This fan commemorates in an interesting moment in early American foreign policy. During the eighteenth century, amidst the feverish rivalries of the European state system, various nations competed to dominate the world’s oceans. After the United States achieved independence, its political leaders championed the view that the seas should be free and common to all people. In 1783, John Adams wrote:

The United States of America have propagated far and wide in Europe the ideas of the liberty of navigation and commerce. The powers of Europe, however, cannot agree as yet, in adopting them to their full extent…. For my own part, I think nature wiser than all the courts and estates of the world, and, therefore, I wish all her seas and rivers upon the whole globe free. [1]

In 1776, a committee drafted a treaty plan regarding commercial neutrality during wartime. In addition to supporting broader concepts of liberty, the objectives of the plan were to prevent the United States from entanglement in foreign politics and to protect American shipping interests. The maritime articles were incorporated into the 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the first bilateral treaty signed by the new republic.

Interestingly, this fan downplays the American effort towards maritime freedom. Made for the French market, it places Louis XVI at the center of the composition. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, bestows the French king with a laurel wreath symbolizing peace and victory. America, marginalized and depicted allegorically as an indigenous woman in feathers, hands a map of the United States to a European figure while holding aloft a trident, symbolizing the ocean, and the phrygian cap of liberty.

Rebekah Pollock is a decorative arts historian specializing in European ceramics and eighteenth-century print culture.

  1. John Adams to Robert R. Livingston, 14 July 1783, in Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2015.

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