letters are mentioned in the formative maritime legislation forged by the new Federal governments. They provided additional evidence of ownership and nationality, but the criteria by which a shipmaster utilized one document over the other is not completely clear. It was explained at the time that both documents were rendered necessary of expedient by reason of treaties with foreign powers, a statement which suggests that certain nations required a particular document because of existing agreements with the United States.

In any case the Sea Letter was valid for only a single voyage, and a bond does not seem to have been required. Neither was it to be returned to the collector when the voyage was completed. Indications are that, as the years progressed, Sea Letters were being used more often by whaling ships than by merchant vessels, perhaps because American whalers fished in areas where this document was preferred as proof of national origin.
By providing a statement of American property, signed by the President of the United States, the Mediterranean Passport and the Sea Letter were intended to confirm our status as a neutral nation, when international conflict put added dangers on America’s commerce at sea. By mid-century, however, much of what had previously threatened our shipping was being neutralized by the expanding power of the United States.

As our merchant fleet became more secure, fewer ship owners and shipmasters considered these documents as necessary to guarantee their rights and safety in foreign lands.*
Both pieces were considered important parts of a ship’s papers in the 1800s. They were kept aboard ship during the voyage and deposited, along with the Registry Certificate, with the appropriate U.S. consular authority anytime the vessel was in a foreign port.

Today they are considered to be important documents in any maritime collection. However, they are also highly valued by autograph collectors and investors, which keeps many fine pieces in private hands.
*It is important here to note that these documents were intended only to protect the vessel from capture of destruction by providing American, i.e., nonbelligerent, ownership. American crew members aboard these ships were still vulnerable to impressment, especially if they did not carry their own personal protection certificates as proof of citizenship.