Official documents providing protection against impressment, and allotting pay to family members at home.
Modern Americans tend to associate government bureaucracy with mountains of paperwork. This is not a development of the late 20th or early 21st centuries. The 19th century Federal government required reams of paper to function effectively. Pay rolls, muster rolls, list of supplies, requisitions, and daily correspondence meant that any officer in charge of a ship or a body of men was awash in paper. Some of these lists were documents of official record, and so have been safely deposited in the National Archives. Other items, mere slips of paper with scribbled notations, or preprinted forms with a few handwritten insertions, tend not to survive the passage of centuries. Repurposed or simply thrown away, it is these examples of everyday ephemera that have the potential to tell us the most about the functioning of the armed forces and the government.
The USS Constitution Museum’s collection includes a number of rare certificates, ranging from a War of 1812 sailor’s proof of citizenship, to a late 19th century seaman’s wallet, complete with his record of service. Other collection highlights include an 1800 pay allotment, giving a sailor’s wife a share of his pay and a Letter of Marque authorizing a privately owned warship to attack British shipping. Together they afford a fascinating look at early officialdom and remind us of the value of the insignificant.