John Hancock – President of Congress – Manuscript

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Not a passport but related to passports, and a manuscript of significant importance of US (passport) history. John Hancock Congress Manuscript

American Revolution leader John Hancock (1737-1793) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and a governor of Massachusetts. The colonial Massachusetts native was raised by his uncle, a wealthy Boston merchant. When his uncle died, Hancock inherited his lucrative shipping business. In the mid-1760s, as the British government began imposing regulatory measures to assert greater authority over its American colonies, anti-British sentiment and unrest grew among the colonists. Hancock used his wealth and influence to aid the movement for American independence. He was president of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777, when the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the United States was born. From 1780 to 1785, Hancock was the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was reelected in 1787 and served until his death in 1793. John Hancock Congress Manuscript

John Hancock Congress Manuscript

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). John Hancock Congress Manuscript


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). John Hancock Congress Manuscript

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 ellipses where particular information is to be filled in (the name of the ship, its master, the cargo carried, its homeport, 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 a time of war, and the ordinary articles for the 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.

The manuscript was sold for USD 28,000.

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...