- Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution by Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
American Revolution, Jack Tar, Merchant sailors, Atlantic world, Citizenship, Nationality, Maritime trade
As Jesse Lemisch revealed in the 1960s, Jack Tar was not a “rebel without a cause.”1 Since then, scholars have struggled to identify who Jack Tar was and what cause or causes he embraced. Nathan Perl-Rosenthal contextualizes sailors’ early American republic world. He does not see sailors as united by material conditions, labor arrangements, or class conflict as have Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh. Neither were seamen primarily motivated by revolutionary ideology. Like the sailors in Paul Gilje’s work, Perl-Rosenthal’s Jack Tars are motivated by the need to make a living in a complex and war-torn Atlantic world, which put seafarers in the “midst of a struggle for national citizenship” (270). In his ambitious and compellingly written first monograph, Perl-Rosenthal argues that American merchant seamen “not only became attached to the state earlier and more strongly” than others, but also played a unique role in defining American citizenship (5).
U.S., British, and French documents led Nathan Perl-Rosenthal “to see merchant seamen not as outriders,” but as “crucial” actors in “defining the borders of American citizenship” (4–5). Using admiralty court papers, custom house documents, and consular papers, he tracks how states struggled to identify their citizens to other world powers between 1760 and 1815. During the 1760s, sailors more or less freely chose national affiliation based on preference and expediency. By 1815, citizenship was less fungible: Nationality now consisted of a “status conferred by the state” and legitimized with government-issued documents (12).
In the 1760s and 1770s, state officials applied a “common-sense nationality,” which consisted of using language, customs, manners, and “ways of living” to discern an individual’s nationality (32). The American Revolution disrupted common-sense nationality by politically splintering Americans and Britons. Because they remained culturally similar, [End Page 796] American seamen cloaked “themselves in the garb of British or French subjects,” a practice France and England, seeking to curtail U.S. trade especially in the West Indies, abhorred (83). Both states insisted that citizenship originated in birth, but proving where a sailor had been born often proved elusive. Thus, both states relied on ships’ papers and a sailors’ language to determine the “nationality of vessels and seamen” (82). However, language and papers were easily faked, and thus, as Perl-Rosenthal explains, this attempt “failed” (82).
Until the 1780s, seamen crossed national borders for better wages, treatment, or evasion of impressment somewhat easily because states lacked a way to document citizenship. Continental war ended seafarers’ “control over [their] national identity” as states demanded sailors verify their nationality to prevent impressment or permit neutral trade (100). Seafarers, contends Perl-Rosenthal, themselves seized “the power both to decide who was an American and to determine how citizenship ought to be proven” (174). Because seamen bequeathed us few sources on this topic, Perl-Rosenthal turns to Congressional debates surrounding the 1795 Naturalization Act and 1796 Act for the Relief and Protection of Seamen. Sailors’ agency seems to reside in the 1796 Relief Act, which permitted seamen to request, prove, and pay for a custom house certificate of citizenship. Yet even these documents were not foolproof and might be rejected by British and French officials.
Perl-Rosenthal deftly outlines and analyzes how the government tried to protect maritime workers. The state, state officials, and state negotiations largely drive his work. He covers negotiations between France, England, and the United States as they verify prizes, identify neutral trade, and determine legitimate targets of impressment. In many cases, other states force American developments related to seamen. For example, France required that American vessels carry rôles d’equipage, a list of crewmen and their nationalities. French officials routinely condemned crews lacking these documents as valid prizes. In response, Americans adapted informal rôles, though the French often declined them. In 1799...