- Contested AllegiancesBecoming American in the Age of Sail
Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015
mark g. hanna
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015
paul a. gilje
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016
When Frederick Douglass, escaping from slavery by train in 1838, is accosted by the conductor to produce his “free papers,” Douglass does one better, presenting the sailor’s protection papers of a friend and declaring, “I have a paper with the American eagle on it, that will carry me round the world” (199). Douglass feels further insulated from detection by the “sailor style” of his clothing (red shirt, tarpaulin hat, black cravat loose at the neck), the “sailor’s talk” of which he is capable, and his intimate knowledge of ships “from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees” (198). However much Douglass can immerse himself in the culture of the merchant [End Page 461] seaman, though, the conductor’s response to the borrowed document is “a critical moment in the drama” (198). But the seaman’s protection has an immediate effect on the official, who merely glances at it, implicitly acknowledging the normality of a black sailor possessing documentation of his free status. Douglass’s charade would have been detected easily upon even a perfunctory examination of the physical description of the man identified in the protection papers, someone “much darker than” (198) the runaway slave. The plausibility of Douglass “playing the sailor” (198) forestalls the conductor’s scrutiny of the document. This episode in Douglass’s escape to freedom illustrates in microcosm the ramifications of the cultural, political, and legal status of the American sailor as a valued member of society possessing benefits of federal citizenship shared by neither common white nor black landsmen in the early Republic and antebellum period.
While some domestic port authorities and American consuls in foreign ports had provided protections to seamen earlier, the federal government in 1796 recognized the value of the merchant seaman to the nation by enacting legislation to protect him, as an American citizen, from the maritime predations of other nations by impressment or detention. An Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen (1796) established the right of any mariner who was a US citizen to obtain a seaman’s protection certificate as proof of his allegiance to the nation. This proof of citizenship was issued only “at the request” of the seaman, making the documentation process a volitional act whereby the seaman asserted his nationality and fidelity to the United States. Upon payment of twenty-five cents, the seaman received a document listing his name, age, and height, together with a description of “said seaman as particularly as may be,” and certification that he was a citizen of the United States of America. A sailor guarded his protection certificate closely; it was “an act of supreme trust,” Douglass noted (198), for a freeman of color to lend his protection to a slave temporarily to facilitate his escape from bondage.
The physical certificate protecting the seaman was itself an unassuming printed form (sometimes decorated with a symbolic eagle), with the district custom collector’s name and location included, and blanks for inserting the certificate number, name, age, height, and physical description of the sailor, together with a space for the collector’s attestation and an official seal. Guarded closely by its possessor, the certificate, as noted, was confirmation [End Page 462] of the individual seaman’s declaration of loyalty to the United States and his intention to be recognized as an American. In a larger context, the protection certificate was the physical manifestation of the position of the American sailor in the vanguard of the debate over who could choose to hold the protected status of American citizen.
In the congressional debates preceding enactment...