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Very Rare William Henry Harrison Four-Language Sea Letter Signed as President
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Partially-printed sea letter in French, Spanish, English, and Dutch authorizing the Hydaspe, under the command of Francis Post, to leave New Bedford, Massachusetts, for a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Signed by William Henry Harrison during his one-month long presidency. Only approximately a dozen William Henry Harrison presidential signed documents are known in private hands. An incredible rarity.

On March 4, 1841, a cold, wet day, Harrison, without hat or overcoat, rode on horseback to his inauguration, and delivered the longest inaugural speech of any American president. He became ill three weeks later and died of pneumonia on April 4, having been president for 31 days. He was the last United States president born as a British subject and the first to die in office. Our census counts fewer than 40 known Harrison presidential signed items of all types, ranging from letters and free franks to fragments of documents and clipped signatures. Of those, ours is one of only 22 intact presidential signed documents. 

Sea letters were signed in blank, and sent to the ports to be filled out. This one was used in New Bedford on April 20, sixteen days after Harrison’s death. The Hydaspe left New Bedford four days later with a crew of more than twenty. It returned just shy of four years later, on April 14, 1845, with 1,016 barrels of sperm oil, 821 barrels of whale oil, and 8,000 pounds of baleen (whalebone). The ship circumnavigated the earth, sailing throughout the Pacific and along the southern coasts of Australia and Africa, taking on six additional crew members in Tahiti in 1843 and eleven more in Maui, Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), in 1844. A whaleboat crew deserted near Australia; at least three of the deserters were captured.

WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON. Partially Printed Document Signed as President, counter-signed by Daniel Webster as Secretary of State. [signed in Washington, D.C. between March 4 and April 4, 1841]. Four-language Sea Letter for Hydaspe, accomplished (filled out) in New Bedford, Massachusetts, dated April 20, 1841 and signed by Deputy Collector of Customs William H. Taylor. Includes two blind embossed paper seals. 1 p., 21½ x 16¼ in.

Inventory #27118.99       Price: $225,000

Historical Background
Thesea letter, including a statement of cargo and destination, signed by the President, gained currency after 1789. Through decades of maritime use, such letters became accepted as proof of nationality and provided some protection for the vessel and its owner and crew.  Even with the sea letter's plea for safe passage, maritime trade was a hazardous endeavor due to piracy, privateering, impressment, and other dangers.

It was customary for a sitting president and his secretary of state to pre-sign routine papers and uncompleted documents, sending them to where they were needed to be filled out and issued. In this case, the deputy customs collector and the notary public at New Bedford completed the document and affixed the date just sixteen days after the president's death.

leave and permission are hereby given to Francis Post master or commander of the Ship called Hydaspe of the burden 312 & 62/95 tons, or thereabouts, lying at present in the port of New Bedford bound for Pacific Ocean and laden with Provisions, Stores and Utensils for a whaling voyage to depart and proceed with the said Ship on his said voyage, such ship having been visited, and the said Francis Post having made oath before the proper officer that the said Ship belongs to one or more of the citizens of the United States of America, and to him or them only.

In witness whereof, I have subscribed my name to these presents and affixed the seal of the United States of America thereto, and caused the same to be countersigned by W. H. Taylor DepColl at New Bedford the 20 day of April in the year of our Lord 1841

By the President   [signed]                            W. H. Harrison

            “Danl Webster Secretary of State.

William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) was born in Virginia into a prominent planter family and studied at Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the army in 1791 and participated in the Northwest Indian War, including the decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which Harrison signed as a witness. He married Anna Tuthill in 1795, and they had ten children. In 1798, Harrison resigned from the military and became secretary of the Northwest Territory. He later served in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Northwest Territory (1799-1800) and as governor of the Indiana Territory (1801-1812). In 1811, he defeated Shawnee leader Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe, for which Harrison was praised as a national hero. During the War of 1812, Harrison commanded the Army of the Northwest and defeated the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. After disagreements with the Secretary of War, Harrison resigned in 1814.  He represented Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives (1816-1819) and the U.S. Senate (1825-1828). After running as a regional Whig candidate for the presidency in 1836, Harrison won the 1840 election over incumbent Martin Van Buren.

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was born in New Hampshire, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801, and was admitted to the bar in 1805. He represented New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1813 to 1817. As a preeminent attorney, he argued 223 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning about half, and playing a key role in eight of the Court’s most important constitutional law cases decided between 1801 and 1824. (His arguments were accepted by Chief Justice John Marshall in Dartmouth Collegev. Woodward (1819), finding that a state’s grant of a business charter was a contract that the state could not impair; in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), finding that a state could not tax a federal agency (specifically, a branch of the Bank of the United States), for the power to tax was a “power to destroy”; and in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), finding that a state could not interfere with Congressional power to regulate interstate commerce). Webster represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives from 1823 to 1827 and then in the Senate from 1827 to 1841 and again from 1845 to 1850. His 1830 reply to South Carolina’s Robert Y. Hayne is considered one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the Senate. Webster’s oratorical abilities made him a powerful Whig leader, and he served as Secretary of State, first from 1841 to 1843 under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, and again from 1850 to 1852 under President Millard Fillmore. His support of the Compromise of 1850 may have postponed a civil war, but it cost him politically in his increasingly abolitionist home state of Massachusetts.

Francis Post (1808-1859) married Ruth Tucker Barker (1815-1893) in 1832; they had at least seven children. He was the master of the ship Huntress, registered in 1832. He was the master of the Hydaspe, built in 1822 and re-registered in 1841. He was a partial owner when it was re-registered again in 1845. He was a partial-owner and master of the Bark Pleiades, re-registered in 1849. Post was also a partial-owner and master of the bark Elizabeth Thornton, re-registered in 1850, and destroyed by fire at San Francisco in 1853.

William H. Taylor (1800-1880) was born in Newport, Rhode Island. He served as deputy collector of customs at New Bedford from the 1830s to 1843, when he resigned to become secretary of the Mutual Marine Insurance Company. His son James Taylor served as collector of customs at New Bedford from 1891 to 1895.

Hydaspe (1822-1863) was built in 1822 in Mystic or Stonington, Connecticut. It made its first whaling voyage to the Pacific from Stonington, and twelve more from New Bedford, Massachusetts, by 1848. It was then re-rigged as a bark and completed four more three- and four-year whaling voyages until 1863. It was again re-conditioned in Talcahuano, Chile, renamed the Narcissa, and began whaling voyages from there.

Condition: Professional conservator mended a 3½ in. separation, a 1 in. tear and a 2½ in. tear on the horizontal fold, and removed four small pieces of tape from upper edge of verso. Otherwise very fine.  

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