Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

The Passport in America: The History of a Document

Ben Kafka


"I should consider a passport as necessary a means of protection in Europe as a pistol would be in one of the rough Western settlements." This pearl of wisdom, worthy of Tocqueville, was offered by Mr. J. H. Rosenbaum, notary public, to a New York Times reporter in 1882. Rosenbaum, whose office was on lower Broadway, went on to describe the challenges involved in helping clients handle the application process: "Single ladies who apply for passports sometimes blush or even show signs of anger when I ask them their age or perhaps the length of their feet but I show them the law on the subject, and they are generally satisfied. We usually require about $2 for our services."

The length of their feet? As we learn in Craig Robertson's fine new history, The Passport in America, the ladies should almost certainly have taken their business elsewhere. Who knows what law Rosenbaum was showing them, but nowhere on the application did it ask for shoe size. A case of foot fetishism? Perhaps. Robertson speculates that Rosenbaum may have been confused by the application itself, which provided a blank for "Stature: ——feet, ——inches." State Department officials must have wondered at all the two-foot, seven-inch passport applicants coming from New York.

Ever since the publication of Foucault's Discipline & Punish a generation ago, historians have recognized the importance of the new forms of surveillance that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Relatively few, however, have taken the trouble to study the paperwork that made this surveillance possible. Yet these documents, now so familiar, once struck observers as incredibly strange. Many people had a hard time understanding why they needed the government's permission to travel, and why it was so difficult to obtain this permission. What exactly was a piece of paper signed by an American official supposed to prove?

In 2009 the State Department issued some 13.5 million passports. The Passport in America is a skillful excavation of the historical foundations of this bureaucratic procedure. The first half of the book guides us through the development of the document's various components in the nineteenth century: its rhetoric, symbols, signatures, and physical descriptions of the passport holder. The second half presents a series of case studies in how the passport functioned and malfunctioned as the United States struggled to secure its borders in an ever more mobile world. Authorities labored to maximize control over the "dangerous classes" while minimizing inconvenience to healthy, patriotic, white Americans and their foreign guests. This was not always an easy balance. In 1932, Albert Einstein stormed out of a visa interview with the US consul in Berlin after being asked about his political beliefs; he later told reporters that officials might as well put pins in the seat cushions so that applicants would know in advance that they were going to get stuck. By the end of the 1930s, nearly all the elements of modern passport control were in place: "The benevolent state offering protection in the form of a letter addressed to foreign officials became a nation-state practicing surveillance to gain knowledge about its citizens."

In his conclusion, Robertson returns to the present, with its biometric measures, data-mining algorithms, and related technologies of identification. In 2004, the US government awarded the Bermuda-based consulting company Accenture a multibillion-dollar contract to design a system for deploying these technologies at the border under the supervision of the Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate. Visitors to the United States must now provide "digital fingerprints," proving once again that in the battle between liberty and security, one of the first casualties is good grammar. Like the "single ladies" who arrived in Rosenbaum's office, we may protest and complain, but we ultimately submit to being measured and recorded. After all, we really want to go on that trip. Robertson has provided us with an excellent account of how we came to make this trade.

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