Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Americans on Paper: Identity and Identification in the American Revolution
by Huffman, John Michael, Ph.D., Harvard University, 2013, 386; 3600182
Abstract (Summary)

The American Revolution brought with it a crisis of identification. The political divisions that fragmented American society did not distinguish adherents of the two sides in any outward way. Yet the new American governments had to identify their citizens; potential citizens themselves had to choose and prove their identities; and both sides of the war had to distinguish friend from foe. Subordinated groups who were notionally excluded from but deeply affected by the Revolutionary contest found in the same crisis new opportunity to seize control over their own identities. Those who claimed mastership over these groups struggled to maintain control amid civil war and revolution.

To meet this crisis, American and British authorities and "Americans" of all sorts employed paper and parchment instruments of identification, including passes, passports, commissions, loyalty certificates, and letters of introduction. These were largely familiar instruments, many embodying the hierarchical and coercive social world from which the Revolution sprang. Access or subjection to certain classes of instruments depended on individuals' social standing and reflected their unequal power over their own identities. But they were now deployed to meet new challenges. The increased demands for identification brought to Revolutionary Americans in general degrees of scrutiny and constraint traditional reserved for the unfree, while subordinated groups faced an intensification of the regimes designed to govern them. The struggles to define, enforce, and contest Revolutionary identities reveal the ways the notionally voluntarist, republican Revolution, undertaken in the name of consent and equality, was effected through regimes of identification both exclusive and coercive.

While studies of early American identity are now common, there has been little study of the history of identification or identification papers in early America. Historians of this period have employed instruments of identification as sources, but they have rarely considered them as subjects of analysis in themselves. This study of the Revolutionary crisis of identification, from 1774 to 1783, examines the ways that these instruments of identification were used to identify "Americans" in the face of this crisis, at home and abroad, and therefore how the new United States were constituted through the identification of individuals.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Chaplin, Joyce E.
Commitee: Armitage, David, Johnson, Walter
School: Harvard University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- Massachusetts
Source: DAI-A 75/02(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American history
Keywords: American Revolution, Identification, Identity, Letters of introduction, Passes, Passports
Publication Number: 3600182
ISBN: 978-1-303-50236-1
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