HANCOCK, JOHN, President of Congress. Manuscript signed ("By order of Congress John Hancock President") comprising a draft of a proposed ship's passport as stipulated in Article 27 in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1778) with France, IN THE HAND OF CHARLES THOMSON (1729-1824), Secretary of Congress. [Philadelphia? July to 1 November 1776]. 2½ pages, large folio, light, even browning, faint matburn, small chip to 1 margin, page 4 with two dockets "Form of Passport" in different hands, ONE PROBABLY IN THE HAND OF ROBERT MORRIS (1734-1806).
THE NATION'S FIRST TREATY WITH A FOREIGN POWER: HANCOCK CERTIFIES CONGRESS'S PROPOSED SHIP'S PASSPORT, PART OF THE 1778 TREATY OF AMITY AND COMMERCE WITH FRANCE
At the same momentous session of Congress which saw the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, a committee comprising Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Benjamin Harrison, John Dickinson and Robert Morris was authorized to draft a model treaty between the new nation and potential foreign allies, specifically France. The committee's report was submitted on July 18, 1776 and adopted in full on 17 September 1776. (Hancock held the post of President of Congress throughout this period, until succeeded by Henry Laurens on 1 November 1777).
Several crucial articles of the model treaty dealt with issues of maritime trade, asserted the principle of "free ships, free goods" (the right of neutral vessels to trade from and to ports of the belligerent powers). Congress's so-called "Plan of 1776," marked the nation's first foray into foreign policy, and constituted "a charter document of early American maritime practice" (S. Bemis, Diplomacy of the American Revolution, p.46). Article 30 of the Plan of 1776 deals specifically with free trade, and stipulates that any vessel of the parties to the treaty should submit to a peaceful search and shall carry an official "passport made out according to the form inserted in this present treaty." Appended to the Article is the same text here certified by Hancock, constituting two parts: "The Form of the passports and letters, which are to be given, to ships and barks, which shall go according to the 27th Article of this treaty"; and "The form of certificate to be required of and to be given by the magistrates or officers of the customs of the town and port" etc. The text of each proposed document is then provided, with blanks, or elipses where particular information is to be filled in (the name of the ship, its master, the cargo carried, its home port, etc.). (For the full text as approved by Congress, see Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1779, ed. Ford). A comparison between the Thompson-Hancock draft and the text adopted by Congress on 17 September 1776 shows minor differences, and suggest that the present is a draft to which subsequent minor modifications were made.
Alternatively, the document may have been sent as part of the official instructions furnished Benjamin Franklin as the new minister plenipotentiary in Paris. From December 1776, Franklin and fellow commissioners Silas Deane and Arthur Lee held secret discussions with Caron de Beaumarchais and Charles de Vergennes. On 6 February 1778, these negotiations bore fruit: the commissioners and representatives of France signed two treaties, a Treaty of Conditional and Defensive Alliance and the better-known Treaty of Amity & Commerce. The latter "conformed almost identically with the articles of the 'Plan of 1776' laid down by Congress in the original instructions to the Commissioners to France. All the principals of neutral rights in time of war, and the ordinary articles for mutual protection of shipping...were inserted into the treaty almost word for word out of the plan" (Bemis, p.61). In the final treaty, the forms for passport and certificate comprise an annex to Article 27 of the treaty. Their wording, too, is nearly identical to the present draft, approved by President Hancock two years earlier. The manuscript, which from its docket, "Form of passport" is integral and complete in itself, therefore CONSTITUTES IMPORTANT DOCUMENTATION OF THE UNITED STATES' FIRST FOREIGN TREATY. The final treaty was ratified by Congress on 4 May 1778.