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Philadelphia Merchant's Promissory Note from 1798

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

Between 1798 and 1800, the US and France engaged in an undeclared naval war, the so-called “Quasi War.”[i] Tensions between the US and France started to percolate after the signing of the Jay Treaty between the US and Great Britain in 1794 and were worsened by the XYZ Affair of 1798.[ii]

The US Congress passed laws to respond to the rising tensions with France, including revenue measures. One of those revenue measures was called, “An Act Laying Duties on Stamped Vellum, Parchment and Paper.”[iii] Passed by Congress on July 6, 1797, this act levied taxes on a variety of legal and financial documents. This tax was in effect from July 1, 1798, to February 28, 1801.

Although this was a federal tax, it was collected by the states and then remitted to the federal government. Payment of the tax was shown by an embossed stamp, not unlike a notary seal today. The embossed stamp pictured an eagle and included the denomination and state name.

One example is this 60-day, $3,050.00 promissory note from Philadelphia dated November 10, 1798 (Figures 1 and 2). Per the Act, any promissory note above $1,000 was taxed 75-cents, unless it had a maturity of 60 days or less, in which case the tax was two-fifths of the stated rate, or 30-cents in this case. The embossed revenue stamp on this promissory note is number RM179 in the US Scott Specialized Catalog (Figure 3).

The promissory note reads:

Dollars 3050 Philadelphia the 10 November 1798

Sixty days after date we propose to pay Mr.

L. Clapier or order, without defalcation,

Three thousand fifty dollars, value received

Nottnagel, Montmollin & Co.

Nottnagel, Montmollin & Company was a merchant firm that did business in Philadelphia during the late 1790s and early 1800s. Its principals were Leopold Nottnagel and Frederick Montmollin.

“L. Clapier” – Louis Marie Clapier – was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, trading with France, China, the East Indies, and Spanish America.

There is a plethora of information on Nottnagel, Montmollin & Co. Sundry accounts, promissory notes (but not this one, obviously), and bills of exchange for the firm are stored at the Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington, Delaware. Court cases involving the firm are available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Nottnagel, Montmollin & Co. ran regular ads in Dunlap and Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, a Philadelphia-based newspaper. The firm also is mentioned in the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Information on the principals is somewhat more elusive. Leopold Nottnagel was born in 1757 and died in 1812. He is buried in the Saint James Episcopal Churchyard in Bristol, Pennsylvania along with his wife, Henrietta Isabella Nottnagel. Frederick Montmollin may have been born in Canada in 1763 and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1787. It appears he passed away sometime around 1800.

Louis Marie Clapier, however, left behind a rich legacy in Philadelphia.

In a book titled, The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians, Now Deceased from 1859, he is described as “an eminent shipping merchant…born in Marseilles, France, about the year 1765.” He arrived in Philadelphia in 1796 and lived there until his death in the late 1830s. He “was a gentleman of great enterprise and perseverance…and was, for a long time, engaged in the China trade. …. His public spirit was liberal and laudable, and his integrity and uprightness, in all the transactions of life, honorable and exemplary. His sincere friendship and attachment to his adopted country, and the principles of its government, were truly patriotic. … He was always a friend of the poor and distressed.”[iv]

Clapier owned a large farm in the neighborhood of Germantown, which today is the 39-acre Fernhill Park. The park still has trees that were planted by Clapier.

Clapier’s engagement in the China trade was described in a 1984 publication by the Philadelphia Museum of Art titled, Philadelphians and the China Trade, 1784-1844. [v] The museum’s collection includes a portrait of Clapier (Figure 4), as well as a writing table of his.[vi]

I have not confirmed this, but I suspect Clapier Street in Philadelphia is named in his honor.

Clapier passed away in 1837 and is buried in Saint Peter's Episcopal Churchyard in Philadelphia.

This item was purchased in June 2022 for $100.00 from Richard Friedberg Stamps.

Figure 1 - Promissory note

Figure 2 - Back of note

Figure 3 - Close-up of embossed stamp

Figure 4

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