What Makes You an American?

by Benjamin McManamon, NMAS Colonial Dames Scholar

Although not the first thing that probably comes to mind, one of the most important aspects of being an American is proof of citizenship and the protections and privileges that entails. This formalized view of citizenship can be seen in our use of the terms “documented” and “undocumented” to discuss immigrants or even in recent debates about voter ID laws. 

During my research for the Sails Unfurled tour that I gave–a video of which will be posted August 17th–I discovered that during the early days of the Republic, the Navy and the naval issues played an important role in shaping a formal American identity. This was primarily driven by the role the early U.S. Navy played in attempting to protect American sailors from kidnapping, particularly the impressment, or drafting, of American sailors into the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, when Great Britain was desperate for sailors to crew their warships. 

To combat this, as early as the tail end of the American Revolution, sailors would often carry birth certificates, baptisms, or other notarized papers as unofficial proof of their American citizenship. As formal passports would not be created for over a century, this was the only option for sailors in attempting to prove their citizenship abroad until the passage of “An Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen” in 1796. Under the act, American sailors could ask certain notarized officials for a Sailor’s Protection Certificate declaring that they were an American citizen protected by the U.S. government. One of these, an 1811 example for John Call, is on display in our Sails Unfurled exhibit. It is unlikely these documents actually dissuaded foreign governments from kidnapping American sailors carrying them as the continued impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy led to war with Britain in 1812. 
Despite these failings, Sailor’s Protection Certificates continued to be issued to American sailors until 1861. Although the threat of being kidnapped by a foreign power began to recede for most American sailors after the war against the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812, there was one group of American sailors that still feared being kidnapped, not by foreign captains in international waters, but by their fellow Americans in port. These were free Black sailors, who had been serving on American ships since before the Revolution, but who lived in fear that they would be rounded up by local slave catchers and sold into slavery. We know from anecdotal evidence that these protection certificates were also used on occasion to help legitimize escaped slaves, such as during Frederick Douglass’ escape to freedom where he used a sailors’ disguise and a certificate of protection given to him by a free-Black sailor to travel by rail to freedom.

Unlike other paper documents, such as letters or diaries, that sailors of this early American period might have possessed and have since been lost or were never created due to a lack of literacy, because of their official nature and relative importance, many examples of these certificates survived either preserved by individual sailors or logs of the original record as part of registers in official archives. Their legal nature can also provide us with a unique perspective on how free Blacks existed in a legal limbo during the antebellum period. This can be particularly seen in the certificates issued in Philadelphia, where initially free Black sailors received the same certificate as white sailors with the term “citizen” used, but by 1860, on certificates issued to Black sailors in Philadelphia, “citizen” was crossed out and replaced with “native.”

Seaman’s Protection Certificate for Samuel Fox, a Black sailor, August 12, 1854. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

These documents tell us little about individual sailors, but collectively can tell us much about the common American sailor of this period in the abstract, such as his age, whether he was literate, his state of origin, his height, etc. This lack of personal details is one of the great struggles of working at a museum that focuses on the stories of common sailors, because unlike officers, who often left letters, orders, log books, and journals, generally little exists to speak to enlisted sailors’ individual experience in the Navy other than perhaps a name on a ledger or a document that the sailor would have played no role in creating. This is why Sailor’s Protection Certificates are particularly interesting. Unlike other official records, enlisted sailors had to show initiative to request a certificate which gives us a rare chance to hear enlisted sailors’ voices in the story of the early American Navy. 

Benjamin McManamon is the National Museum of the American Sailor’s 2021 Colonial Dames Scholar. This internship specifically focuses on the colonial and Revolutionary War era. The internship is generously sponsored by the Colonial Dames of America, Chapter XIV Chicago.

Sources:

  1. Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Harvard University Press, 1997. 
  1. Dye, Ira. “Early American Merchant Seafarers.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120, no. 5 (1976): 331-60. Accessed July 23, 2021.
  1. “Registers of Seamen’s Protection Certificates,” Mystic Seaport Museum, accessed July 21, 2021, https://research.mysticseaport.org/databases/protection/.

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