by Fred Apgar
By Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
In his book, Citizen Sailors, Nathan Perl-Rosenthal discusses the creation of American citizenship among mariners in post-revolution America.
Prior to the creation of the United States, the concept of citizenship was not a major issue among seafaring nations. It was merely assumed that a mariner’s birthplace, spoken language, and country to which they were a subject, determined their nationality. However, the emergence of America as a sea power changed that assumption, which created an entirely different view of sovereignty and citizenship. America defended the right of British seamen, as well as mariners from other nations, to become American citizens. However, it was England’s view that once an individual was a British subject, they would remain so for the rest of their lives.
Following the French Revolution in the early 1790’s, France and Great Britain went to war. America declared its neutrality and continued to trade with both. However, because of the ambiguity of determining citizenship, American sailors fell victim to both the English and French navies. Claiming them to be the enemy, American ships, cargoes, and crews were seized by both England and France as well as the numerous privateers, of both countries. Thanks to Perl-Rosenthal’s exhaustive research, readers are provided with a marvelous insight and details into the work of the privateers, impressment of American mariners, and attempts of Admiralty Courts to render “fair” decisions.
The final chapter of the book details America’s response to Great Britain’s violations against its sovereignty. The impressment of American mariners became a national issue, and congressional legislation authorized the production of certificates of citizenship and the registration of American mariners. Interestingly, among the more than 100,000 sailors whose citizenship was protected through the registration process were more than 1800 black sailors. Unfortunately, their equal status as American citizens would fall victim to rising racism after the War of 1812. While a cumbersome process at the outset, in time, such documentation became accepted and standardized among seafaring nations.