Civil Liberties

How We Got to Be a Passport Nation



Over at, Wendy McElroy laments the world of passport-only travel that has been erected in the wake of 9/11, and discusses the intimate relationship between mandatory papers-checking and war. Excerpt:

America and the world were not always this way. It is important to remember that there once was a world in which people traveled freely across borders without paperwork to visit families, pursue education, conduct business, and mingle. Freedom worked once. It enriched the world economically, culturally, and psychologically. […]

The American passport was […] rooted in war, specifically the American Revolution (1775–1783). The first one was issued in 1783; based on the French "passport," it was designed and printed by Benjamin Franklin.  […]

During the Articles of Confederation period (1783–1789), passports were issued but not required. When the US Constitution was ratified, creating a new government, passports continued to be issued but not required. Many American states and cities also issued their own "voluntary" passports until 1856 when the Department of State exerted a federal monopoly, ostensibly to eliminate confusion.


Nevertheless, passports were not mandatory except for a period during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and during World War I (1914–1918). The latter can be seen as the beginning of the current American passport. On December 15, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson issued Executive Order No. 2285, "[r]equiring American citizens traveling abroad to procure passports" and advising the

Secretary of State, in co-operation with the Secretary of the Treasury, will make arrangements for the inspection of passports of all persons, American or foreign, leaving this country.

This was followed in 1918 by an act of Congress granting the president authority to require passports during time of war. Passports remained mandatory until early 1921.

Thereafter, the United States continued its "no-passport-required" travel policy until another war: World War II (1939–1945). In 1941, passports became mandatory for travel abroad and remain so to this day. (Travel to Canada used to be an exception; until recently, proof of citizenship was all that was required to cross the border.)

McElroy points out some of the largely unknown ways that the passport requirement is used as social control:

[P]assports can be denied for a myriad of reasons that have nothing to do with being "an enemy of the state" but rest strictly on statutory grounds. Common reasons for denial include owing money to the IRS, a federal arrest, a state-criminal court order existing, a drug arrest, being on parole or probation. Law-enforcement databases are routinely checked against both passports and applications to weed out those who have committed such offenses as being more than $2,500 behind on child-support payments. Passports can also be revoked for several reasons, although revocation is far less common.

Whole thing, including the argument that the passport is "the single most powerful tool of totalitarian America," here. Link via the Mises Institute Twitter feed. Reason on passports here.

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  1. Wait, something else I can blame on Woodrow Wilson? Let’s face it, if Woody hadn’t turned out to be the poster child for progressivism in all its many iterations, we wouldn’t have been able to invent someone as odious for the job.

    Man, he’s another gift that keeps on giving.

    1. You know who else hated legal restrictions on his power, minorities, and socialists?

    2. I believe Woodrow Wilson was the Twentieth Century’s worst president.

  2. Borders used to define jurisdictions.
    Now they are moats that require permission to cross.

  3. The worst part s having to procure a passport for fucking infants.


    2. But why are you fucking infants? I would think that would require something other than a passport to permit.

    3. If infants needed to travel with their parents the parents would just get an endorsement for that trip. I was on my Dad’s passport in 1963 when I was fifteen years old.

      But then, time was that you didn’t bother to get a Social Security Card until you got a job. Now the application form’s in the package they give you at the hospital with the form for registering your kid’s birth. Or so I’m told.

      1. If infants needed to travel with their parents the parents would just get an endorsement for that trip. I was on my Dad’s passport in 1963 when I was fifteen years old.

        Ummm, no. 5 years ago, I traveled from Bangkok back to the States with my daughter, who was 3 months old at the time. She needed her own American passport. Complete with picture.

        Have you ever tried to get a 3 month old baby to hold her head still that the precise angle some bureaucrat decided was proper for a passport picture?

        1. I meant used to. Sorry, I should have been more clear.

          Yes, absolutely, the rules were changed some time after 1963.

          Probably about the same time as babies were required to get social security cards.

  4. the ultimate criticism of passports… THEY ARE FRENCH!!!!!! oh noes!

    1. The point is that passports are part and parcel of a POLICE state, parasite.

      1. the point is that your humor button is broken, francis.

        lighten up

  5. It’s enough

  6. (Travel to Canada used to be an exception; until recently, proof of citizenship was all that was required to cross the border.)

    And ID was so rarely requested, it was usually, “where are you going and what’s the purpose of your visit? Welcome to Canada/the USA, have a pleasant stay”, that many didn’t even know that it was required. Crossing into Canada seemed only a little more arduous than going from California into Arizona.

    Mexico used to be an exception too. I don’t know when it changed but IIANM some kind of tourist visa has been required by both countries since the 60s. Could be wrong, though.

    1. When I was stationed at Ft. Bliss in El Paso in the early 2000s, I just had to show a drivers license and pay a small toll (something like $1) whenever I crossed the bridge into Juarez (which was much, much safer back then).

      1. In the early 90s it was cheaper and we didn’t have to show ID.

        1. As I noted above, you were required to show ID but they used to be really relaxed about it.

          Gojira, I don’t think the toll has anything to do with immigration. I’m pretty sure it’s to pay for the bridge itself. I don’t know about the bridges into Mexico, but the bridges on the Canadian borders are either privately owned or owned by joint bridge authorities with representive from the state and province concerned. They mostly have to be self funding.

          And thanks all for the update. I guess the tourist visa is only required for longer stays in Mexico.

  7. Hmm, really? So far as I can tell, the US has never cared if I enter a foreign country. It’s the foreign country that demands the passport.

    1. Yes, this is true. But the US will give you a real hard time if you don’t have one you try to get back in.

    2. So the part where the airline swipes your passport barcode/RFID and checks your information against a bunch of databases as a proxy for the DHS is “not caring”? I mean, technically, it’s the US caring about you leaving aboard an aircraft, not necessarily about entering a foreign country. I’m not sure that distinction is comforting, though.

      1. I think the whole airline checking your passport thing does involve DHS now but it used to be just so the airline was satisfied that they wouldn’t have to bring you back from wherever if they refused to take you. Of course they mostly covered themselves by insisting you had a return ticket but having to bring you back is still troublesome for them.

    3. In 1975 or so two friends and I drove up through the northeast to Quebec. Crossing into Canada from upstate NY, we were questioned for a few minutes by a nice fellow who didn’t ask for any passport at all.

      Coming back through Detroit a few days later, we were stopped by US Customs, questioned pretty extensively about where we had been and what we had been doing; our car and all our luggage was searched; no passports were requested that I recall (I doubt any of us had one at the time).

      Granted, we had long hair and weren’t all that clean, but still–we had a much more difficult time getting back in to our own country than in to Canada.

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