JOHN HANCOCK Signed naval orders sent to Captain Nicholas Biddle, 1777.
York, Pennsylvania: 7 October 1777. A one and a half page manuscript letter on a long watermarked bifolium addressed on the address panel to "Nicholas Biddle, Esquire/of the Frigate Randolph/at Charles Town/South Carolina" and signed in full on the address panel "John Hancock." The sheet 13 x 8 1/4 inches (33 x 21 cm); framed open in a double-sided frame. Silked, faint dampstain, some paper replacement to folds, a neat typed description to the verso blank, not removed from frame.
Provenance: Sold in the auction of Moses Polock (The Oldest Bookseller in the United States), Henkels, 9 & 10 March, 1904, lot 1134; listed by A.S.W. Rosenbach in 1905 & 1917 (Rosenbach was Polock's nephew); by descent in the family of the current consignor
At the end of September 1777, British troops occupied Philadelphia and the Continental Congress moved to York, Pennsylvania, and it is from there that John Hancock issued these important orders to Captain Nicholas Biddle. Addressed to Biddle on board the Randolph then at Charleston, South Carolina, he is ordered that "As quickly after you receive this as your ship can be provided for a voyage, you are to proceed to France, and when there, you are to be directed as to your future Cruize, and the disposal of your Prizes, by the Commissioners of the United States at Paris." Biddle is instructed to send a "trusty Officer" to inform the Commissioners of his arrival and, based on intelligence collected, to make his own decision of where to remain or to keep moving. Biddle is told to "make as little shew as possible of being a ship of force ... and let your stay in Port be as short as possible ... be very cautious of communicating to any person, either in America or in France, what is your destination or what are your orders." Biddle is informed the Commercial Agents in France are William Lee and Thomas Morris and the letter closes "Wishing you health and success."
It does not appear that Biddle himself made the voyage to France. In February 1778, the Randolph and other American ships took to the sea off Charleston to break up a blockade that was keeping American merchant ships trapped in Charleston Harbor. Following this, the Randolph headed to the West Indies to intercept British merchant ships. Off Barbados, mistaking a large approaching British ship as a sloop, the Randolph fired into the 64-gun British battle ship Yarmouth and after a 20 minute exchange the magazine within the Randolph exploded killing Biddle and over 300 of her crew (only 4 survived).
Such naval orders from Hancock and the Congress at York are scarce as are documents relating to the Randolph and Nicholas Biddle, one of the original captains of the United States Navy. This letter has the distinguished provenance of both Moses Polock and A.S.W. Rosenbach ("A very important letter of instructions from Congress").
C The Christine Biddle Wainwright Collection
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