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Authors: Craig Robertson

Tags: #Law, #Emigration & Immigration, #Legal History

The Passport in America: The History of a Document (2 page)

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The article on the Dane requires thinking about the passport as having a history distinct from immigration, travel, and state formation. This article was one among a number of articles in newspapers and magazines in the 1920s that illustrated the “passport nuisance” or “passport question,” a label given to the shock and complaints from the “better classes” when they encountered passport requirements for the first time. A passport required by all travelers challenged the popular association of identification practices with marginal and suspect populations—the criminal, the insane, the poor, and, to a lesser extent, immigrants. These were populations whose behavior and appearance were believed to indicate insufficient self-control to warrant trust, populations who therefore required the state to keep track of them. In contrast, travel was not considered a behavior that demanded similar attention. Collectively, the “passport nuisance” articles located the passport within an apparent anxiety about documentation and identification. They included complaints about red tape and cost, but often these complaints were simultaneously about the apparent disregard for a person’s word perceived in the demand to prove identity through documents. For the vocal opponents of the passport such a requirement implied that their government did not trust them and that the government was actually telling them who they were. The story of the Dane shows how the passport nuisance encompassed an uncertainty over identity, or more specifically the struggle to grasp a new relationship between identity and identification. How was it that a person could no longer resemble himself in the eyes of the government?

Encountering these concerns in newspapers, magazines, and later in government documents led me to think about how exactly it is that a passport identifies someone and how a passport communicates identity. For the passport to be important to immigration, for it to be a way to manage
international mobility, it had to successfully function as a communication medium, as an identification document.
2
Aspects of the passport nuisance indicate that the passport did not always successfully serve as an identification document, especially when it was first encountered. Not only members of the public but officials too contested the emergence of the passport. The assumption that identity could be documented was not a given; it had to develop. As the history of the passport shows, it did so in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. From the 1840s until the 1930s a series of social, political, and cultural shifts in the United States were necessary for an acceptance of both the accuracy of and need for the documentation of individual identity that we take for granted today. How was it that a piece of paper twelve inches by eighteen inches came to be accepted as a reliable answer to the question “Who are you?”

It is impossible to locate a precise moment of origin that definitively explains why a piece of paper came to be thought of as an identification document, and, equally importantly, a document that was considered reliable and accurate enough to secure the border of a nation-state. However, it is important to recognize that the history of the “modern” passport begins when technologies and techniques were gradually added to the document in an attempt to clearly identify the bearer as a specific individual. While “passports” existed prior to the nineteenth century, they tended to be documents issued outside of any system intended to identify someone unambiguously. These documents have been traced back as far as biblical times through passages of the book of Nehemiah (Neh. 2:7–9). More frequently, the origin of such “passports” is seen in two types of documents that began to appear in the eleventh century: “safe conducts,” which evolved from the requirement for visiting negotiators to be given the promise of a safe passage, and a “kings license,” a document that granted permission to leave a territory. The relationship between these “passports” and a contemporary passport provides a useful continuity in a history of sovereignty and the policing of territory, or a history of state formation.
3
But there is no such easy continuity if an attempt is made to place these documents in a history of the documentation of individual identity. The premodern “passport” seemed to carry with it the
assumption
that the person presenting it was the person named in the
document (if indeed they were named). Although some “passports” were issued with more detailed personal information, it was only from the end of the eighteenth century that the passport began to consistently take on a more modern role as an identification document. Two important developments in this period were particularly critical to the passport: the emergence of the nation-state as an important geopolitical entity and the appearance throughout the nineteenth century of claims to objectivity in the production of knowledge, particularly via the contested emergence of scientific and bureaucratic practices. These developments not only helped provide the context in which the passport emerged, they also contributed to the process through which identity and identification became a problem for which the passport was seen as a solution.

In the United States the modern passport developed in an ad hoc fashion in a period in which the scale of social structures dramatically changed. The NineteenthCentury emergence of the United States as a modern nation-state was marked by a rapid increase in scale of territory, population, and industry. One response to this was a centralization and standardization of governing and cultural practices. Modern management and bureaucratic practices emerged, first in railroad and telegraph corporations and then more gradually in the federal government.
4
Practices of centralization and standardization are evident in developments as diverse as the introduction of time zones in 1883 and the establishment of mass-circulation magazines in the 1890s, developments in which local communities came to be increasingly defined in relation to a national community.
5
Another response to changes in scale can be seen in the questioning of the terms through which the nation had previously been collectively understood, especially the racial identity that had been used to bind “we the people.” Two significant flash points for this concern and anxiety were the granting of citizenship to African Americans and the sharp increase in the arrival of immigrant labor. Concerns over the latter structured early federal interest in policing U.S. borders, which culminated in immigration restriction laws in the 1920s. In both cases the challenge to perceptions of a national identity prompted debates about how to define “whiteness” that contributed to a perception that official identification practices had to be changed. While others have written eloquently on these debates around national and individual identity, what has yet to be addressed in a sustained manner are the changing ways in which identity was recast as an object of identification in this
period—specifically, the ways in which the problem of identification can illuminate understandings of individual identity and national identity in a period of racial instability, class transformation, and national volatility.

From the middle of the nineteenth century social and cultural changes caused uncertainty over how much the government actually knew about United States society.
6
Although doubt over knowledge about population and industry was never at the center of national political or cultural debates, officials did occasionally raise issues such as how the census was enacted or the need to collect statistics about the production of goods. On occasion this interest in knowing more about the country involved the problem of how to identify individuals. These moments of concern included the federal government’s attempts to challenge the practice of individual states’ granting U.S. citizenship, the need to identify Chinese laborers to prevent them from entering the country, and the need to identify nationalities in response to immigration restrictions. Official identification, on the rare occasion when it was addressed by officials, increasingly came to be thought of as a problem of information, specifically the need to centralize and standardize the collection of information about individuals, particularly through the use of standardized forms, designated officials, and filing systems that would assist in the retrieval of files.

For much of the nineteenth century personal knowledge continued to be privileged in official identification over documents or scientific expertise. As a result there were limited attempts to centralize the collection and storage of information in a uniform way, such as by using standardized categories and forms. Across the Atlantic Charles Dickens in
Pickwick Papers
provides a useful (albeit fictional) example of the ongoing use of localized knowledge and personal experience, rather than a system of centralized documents in the construction of an institutional memory. Dickens describes a scene in a London prison, in which a new prisoner was seated in a chair as one guard “inspected him narrowly, while two others… studied his features with most intent and thoughtful faces.”
7
The prison staff referred to this procedure as “sitting for your portrait.” In this example officials developed a process to produce an individual memory by which they could personally recognize a specific prisoner. While this points to the need for an identity that might have to be remembered or retrieved, it suggests that personal and “local” solutions were considered the most practicable ones for identification problems. The scale of territory and population and the increased belief that the
government needed to know its population would eventually disrupt these “local” practices of identification, especially when bureaucracy emerged as a viable mechanism to collect and store knowledge.
8
But even in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when this bureaucratic apparatus came to be used within the federal government, it encountered a mode of governing where knowledge of industry and the population was still not a universal object of concern. Occasionally departments introduced specialized divisions to collect information more systematically.
9
The attitude to the registration of births is perhaps more indicative of the dominant approach to collecting information about the objects and subjects of government. While some states had birth registration laws their enforcement was inconsistent at best. If NineteenthCentury births were recorded, it was more frequently through local practices such as baptismal certificates or in family Bibles. While the early twentieth century saw more states introduce birth registration, the federal government could not claim universal birth registration in the United States until 1933.
10

The application of official identification practices in the nineteenth century was so limited in scope that most citizens remained largely unknown to the federal government aside from possibly having their name recorded in the census; for example, federal income tax was not introduced until 1913.
11
Identification practices that did exist tended to be circumscribed by local needs and local knowledge.
12
The limited sphere in which people traveled, and significantly in which business occurred, meant that it was rare that the need for identification could not be satisfied by personal knowledge or reputation.
13
The challenge and changes to these practices likewise occurred in the form of uneven responses to specific events. When business started to become an increasingly national practice, credit reporting emerged to supplement the limitations of personal knowledge and reputation. By the last decades of the nineteenth century the nationwide demand to know an individual merchant’s credit risk created one of the first nationally based bureaucratic surveillance systems.
14
Outside of the immediate demands of business the need to abandon a local mode of identification for a centralized one was seemingly less urgent. In federal elections the identity of voters and their right to vote tended to be verified through community knowledge. In rural areas the three main sources of evidence were physical appearance, the collective memory of the community, and the word of the would-be voter. Voter registration first appeared in urban areas but encountered numerous
problems, including the difficulty of reading handwritten lists and of locating names on lists that were rarely alphabetized. Voter registration also did not offer an immediate solution to the verification of residence, as most cities lacked systematic criteria for identifying individual houses.
15
In courtrooms most U.S. states relied on knowledge of a person’s character to authenticate handwriting. Following an English legal tradition, courts banned the comparison of two sets of writing. Disputes over the genuineness of writing were instead resolved by bringing in an acquaintance of the writer who, with knowledge of the person and a claim to having seen him/her write at least once, could testify to the authenticity of the disputed text or signature.
16
In all of these examples personal knowledge as the basis of identification eventually came to be replaced by practices based in claims to textual objectivity underwritten by the authority of “experts” and/or the rationalized collection and storage of information. This move toward objectivity and rationalization constitutes the centralization and standardization of identification in which the passport took on its modern form.

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