Read The Passport in America: The History of a Document Online

Authors: Craig Robertson

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

The Passport in America: The History of a Document (3 page)

BOOK: The Passport in America: The History of a Document
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However, the emergence of the passport involves more than the development of “modern” technologies and techniques to document individual identity; it also requires a critical rethinking of identification and identity. This rethinking is part of the novelty people experienced through the passport requirements of the 1920s—an identity that allowed a person not to resemble him- or herself. Instead of an identity drawn from personal knowledge of character, reputation, or general experience, bureaucratic or objective identification practices were used to produce identity as a specific set of information. For passport applicants this information was collected in a preprinted application form, and through an array of supporting documents signed by designated officials or witnesses who had satisfied a list of criteria to verify the claims a person made in his or her application. In a critical change in identification practice, evidence had to come not from the applicant but someone who was specifically designated by a centralized authority. From the perspective of government officials this standardized procedure ensured they received the information they wanted in a format that made it easiest to process; equally importantly, it adhered to the increasingly pervasive standards of truth, accuracy, and objectivity by which officials came to measure the reliability of information.

While these new practices were intended to create more certainty in official identification, they also introduced new elements of uncertainty. The
documentation of individual identity entailed skills that had to be learned. The lack of trust read into the demands to verify identity and statements with documents framed the dominant frustration many citizens had with a passport application. This occurred in a world where people actively sought to grasp how to use documents, especially those which recorded facts about their lives. Into the 1920s passport applicants struggled to understand when an individual’s opinion was acceptable as evidence and which individuals were granted authority to verify the facts of identity. The initial hesitant and awkward official attempts to adequately use documents to identify individuals undoubtedly accentuated this. As the Dane’s encounter with German border guards in 1923 makes clear, the documentation of individual identity was a skill that had to be learned both by the public and officials. This is further revealed in an examination of the relationship of state officials and policies to three groups: (1) citizens at home and abroad in the second half of the nineteenth century, (2) immigrants at Ellis Island and along the land borders from the 1890s through the 1920s, and (3) Americans traveling in the 1920s. This analysis originates in four previously unasked questions in U.S. history: How were identities documented? What identities did people document? Who could document identity? For what social or institutional purposes did people document identities?

In response to these questions, this book produces a history of the passport as an identification document that links it to debates over both individual identity and national identity.
These debates reveal the historically specific reasons that official identification became a problem, and how documentation emerged as a viable and practical solution. While this history makes explicit the consequences of shifts in the way individual identity is known and measured (read from a document, not a body; verified by an outside “expert,” not through self-identification), an understanding of these shifts requires an engagement with the distinct stakes raised by the equally important questions of national identity and citizenship.
The book divides the history of the passport into two parts to address both these developments. The first part focuses on individual identity, while the second part prioritizes national identity. Collectively the book uses the modern passport to examine what made the documentation of identity possible and what the documentation of identity made possible.

Part one provides an examination of the various technologies and techniques officials used in the attempt to “reliably” translate identity into a document: personal name, signature, physical description, photograph, application form, and seal. While the seal and the secretary of state’s signature were intended to establish the authenticity of the issuing authority, the other technologies were introduced in an attempt to accurately identify the correct bearer of the document. During the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century the development of each of these technologies as a viable and useful way to determine identity was contested. Documentation required a complicated rethinking of ideas of authenticity and the self, and the relationship of individual identity to the body, particularly how class, gender and race were articulated to embody privilege.

Applicants and officials alike did not initially comprehend that practices of documentation and standardization did more than merely record on paper personal or local conceptions of truth. Precision, standardization, unity, and impersonal written rules redefined reliability as the eradication of individual “bias.”
The authority that came to underwrite the documentation of individual identity derived in part from the contested group of techniques and procedures that we now think of as bureaucratic, along with a loose borrowing of the scientific objectivity used to justify other modern identification practices such as fingerprinting. The acceptance of the authority of modern identification technologies often occurred in other realms than the passport, but some debates were a result of their application to the passport. For example, into the last quarter of the nineteenth century some passport applicants did not recognize that a personal name had to be spelled consistently to ensure that it could be used to identify a person over a period of time and via a number of documents. Those who were frustrated with the State Department’s request for a standardized spelling of a personal name appeared to still understand identification primarily in terms of face-to-face interactions—a “local” logic where extradocumentary knowledge of a person and his or her identity would always trump something like the misspelling of a name in a dispute because those involved would know who was being referred to in the document. The challenge standardization posed to understandings of self and identity was made even more explicit with the introduction of a passport photograph. Photography as an identification technology had to develop a unique standardized pose distinct from the repertoire of poses photographers had borrowed from portrait painting. Many applicants thought this standardized image distorted a person’s appearance.
The oft-cited comparison between a passport photograph and a criminal “mug shot” made visible the cultural association of official identification with suspect populations. This association tended to provide the most effective way for citizens to articulate their indignation at having their word and reputation challenged in the demand to provide documentary evidence that they were who they said they were. For many of these disgruntled applicants, the seemingly incongruous use of these impersonal techniques to establish something as personal as identity made them feel not like trustworthy and responsible people but rather like dehumanized “objects of inquiry.” This perceived challenge both to an individual’s sense of self and to the authority of a local community to know its people drove the “passport nuisance” of the 1920s. This fits with a characterization of the 1920s as a decade in which individuals experienced the sense of alienation and disenchantment understood to characterize “modernity.”

This anxiety and uncertainty frequently took the form of complaints that the federal government was telling someone who they were. In fact, the demands of modern documentation meant this was precisely what government officials were doing. In limiting or rationalizing the information and individuals involved in identification, officials intended to stabilize the identity required for a document. Thus it can be argued that the documentation of individual identity produced a new identity, one distinct from how people usually thought about themselves, an identity that a passport holder had to attempt to compare him- or herself to. The novelty of documentation meant that it became readily apparent to many people that to document identity meant to create a new identity—recall the clean-shaven Dane who changed his appearance as it had been fixed on his passport and was therefore declared not to be the person represented in his passport. Thus, the claim that a document could objectively and accurately verify identity resulted in practice in the confirmation of a very specific identity, one that did not exist prior to the act of documentation and was in fact created in the very act of documentation.

The significance of the articulation of a new official identity through documentation, bureaucracy, and objectivity is made apparent if these practices are understood in retrospect to constitute the emergence of a “documentary regime of verification.”
To think of identification practices constituting a regime is to recognize that the appearance of an accurate identity depends on a process of exclusion and marginalization.
The first part of
The Passport in America
reveals that the assumption that identity could be documented
required acceptance of official documentation over more personal or local forms of identification based on different understandings of authenticity, self, and status. It necessitated the acceptance of individual identity as a bureaucratic expression and therefore the nature of the evidence used to produce/verify that identity, and of the authorities and experts who could demand and evaluate that evidence. Only with the acceptance of these three aspects of documentation would it be possible to accept that identity could be accurately documented.

The early history of the modern passport makes it evident that the relationship between identity and identification is subject to a variety of logical and historical factors. To trace the emergence of a documentary regime of verification highlights the way in which historically distinctive practices were assimilated into the identification document in the process of its elaboration. These are made even more visible when the focus moves away from how the passport was assembled to identify an individual to how the initial documentation of individual identity was deployed in the name of national identity—the focus of the second part of the book. The increased use of the passport from the mid-nineteenth century on illustrates that the documentation of individual identity was understood to serve the purpose of enforcing and policing new policies and laws intended to secure and protect the nation. From this perspective national identity is analyzed in terms of the articulation of the nation (as a cultural idea) and the state (as an administrative entity). The contested development of documentation can also be attributed to the ultimately successful attempt of the federal government to claim the authority to document individual identity as both an official identity and a nationality. This latter aspect, the documentation of citizens and aliens, underlines the increasing importance of a new complex understanding of whiteness, race, and citizenship that emerged in the name of nationality, and the need to “know” and “remember” people on these terms. The second half of the book takes episodes from the passport’s development in which official interactions with certain groups revealed the stakes involved in the contested emergence of the documentation of identity. Rather than a comprehensive history of the passport in the United States, this book provides a loose chronology that follows the passport from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century, through its critical transition from something like a letter of introduction to a certificate of citizenship to an identification document.

Part two begins in the mid-nineteenth century when the State Department sought to use the passport more effectively as a certificate of citizenship
in the midst of a period of racial and national instability. These early attempts to accurately record citizenship represented both a challenge to individual states’ rights to grant U.S. citizenship and an example of how in the name of objectivity the ideal of a citizen as a white (and frequently Anglo-Saxon) male property holder affected the documentation of citizenship. For example, naturalized citizens were held to more rigorous application standards than native-born citizens, and women were rarely issued passports and were instead appended to their husband’s passport through the phrase “and wife.” On some occasions Mormons were not issued passports on the assumption they were traveling to recruit polygamists. This use of the passport to manage difference did not go unchallenged. Free African Americans and naturalized citizens sought to exploit both the new status given to the passport as a certificate of citizenship and the hesitant if not inefficient implementation of bureaucratic techniques in its issuance. In the 1840s and 1850s, prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, free African Americans who had been granted citizenship from specific states used passport applications as part of their campaign for U.S. citizenship. Until the 1907 Citizenship Act clarified repatriation, some naturalized citizens who returned to their former homelands regularly renewed U.S. passports in order to avoid that country’s demand for military duty for themselves and their sons.

BOOK: The Passport in America: The History of a Document
10.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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