Counterfeit Bill of Health for Ships Clearing the Port of Norfolk
[Text reproduced in illustration section following page 254.]
Printed form (DLC: Broadsides Collection), with TJ’s notation at head of text: “A forgery” and, on verso, “Bill of health. replete with nonsense and falshood drawn by some tory.”
No satisfactory explanation of this document can at present be given, though several authorities on maritime and medical history have been consulted and have offered helpful suggestions. One view (with which the editors cannot agree) holds that this was a serious counterfeit, designed to obtain clearance for tory vessels from Norfolk; but nearly all of the authorities consulted (and the editors) agree that it is a burlesque aimed at TJ on account of his known hostility to the Anglican religious establishment in Virginia. Expressions like “To all the faithful in Christ,” “Whereas it is pious and honourable,” and “according to the Computation of the Commonwealth Church,” are more pious and stilted than even 18th century custom required. The statement that “no dangerous, pestilential, or contagious Distemper” exists in Virginia could be medical fact but is more likely intended as political irony. And it is clear that the forgery did succeed in irritating TJ. Very little, unfortunately, is known about contemporary practice in requiring and issuing bills of health. No colonial legislation on this point is found in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends though by an Act of the Oct. 1776 session of the Assembly, 5 shillings was fixed as the fee for obtaining a bill of health; in May 1779 the fee was altered to two dollars and a half; by an Act of 1783, the master of an incoming vessel ordered to perform quarantine was required to deliver to the port officer “the bills of health and manifests he shall have received during the voyage” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends ix, 188; x, 122; xi, 330).