Papers of John Adams, volume 16

Alexander Coffin & Peleg Coffin Jr. to John Adams, 5 February 1784 Coffin, Alexander Coffin, Peleg, Jr. Adams, John
From Alexander Coffin and Peleg Coffin Jr.
Dear Sir— Boston. Feby 5. 1784

While your great application to Public business increases the number of your friends (Especially in this Commonwealth) it cannot fail to multiply the Applications of those who must Consequently feel themselves distress’d at the very Idea of an Alien duty (much talk’d of by the Brittish Court as we are inform’d) on the Article of Spermocetei Oil; the use of which has never been much Known in Europe, excepting on the Island of Great Brittain, and has since its first use arrose in its Value from £14:—:— to £84:0.0 sterling per Ton—

England in order to prevent the other Nations of Europe engaging in this business Prohibited the Importation of Oil from any Place without the Kingdom, has thereby made a monopoly of that most Advantageous branch of our Trade: and has ever been the only market in the World from whence the Artists of the Whale fishery of this Commonwealth, could derive the least advantage

The southern States have the best of markets for their Produce while the Circumstances of this State carry their Commerce under every Possible Embarrisment, which while it tends to ruin a part, must certainly injure the whole of the Continent—

From the small share we have in the Politics of our Country, as 15 Servants in the Legislature of this Commonwealth from the County of Nantucket, an Island ever fam’d for the Whale fishery, and Inhabited by upwards of Five thousand persons, whos entire dependance for their support is on that Business, (One of the most beneficial branches to the comunity executed in the United States) from whence a great Quantity of Coin has been bro’t into this Country drawn as it were from the Bottom of the great deep, Indeed a great part of the Remittances made to Great Brittain by our Merchants hath been of the spermo: Oil—which from the third Article of Preliminaries have Reason to presume your Excellency is no stranger to.—1

Therefore my dear Sir, from the duty we owe to the United States, to this Commonwealth (and to our Constituents as Fishermen) humbly crave your serious Attention as a matter of great Importance to them, and that you would use your Influence to impress the minds of the other Nations of Europe. with just Ideas of the high Worth & Importance of this branch of Trade, and the Value and good quallities of the Article of Spermocetei Oil; so that an Alien duty Imposed by Great Brittain, shall not Embarras the Trade of this Commonwealth, or throw her worthy Citizens into distress, which must be case should it take place—.2

We have the Honor to be your Excellincys / most Obedt: & Humbe servts.

Alexr. Coffin Peleg Coffin Junr:

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excely. John Adams Esqr:—”


JA’s Diary entry for 30 Nov. 1782, the day on which the Anglo-American preliminary peace treaty was signed, indicates that whaling was considered during the lengthy discussions over American fishing rights (JA, D&A , 3:84). It is not surprising that the Nantucket whale men would consider Art. 3 of the preliminary and definitive Anglo-American peace treaties to apply to them since the article refers not to any particular fishery, but only to the exercise of the American right to fish on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (vol. 14:106; 15:248). But the application of the article to the situation of the Nantucket whalers is questionable since the British were imposing a tariff on whale oil rather than contesting the right to pursue whales on the Grand Banks.


Alexander and Peleg, members of the numerous Nantucket Coffin clan, represented the island town of Sherburn, now Nantucket, in the Mass. house of representatives. Alexander (1740–1839), commander of the privateer Hero during the Revolution, later migrated to Hudson, N.Y., where he died. Peleg (1756–1805) later served Massachusetts in the 3d U.S. Congress. The two men addressed an issue that threatened the survival of Nantucket’s chief industry, whaling. The Revolution cut the island off from England, the principal market for its whale oil, and resulted in the destruction of many of its whaling ships. Peace brought vigorous efforts to revive the industry, and the first vessel flying the American flag to reach London was the Bedford, a Nantucket whaler carrying 487 casks of oil. Initially prices were high and the industry’s renewed prosperity seemed assured, but in late 1783, partly to encourage an English whale fishery, Britain imposed a duty of £18.3 on each ton of foreign oil, a sharp contrast to the prewar duty of £0.11.9. This made it 16 impossible for American whalers to sell their product, even high-value sperm whale oil, at a profit, leading some whalemen to consider moving their families and business to Nova Scotia or some other location in the British Empire to avoid paying the duties (Boston Independent Chronicle, 5 June 1783; Historical Data Relating to Counties, Cities and Towns of Massachusetts, Boston, 1948, p. 88; Allen, Mass. Privateers , p. 176; Army and Navy Chronicle, new ser., 8:128 [1839]; Biog. Dir. Cong. ; Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan, N.Y., 2007, p. 165–173; from Champion & Dickason, 13 Aug. 1784, Adams Papers).

There is no indication that JA did anything regarding this letter, but after assuming his post as minister to Britain he declared to William Pitt that “the fat of the spermaceti whale gives the clearest and most beautiful flame of any substance that is known in nature, and we are all surprised that you prefer darkness.” Massachusetts whalers did receive some relief when the General Court, in late 1785, resolved to pay bounties on each ton of whale oil (to John Jay, 25 Aug. 1785, JA, Works , 8:308–309; Mass., Acts and Laws , 1784–1785, p. 795–797). For additional comment on the crisis faced by the whaling industry in Massachusetts, see Tristram Dalton’s letter of 6 April 1784, below.