What makes a citizen?

Working as I do with a focus on the period between 1780 and 1830, the War of 1812 frequently drifts into focus. It is not a war with which I was very familiar when I started at this job, and I still think there’s a lot more I could know about it (although I have very little interest in all the movements of all the troops).  Still, I am aware that one of the issues which led to the war was continued impressment by the British Navy of people who considered themselves to be citizens of the United States.

I do not know, and admittedly have not taken the time to discover, how exactly one became a citizen of any nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Now, of course, we have citizenship applications and tests and ceremonies where you swear an oath, and afterwards you get a new passport. What was it like then?

Yesterday, while in the archives, I came across a letter which mentioned this question of what makes a person a citizen. It is written by a man living in Liverpool, England, to an acquaintance back in the U.S. The man in Liverpool worked for the U.S. Government, and must therefore have considered himself an American, despite having been born before the Revolution. It doesn’t answer my question completely, but it’s an excellent insight into the attitudes which led to a war between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“I observe what in America constitutes a citizen of the U. S. differs from what is here considered the Qualification; pro. Ex. a subject of this Country settled since the peace, in the Territories of the U.S. altho’ admitted there a Citizen is nonetheless still held here a subject of this Country.”

Source: James Maury to Thomas Jefferson, [10] November 1791. Papers of James Maury, 1769-1917, Accession #3888 and #3888-a, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.



  1. Johanna · · Reply

    Very interesting question, indeed. I wonder when the use of passports (as we might recognize them today) even started.

    A friend of mine who was born in the States has a mum who was born in England. She became a naturalized US citizen, and did everything to renounce her UK citizenship that the US required of her. However, the reply from the UK government was, “Don’t be silly; you’ll always be British.” To this day, she has two passports. That’s rather rare for a naturalized citizen. The only other dual (or triple) citizens I know are entitled to both (or all) citizenships by birth. I wonder what would happen if she were naturalizing in the US now…

  2. Grant Q · · Reply

    Hmm…. would also be interesting to see how the concept of citizenship changed following the Am. Revolution and the French Revolution.

    And in response to the other comment, passports as we would recognize them today have been around for a few hundred years. The US began issuing diplomatic passports in the late 18th century for Americans serving abroad as minister plenipotentiary. Similarly, in many cases, the country in which the diplomats were serving also issued them passports. The link below will take you to a very cool image of Jefferson’s French passport signed by Louis XVI from the LOC collection.

    1. That’s a really cool link!

      So, there were passports for important people, but when did it become the norm for Joe Average to have a passport with him when he traveled? The people running afoul of the notion of citizenship were sailors (who, admittedly, had a hazy sort of nationality anyway).

  3. […] me to believe that this book should offer some insight into a topic I posted about earlier – what exactly makes a person a citizen of one nation and not […]

  4. […] an American (or rather, what makes someone an American) has resonance. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, how a person is identified as a citizen or subject of one nation or another was a part of what led […]

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