Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Tench Coxe, 7 May 1793

From Tench Coxe

Treasury Department Revenue Office May 7th 1793


In addition to the short letter of last week for Boston, New-York, Baltimore and Alexandria; I have now the honor to inclose you two copies of my instructions to the Collectors (to accompany the Sea letters) 200 of which have been this day delivered to me from the Press. All the sea letters which have been received are disposed of, in consequence of applications, as fast as they came to my hands.

I beg leave to remark, that a considerable degree of anxiety will probably arise in all the Ports of the United States for these documents, upon its being known that they have been issued and that it therefore appears necessary to have a full supply of them transmitted to every customhouse without delay. The fishing Vessels upon whaling voyages, which depart for some of the latitudes at all seasons, will likewise want them, and the little fleets, which go to the Banks and which have begun to depart, will want them in large Numbers. Not less than 500 will be wanted by the Eastern States for those two descriptions of Vessels, besides the supply for their foreign traders.

I beg leave to submit to your consideration these two points of instruction, which I intend to give to the Collectors. 1st: That all foreign built ships (not registered) which have been or may be acquired by our Citizens after the 15th. of May 1789 shall be measured by our officers and have their names and the place to which they belong painted on their Sterns respectively, prior to the issuing Sea letters for them.

2dly. That a duplicate of the bill of Sale shall be endorsed on the Back of their national register and duly executed before the Collector of the Customs (or his Deputy), and the Naval Officer (or his deputy) if there be one in the Port.

This will be a pretty efficacious method of preventing frauds injurious to our Merchants and dangerous to the Peace of the United States. I have the honor to be with great Respect, Sir, Your most Obedient Servant

Tench Coxe
Commissioner of the Revenue

RC (DLC); in a clerk’s hand, with signature and a minor correction by Coxe; at foot of text: “The Secretary of State”; endorsed by TJ as received 7 May 1793 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Coxe’s Circular to Collectors of the Customs, 7 May 1793, enclosing three copies of sea letters received from the Department of State and signed by the President and the Secretary of State that were to be issued to every vessel wholly and bona fide owned by United States citizens once the captain had sworn to that effect under oath on the certificate annexed to the sea letter; giving instructions for filling in the blanks on the English and Dutch copies of the sea letters; cautioning that sea letters, though issuable to foreign-built ships owned by American citizens on 15 May 1789 or actually acquired since then, were not to be given to vessels owned in any part, directly or indirectly, by foreigners and ordering the collectors to “take the most especial care to prevent deceptions and collusions in that respect”; advising that the French copy of the sea letters had been delayed but will probably be completed before this circular went out and will appear “on the back of the present form” to be filled in the same way; and giving directions for keeping records and submitting a quarterly return of sea letters issued (two printed forms in DLC; addressed respectively to James M. Lingan, collector for Georgetown, Maryland, and John Fitzgerald, collector for Alexandria, Virginia; with blanks for the day, the port, Coxe’s signature, and the collector’s name filled in by a clerk).

The short letter of last week was enclosed in Coxe to TJ, 4 May 1793. Alexander Hamilton issued a revised version of Coxe’s Instructions to the collectors in his own name around the middle of May, differing from the enclosed circular mainly in its inclusion of directions on how to fill in the French form of the ship passports (Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xiv, 442–7). Acts passed in September 1789 and December 1792 stipulated that foreign built ships acquired by United States citizens after the 15th. of May 1789 were not entitled to registry as American vessels, and were thus ineligible for the reduced customs duties which this designation carried with it (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. The first two volumes of the set cited here have “Compiled … by Joseph Gales, Senior” on the title page and bear the caption “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. The remaining volumes bear the caption “History of Congress” on both recto and verso pages. Those using the first two volumes with the latter caption will need to employ the date of the debate or the indexes of debates and speakers. description ends , ii, 2217, iii, 1397). Coxe was concerned with setting up procedures for establishing that such unregistered vessels were bona fide American owned and accordingly entitled to receive sea letters.

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