Nathan Perl-Rosenthal‘s Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2015), explores the fascinating history of identification and citizenship in the Atlantic world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. British and French navies harried American privateers and merchantmen, seizing their cargo, imprisoning their bodies, and laying false claim to their allegiance. Rosenthal shows how American sailors were the first to demand official status and national recognition from the federal government. Using diverse sources such as notarized affidavits, tattoos, and eventually national identity papers, Perl-Rosenthal shows how sailors secured for themselves a measure of personal safety and security in a perilous Atlantic.
The shifting patterns of imperial expansion and nationality of the Age of Revolution did not adapt quickly enough to accommodate new American identities. The Atlantic world operated on an informal and imprecise metric of “common sense nationality” that demarcated one’s national allegiance through shared visual, linguistic, or cultural cues. The British Navy often claimed American sailors as deserters or traitors to the crown, unable or unwilling to distinguish between those loyal to the United States and those fleeing conscription. Provided with faulty, incomplete, or fraudulent identification, Americans were at risk of false imprisonment at the hands of the British. American ships would often fly British or French colors as flags of necessity, hiding from hostile ships and marauding privateers. Responding to the press gang, imprisonment, and execution Perl-Rosenthal shows how the American federal government took action, providing the first national identification documents available to sailors of all races who wished or required them. In so doing, the new federal government engaged in the first formal recognition of black sailors as citizens decades before the American Civil War.
James Esposito is a historian and researcher interested in digital history, empire, and the history of technology. James can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @james_esposito_
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