The Passport in America

The History of a Document

by Craig Robertson

In today's world of constant identification checks, it's difficult to recall that there was ever a time when "proof of identity" was not a part of everyday life. And as anyone knows who has ever lost a passport, or let one expire on the eve of international travel, the passport has become an indispensable document. But how and why did this form of identification take on such a crucial role?In the first history of the passport in the United States, Craig Robertson offers an illuminating account of how this document, above all others, came to be considered a reliable answer to the question: who are you? Historically, the passport originated as an official letter of introduction addressed to foreign governments on behalf of American travelers, but as Robertson shows, it became entangled in contemporary negotiations over citizenship and other forms of identity documentation. Prior to World War I, passports were not required to cross American borders, and while some people struggled to understand how a passport could accurately identify a person, others took advantage of this new document to advance claims for citizenship. From the strategic use of passport applications by freed slaves and a campaign to allow married women to get passports in their maiden names, to the "passport nuisance" of the 1920s and the contested addition of photographs and other identification technologies on the passport, Robertson sheds new light on issues of individual and national identity in modern U.S. history.In this age of heightened security, especially at international borders, Robertson's The Passport in America provides anyone interested in questions of identification and surveillance with a richly detailed, and often surprising, history of this uniquely important document.
  • Oxford University Press; July 2010
  • ISBN: 9780199750856
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF or secure ePub format
  • Title: The Passport in America
  • Author: Craig Robertson
  • Imprint: Oxford University Press

In The Press

"Cleverly uses the history of the American passport as a means to plumb the meanings of identity and identification as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth....Theoretically grounded and engagingly written it will appeal to scholars interested in the history of national border controls and the transnational movement of people, as well as those interested in questions surrounding the intersection of state power, citizenship, and modernity."--American Historical Review
"Robertson's superb book combines serious scholarship and an easily accessible narrative....It displays the great immigration themes in U.S. history--identity, sovereignty, membership, national security, privacy, federalism, bi-national communities, and the attempts of overwhelmed government officials to enforce the law--through the lens of the humble passport."--Donald Kerwin, International Migration Review
"Provocative..."--The New York Times
"Robertson accomplishes a surprising amount with a seemingly dusty subject in this far-reaching social history."--Booklist
"Robertson takes fascinating excursions into the history of currency, voting, immigration, tourism and even filing methods....The Passport in America is compelling reading."--The Wilson Quarterly
"A skillful excavation of the historical foundations of this bureaucratic procedure."--Bookforum
"Making use of the mundane and innocuous passport, Robertson takes readers along an intriguing and exciting journey of recasting....An excellent narrative."--CHOICE
"Robertson deftly weaves together the numerous legal challenges, policy shifts, and human dramas that have shaped [the passport]....[E]ngrossing."--Law and History Review
"In addition to providing a detailed history of the passport from the late eighteenth century to the mid-1930s, The Passport in America describes a parallel history, at least as interesting and important, of the idea of civil identity in an evolving bourgeois democracy."--William W. Stowe, Journal of American History
"This fine book will serve as the standard history of the American passport, at least during its crucial formative period, for some time to come."--Journal of Social History

About The Author

Craig Robertson is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Northeastern University.