A Monopoly on the Means of Identification: The Evolution of the Compulsory State Birth and Death Certificate


by Carl Watner
Number 118



When the Constitution of the United States was finally adopted by the thirteen states of the Articles of Confederation, the new federal government had no power to collect direct personal income taxes from each citizen or to record their births and deaths except once every ten years (in conjunction with the decennial census which was required to determine the apportionment of congressmen in the House of Representatives). “There was not the remotest idea in the minds of the framers of the Constitution as to the necessity of a complete record of vital statistics … .” [1] Even among the States at that time, there was little concern for the official, civil registration of births and deaths. As one commentator noted during the 1860s, it was probably impossible for a large portion of the American populace to prove that they were ever born, that “their parents were ever married, and that they have any legitimate right to the name they bear, … .” [2] Yet today, nearly every person has a state-issued birth certificate. The constitutional directive for the decennial census has been expanded to such an extent that serious consideration is now being given to assigning a federal identification number to each and every citizen and resident alien. How did we, in the United States, move from the point where very few of our ancestors were concerned about even having a record of their births (much less having a public official make that record) to the point where we are ready to accept a government number to identify us? The main purpose of this article is to answer that question by presenting an overview of the evolution of government-mandated birth and death certificates in the United States.

In the Beginning

When the colonists that settled at Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts arrived in North America, there already existed a history of birth and death registration in the older European countries. For example, in 1538, Lord Thomas Cromwell had ordered that the English parishes be responsible for keeping registers to record baptisms and burials. Twenty-five years later, the Council of Trent made it a law of the Catholic Church that registers of births and marriages should be kept. [3] However, since the Puritans and Pilgrims took the view that marriage was a civil event, rather than a religious one, they held that the registration of births and deaths should be a government responsibility, rather than an ecclesiastical one. Therefore, in 1639 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered that births and deaths should be reported to the town clerk by parents or household owners within one month of their occurrence. Thus Massachusetts holds the record for being

the first state in the Christian world which recorded births, deaths, and marriages by government officers; … the first state in the world which recorded the dates of the actual facts of births, deaths, and marriages rather than the subsequent ecclesiastical ceremonies of baptisms, burials, and weddings; and … the first state in the world which imposed on the citizen the duty of giving notice to the government of all births, [d]eaths, and marriages occurring in his family. [4]

The Connecticut colony followed suit in 1644, and the New Plymouth colony did likewise in 1646. John Locke, in his “Fundamental Constitutions” for the government of the Carolinas, which was prepared in 1669, made provision for a “Registry in every Signiory, Barony, and Colony, wherein shall be recorded all the births, marriages, and deaths that shall happen.” [5]

During the 18th Century, there was little concern on the part of American governments, either federal or state, for the recording of vital statistics. In 1785, James Madison proposed a law in the Virginia Assembly which would have created a system of statewide birth and death registration. It was defeated in the Virginia Senate. Similarly, on the federal level, under the North West Ordinance of 1787 there was no provision for the registration of births and deaths. Only marriages were required to be recorded within three months. New York City first recorded deaths officially in 1803, but it was not until 1847 that the city began recording births and marriages. Very few people, except the most wealthy, who were concerned with their legal inheritance, had any real interest in official public records. Until the last half of the 19th Century, the recording of births, deaths, and marriages was generally considered either a semi-religious or social function. Such events, if they were recorded at all, were more likely to either be entered in a family’s Bible, or a church register, than registered by a clerk in a government office.

It was largely the development of the public health movement and the advancements of medical science which propelled the demand for official vital statistics in the United States. Until the early 1900s, the American States might as well have been foreign nations, so far as measured by the uniformity of their health codes and registration of vital events. As one historian put it, “Only as European nations created efficient mechanisms in the course of the nineteenth century did the uncoordinated condition of American state registration begin to reveal the extent of its shortcomings.” [6] For example, the English Parliament had passed a registration law in 1836, which provided for the collection of vital statistics. The legislature of Massachusetts followed suit in 1842. However it was almost three decades later before any state in the Union had an official Board of Health (Massachusetts in 1869), and before the American Public Health Association was founded (1872). [7] The initial impetus for the improved collection of vital statistics usually came from public officials, doctors, public health officers, sanitary engineers, and statisticians who were concerned with enumerating the variety of sicknesses, infectious diseases, and epidemics prevalent within their state, and who began to scientifically study causes, containment, and control.

The States justified such activities under their police powers of providing for the public’s health, safety, welfare, the prevention and detection of crime, and the need to collect data for sanitary purposes and analysis. Lewis Hockheimer, in his 1897 article on “Police Power” in the Central Law Journal, noted that “The police power is the inherent plenary power of a State … to prescribe regulations to preserve and promote the public safety, health, and morals, and to prohibit all things hurtful to the comfort and welfare of society.” [8] The constitutional basis of such state power was found in the Tenth Amendment, which reserved to the states all powers not explicitly delegated or prohibited in the Constitution. Firefighting regulations, quarantine laws, laws governing weights and measures, inspection of flour, meal, beef and pork, control laws over strong liquors, and recordation of vital statistics: in short, “no aspect of human intercourse remained outside the purview of” the police power if it could be justified as beneficial to the happiness and welfare of the state’s citizenry. [9]

“Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts”

Throughout the Nineteen Century, the State of Massachusetts remained a pioneer in recording the vital events of its citizens. However at the beginning of the 1800s, probably not more than 50% of the births and deaths in the state were actually registered according to the laws in force. Until at least the early 1840s, the main justification of the registration laws in Massachusetts was that “lists of births and deaths would be useful in cases of probate.” [10] In February 1842, when the state legislature appointed a committee to revise the law, increasing emphasis was placed upon the “importance of vital records in studying the public health, particularly in helping to chart the course of epidemic diseases through the State.” Numerous factors affected the collection of vital statistics during the middle decades of the century. For one thing it was estimated that less than 50% of births in the state were attended by a midwife or physician. Many parents were not aware that it was their responsibility to report births to the town clerks, and there was a “widespread reluctance to require physicians and midwives to report births.” State supervision of medical doctors had been “relaxed” from 1830 to 1850 (formal licensing was not resumed until 1894), and it was believed that involving “medical practitioners in the registration system again might require a state-sponsored program for distinguishing between competent and less expert physicians.” [11] So not only were the medical doctors fearful of involvement with the State, they resented being forced by law to report births and deaths, a service for which either they would not be paid, or receive very little compensation.

In 1849, the legislature again appointed a committee to close loop-holes in the vital statistics law. Lemuel Shattuck authored the report, which has been referred to as “the first treatise on the subject of vital registration” published in the United States. The committee demanded that town and city clerks both be “authorized and required” to collect birth and death information; that “all towns appoint superintendents of burial grounds and undertakers, who would have the exclusive right to handle interments;” and that amount of fees paid to those who had the duty to collect birth and death information be augmented. [12] Although much of the committee’s report was rejected by the legislature, the report served to bring publicity to the topic of public health and vital statistics. Nevertheless, there were still a number of ways that deaths went unrecorded. First of all, private farm burials had never been outlawed in Massachusetts, and they were especially prevalent in the rural counties. The legislature feared to prohibit such burials “for fear of offending the folk tradition that a farmer should be buried on the land he tilled.” Secondly, there were no state regulations regarding removal of bodies from one town to another. Thirdly, there was no requirement that coroners report violent deaths to the town clerks; and finally it remained very easy for sextons and cemetery superintendents to avoid the law. [13] By the early 1870s, the state legislature addressed these issues, including an order to all towns and cities to license undertakers (who were threatened with loss of their license if they failed to report deaths). Thus by the end of the 1870s, there was near 100% accuracy in the recording of deaths within the state.

However at the same time, problems remained in approaching such accuracy in the reporting of births. There were still parents and householders who remained unaware of their obligations, and “because parenthood was obviously not a government office, there were great obstacles in making parents comply with the law. … Perhaps they could have been prosecuted” but the widespread apathy with regard to birth statistics resulted from the fact that fertility was not regarded as a social problem at that time. [14] Nevertheless, with the advent of the State Board of Health in 1869, and the establishment of city and town boards of health during the 1880s and 1890s, and changes to the law in 1883 (which increased the fees paid to physicians and midwives who reported births), gradually more and more births were recorded. Additionally, town and city clerks often resorted to conducting municipal-wide censuses once a year as a means of recording births that either were not attended by a midwife or physician or births which they attended, but failed to report. [15] Thus by 1890, it was safe to say that the “the main features of an adequate system had been adopted and put into operation. No more than one or two per cent of the births and deaths which occurred in the State were not registered.” [16]

The Registration Area

With the State of Massachusetts as an example, the federal government tried to encourage other states and local governments to emulate its practices. In 1880, the Federal Bureau of the Census initiated a national registration area for the uniform collection of death statistics in order to provide a scientific basis for the study of public health problems in the states. The registration “area” was simply all or part of a State (such as a major city within the State) which complied with the federal guidelines for the collection of death statistics. In order to qualify for admission into the national registration area a State or municipality had to comply with two requirements. First it had to pass satisfactory a law and implement a suitable system for death registration, and secondly, it had to attain at least a 90% rate of completeness in recording deaths within its geographic boundaries. Wilson G. Smillie in his book on PUBLIC HEALTH ADMINISTRATION IN THE UNITED STATES discusses the evolution of modern registration:

Various checks [we]re used by the Federal Census Bureau to determine whether a given state ha[d] fulfilled all requirements. The national registration area began with Massachusetts and New Jersey, the District of Columbia, and nineteen cities. Gradually the various states were admitted by the Federal Census Bureau so that every state is now included in the National Registration Area for Deaths. The National Birth Registration Area was established in 1915. Criteria for admission were similar to those required for admission to the death registration area. All states have met the federal requirements, though a few states have difficulty in maintaining the national registration standards. This formation of national registration areas marks one of the progressive steps in public health administration in the United States. It was brought about through formulation of a model registration law which was first presented to the official Association of Public Health Officers and approved by it. This model law had gradually been adopted by the various states.

Registration of all births and deaths within the state is a function of the state health department. The state health officer, or some other person on his staff, who is responsible to, and is designated by him, is the official state registrar of vital statistics.

The basis for effective registration is the formation of an organization whereby each birth and death that occurs within the state shall be recorded immediately on an individual certificate. Standard uniform certificates may be used, as well as standard methods of collection of the certificates and standard methods of interpretation of the data. These certificates are filed as a permanent record, and become part of the state archives. [17]

The objects of the national registration areas was the uniform and standardized collection of birth and deaths throughout the entire United States, so that statistics from one part of the country could be accurately compared to that of another part. When the federal registration area for deaths began in 1880, it only embraced about 17% of the country’s population. In 1900 it was estimated that about 40.5% of the population had their deaths recorded; in 1915, the figure was up to 66.9%, and by 1925 the figure was up to 88%. As the author of Why Should Births and Deaths Be Registered? (published by the American Medical Association in various editions during the early 1900s), observed: the work of registration could not be called “a complete success until every birth and death in the United States shall be promptly recorded.” [18] The former Chief Statistician for Vital Statistics of the United States, in 1916, wrote of his hope of the “rapid expansion” of the registration areas, “not only for deaths … but also for births, until the entire country shall have attained a condition of 100% efficiency in this respect. [19]

American commentators and health officials during the later half of the 19th Century noted that “voluntary contribution of information by heads of families or physicians … ha[d] always been a failure.” [20] In a report prepared for the U.S. National Board of Health in 1882, Dr. John Billings, a surgeon in the United States Army discussed the problems surrounding the accurate collection of birth and death statistics. Members of the general public were simply not informed enough to understand the importance of birth and death registration. They “suppose that it is merely a hobby of the doctors, who want the information for their own private purposes, and that this information can only be obtained by an unjustified amount of meddling with private affairs and by a system of espionage which will cause much trouble and difficulty.” [21] In a report to the Kentucky legislature in 1853, it was noted that the vital statistic records in many European countries are universal and compulsory: “In this country they would, by many, be considered unreasonable, oppressive, and tyrannical.” [22] When a birth registration law was passed in South Carolina “many of the citizens absolutely refused to” cooperate with the law. [23] It soon became obvious to public officials that “We cannot … hope to obtain any entirely satisfactory system of registration of births until the people at large have become educated to the necessity for it, and are induced to seek such registration of their own accord in order to secure proof of legitimacy, title to property, &c.” [24] How true this observation was is reflected in the following comment: “The national Social Security Act [1935] proved to be a great stimulus to accurate birth certification. Many people had never considered a birth certificate to be of any importance until old age assistance, unemployment insurance, and other ramifications of the Social Security Act demonstrated to them that it was necessary to have this official proof of their existence.” [25] Another means of accommodating the people to the idea of registration was to use the public schools to instruct the up-and-coming generation about the importance of public health and the necessity of cooperating with governmental authorities for such purposes.

The 19th Century movement for registration of vital statistics emphasized the recording of deaths, not births. Authorities perceived that it was easier to enforce regulations which required a government certificate of death than of birth, because birth registration was considered a more invasive practice. A new born could go his or her entire life without a birth certificate, whereas a person’s body had to be disposed of within a few days of death. The laws in most American jurisdictions eventually required that a government permit be issued for “every interment and removal of a dead body, and the community soon learns to consider any attempt at burial without a permit as a suspicious circumstance … .” Another commentator noted that “The corpus of every deceased human being must somehow be disposed of. The central registration authority in each locality is the only person qualified to permit legal disposal. Therefore substantially all deaths must get registered.” [26] The City of New York first required a death certificate under its Act of April 2, 1803, “which established public health regulations for the metropolis.” All physicians were required to leave a signed note, which provided the name, age, and cause of death, with some member of the deceased’s household. Sextons (the church official responsible for the church graveyard) were required to have the physician’s statement present before any burial could occur. Violations of the law subjected the physician to a $ 50 fine, and the sexton to a $ 25. fine. [27] ] Thus it was that the entire death and dying process was regulated, so that no dead person could be legally buried without the proper state-required or city-required paperwork.

The doctor was one of the most important functionaries in the system of collecting vital statistics. As a person licensed by the state to practice medicine, it became the responsibility and duty of the physician to assist the public health officers in each locale. “It is an onerous public duty of each physician to report promptly to the health department all births and deaths that occur in his private practice. … Th[e] simple procedure [of filling out birth and death certificates] is one of the primary obligations to his patients and to the community that a physician assumes when he is granted permission by the state to practice medicine.” [28] However, this was not always the attitude of doctors during the 19th century. In an article in the Chicago Medical Journal of 1878, it was noted that

In this country there is only the curiosity of a few scientific men that can be relied upon for the moral support of a registry law, and it is probable that in Chicago not more than 12 in every thousand would be found to care for the registration of their nativity even in a family Bible. The reason why physicians do not execute the law is because they not only have no personal interest in its execution, but [also] because of an invincible, though not always clearly recognized, feeling of revolt against the injustice of a law which inflicts a special tax on the physician in the shape of postage, time, and trouble, and affords no compensation for the extra labor and expense. People do not like to make a present to the Government in any shape or form. It is as unjust for the State to add fifty cents to the doctor’s tax simply because he is a doctor as it would be to add fifty dollars. The State should pay for all such service and it need not incur any great expense. It might, as in the case of jury duty or military service by conscription, fix its own rate, but the obligation should be recognized. The payment would, of course, require increased general taxation, but the increase would be levied on all alike. The health officers are trying to get service from the doctors without paying for it. [29]

The Model Laws

Even after the Registration Areas for the recording of birth and death statistics were in place, it took government authorities many years to bring all of the United States into the system. In 1903, Congress officially endorsed the system by passing a resolution that called for nationwide support of “proper registration of all deaths and births” [30]. Pennsylvania was one of the states that embraced the system, and it was reported that in that state there were “hundred of actual prosecutions [which] have been directed by state authorities” against those who failed to register births. [31] In 1907, uniform legislation patterned after the law in Pennsylvania was prepared. This law, which became known as the Model Law, was “endorsed by the Census Department of the U. S. Government, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Statistical Association, the Committee on Uniform Laws of the American Bar Association, American Child Hygiene Association, [and] the American Federation of Labor … .” [32] When the registration area for births was established in 1915, it roughly embraced 31% of the American population. By 1927, it was in use in 45 of the 48 states.

The Model Law was officially titled “A Bill To Provide for the Registration of All Births and Deaths in the State of _____.” It essentially required the recording of all deaths within the State: no burials, cremations, removals, or interments were to take place without a death permit issued by the State Board of Health, and signed by the physician in last attendance [33], and if no physician was in attendance the next of kin or undertaker must notify the local health officer. The portion of the Model Law that concerned itself with birth registration began with the proviso “That the birth of each and every child born in this state shall be registered as hereinafter provided.” [34] The law stated that it was the duty of the physician, midwife, or person acting as midwife, to register the birth. If there was no one acting in this capacity at the birth, then it devolved upon the father or mother of the child, or the householder or owner of the premises where the birth took place to report to the local registrar the fact of such birth within ten days of its occurrence. Upon being notified of the birth, the local registrar had the responsibility to issue a birth certificate.

The Model Law was intended to be compulsory and universal. It applied to each and every person with the geographic area of the state and the law contained penalties for failure to comply. Under Section 22 of the Model Law, failure to meet the requirements of birth and death registration became a misdemeanor, “and upon conviction thereof for the first offense be fined not less than five dollars ($ 5.00) nor more than fifty dollars ($ 50.00), and for each subsequent offense not less than ten dollars ($ 10.00) nor more than one hundred dollars ($ 100.00), or be imprisoned in the county jail not more than sixty days, or be both fined and imprisoned in the discretion of the court.” [35] Although the Model Law did not explicitly endorse the idea, a footnote was inserted to the effect that “Provision may be made whereby compliance with this act shall constitute a condition of granting licenses to physicians, midwives, and embalmers.” [36] This meant that, assuming people practicing these occupations were issued new licenses each year, if they were convicted of failing to meet their obligations to register all new births and deaths which they attended, they would be denied their license to practice, and if they did not cease practicing their profession, they would be liable to be convicted of “practicing without a license.” Licensure denial was a very effective way of bringing about more complete birth and death registration.

It is interesting to note that as early as 1882, Dr. John Billings, the public health official who was quoted earlier in this paper, observed that:

All registration acts which are upon a proper basis presuppose also legislation providing for the determining of those who are properly qualified physicians, and for making the names of these known to the registrar. It may be said, therefore, that the registration of vital statistics depends for its efficiency, to a very large extent, upon some system of registration of physicians and midwives. [37]

An interesting implication to draw from Billings’ analysis is that unlicensed practitioners were the bane of the authorities. Unlicensed doctors (whether or not they were competent) were too difficult to track and too elusive to be certain whether they filed death certificates. In short, from the very beginning of the movement for registration of births and deaths, government authorities understood that they had to control the practitioners of the birth and death professions. If people in society at large were unwilling to conform to government dictates, the authorities realized it was much easier to enforce their regulations by focusing on a much smaller group of people, whose occupational activities could be regulated. [38] Billings follows the comments quoted above by a discussion of the obligation of physicians to report the existence of certain diseases to the public health authorities. He refers to this as “the compulsory notification of infectious diseases” and points out that if doctors are required to report infectious diseases to the public health department, there is no reason why they should not be willing to accept the compulsory reporting of deaths and the completion of death certificates. [39]

The Modern Era: The Logical Climax

In an article on “Documentary Identification and Mass Surveillance in the United States,” published in 1983, the authors noted the near total acceptance of birth certificates by all Americans: “It is practically impossible for an adult to live in the United States without frequent recourse to” documents of identification, such as the birth certificate, and “Today, documentary requirements make it difficult for anyone born in the United States to do without a birth certificate; … .” [40] The government has been so successful in convincing its citizens that identification papers are necessary that even forgers and identity thieves, when they want to create a new personal identity, rely on government documents (either stolen ones or forged ones). In short, in our society the only means of proving “who you are” is by means of government paperwork. Social Security numbers and drivers license did not even exist during the 19th Century. Before the 20th Century, “the majority of births in the United States remained unrecorded with any government agency,” but “[b]y 1950, census officials estimated that 97.9 percent of all births in the United States [were] being registered.” [41]

The success of the United States governments, both on the federal and state level, in accomplishing the feat of legitimizing itself in the minds and bodies of its citizenry has been phenomenal. In the span of four or five generations, Americans have moved from a situation of quasi-voluntaryism (of having their lives largely unregulated by government) to one of near-total government control over all their activities (literally, from birth to death). This success is best epitomized by the comment of William Smillie, who wrote that “the child has no real legal proof of existence in the eyes of the state without a proper birth certificate.” [42] Smillie’s comment represents how presumptuous the government is in making government documents the starting point of a person’s existence and identity. Traditionally in the United States, and in customary tribal societies, the members of the local community and social network into which a person was born stand as witness to that person’s birth (and death). Such events are “a matter of public record in the minds of the people” and there is no need for the government to take note of or register such events. [43]

In the monograph Why Should Births and Deaths Be Registered?, the author lists numerous reasons in support of his argument. Let us examine these reasons and see if the only way to achieve them is through government birth certification.

Such records are necessary in determining questions of parentage, heredity, legitimacy, personal identity, property rights, inheritance, and citizenship. No child labor law is of much value unless it rests on a system of birth registration and of birth certificates issued by the state by which the parent or the child can produce at any time positive proof of birth, paternity, and age. During the war [World War I], the operation of the selective draft act was greatly hampered by the fact that … no legal evidence could be produced or existed by which the age of the individual could be positively proven. [44] [Birth certificates are also useful:] To settle disputes as to age arising out of insurance claims; … [T]o obtain a marriage license; … [T]o gain admission to school; … As proof of citizenship in order to vote; … As proof of citizenship in order to obtain a passport. [45]

In analyzing these points, it is first necessary to observe how many of them involve some government regulation or the interaction of the individual with the state. Nearly all the uses of the birth certificate evaporate if the state is removed from the picture. Child labor law enforcement; military conscription of men over a certain age; proof of citizenship for voting and passport purposes; all these reasons disappear if there is no state. The non-state reasons for having a proof of birth then become limited to questions determining property rights, legitimacy, and inheritance. How were these issues handled before the advent of state-mandated birth certificates? They were clarified, resolved, and sorted out through personal testimony, family documents, and the appearance of witnesses and friends to support one’s claims. They certainly did not await settlement on the advent of state-issued birth certificates. Clearly, history is on the side of the non-state birth record, for people have lived, prospered, and died for thousands of years without such government documents.

There may be very good reasons for having records of birth and deaths, but this by no means implies that they must be maintained by the government. There are many “necessities” in life, but it does not follow that governments must provide them. For example, we all require food, shelter, and clothing, but during most of American history these necessities were provided by the free market to the extent that people could afford them and desired them. Realistically, there is no more reason for government to produce steel than there is for government to issue birth and death certificates. In a free society, a few organizations like Visa or MasterCard might evolve voluntarily to satisfy people’s demands for such records. Some people might choose to maintain their family’s birth and death records in an independent commercial registry; others might choose to use their family’s Bible; while others might simply keep track of such details themselves by issuing their own documents of record; and those who were either too ignorant or to unconcerned would simply do nothing. The point is that no one would be forced by another person or another group of people to become documented in a way that they did not desire. Those who wanted documentation could have all the identification papers they wanted and could pay for; those who objected would not be coerced. Charities would probably arise to provide for or pay for the documentation and identification of those who could not afford it themselves.

What opponents of state-mandated birth and death certificates object to is the “means.” They reject the compulsion involved in the state requiring that everyone have a birth certificate. They may or may not object to voluntarily having a birth certificate (of whatever form they or their parents chose), but they do oppose the use of coercion which would require that everyone have a state-issued birth certificate. Paraphrasing Robert Ringer, “I do not believe that I or any other person has the right to force men to be charitable [or to have state-issued birth certificates]. In other words, I am not against charity [or state-issued birth certificates], but I am against the use of force.” [46]

Before the days of official birth certificates, it was standard practice in many parts of the world for strangers to carry “letters of introduction.” Such documents, issued by a well-known personage, would assure the person presenting it of a much quicker reception and acceptance in a society where he was not known. Other ways of establishing one’s reputation in a strange community have historically involved the use of credentials, such as educational degrees and membership certificates in professional or religious organizations. Even the credit card serves as a credential of trustworthiness and reputation. [47] Similarly, in a stateless society, private companies and organizations would probably develop a means guaranteeing a person’s real or true identity. Such a procedure would be akin to the issuance of a surety bond, issued by a reputable insurance company. In transactions that merited the importance of such a guarantee, a “personal identity bond” might be demanded, so that in the event of one person masquerading as another, the party being deceived would have recourse to a reputable institution to recover his or her loss. Such a personal identity bond would be much like title insurance is today in real estate transactions. It would serve as a guarantee by an independent company that in the event of any legitimate and unexpected claim arising, the person defrauded would be reimbursed by the insurance company. The development on the internet of digital certificates, public key infrastructures, and private credentials represents a step toward a non-governmental means of identification. [48]

As with many of the services it provides, the State has done a poor job in the provision of birth-recording services. Undoubtedly, even in a free society there would be people who attempt to criminally pretend they are other than who they really are. However, under the existing state system, there is near total reliance on “self-identification.” So long as a person can supply a certain amount of personal information (date of birth, mother’s maiden name, father’s name, place of birth, and a legitimate address) governmental authorities will issue a duplicate birth certificate to that person. As yet, there is no relatively fool-proof system of identifying the person demanding the document with the person whose birth is recorded thereon. [49] The current government attempts to use biometrics, or even the suggestions of others to fingerprint or tattoo each newborn is a way around this impasse.

When state provision of birth and death records began there was practically no thought given to where it such government programs might lead. Jeremy Bentham, in the 1830s, was one of the earliest proponents of identifying everyone (by use of tattoos) in a given geographic jurisdiction. State involvement in vital statistics was justified on the perfectly innocent grounds of providing for the public’s health and welfare by concentrating on the causes of death. Anyone who would have taken a principled stand on this issue in the early 1900s would have been laughed down. No one could have predicted that state-issued birth certificates would have been linked to the issuance of Social Security numbers, drivers licenses, passports, and other government documents. [50]

Effective birth registration lies at the heart of the state’s governance of its people. Realizing this, governments have coercively monopolized the issuance of birth certificates by making it a criminal act for those who are responsible for a birth not to register the newborn. The classic definition of the State is that it is the only institution in society that derives its revenues from compulsory levies, known as taxation, and that it maintains a compulsory monopoly of defense services (such as the police, armed forces, and judicial system) over a given geographic area. [51] When you combine these elements with the state’s success in sustaining a monopoly over the means of identification, the stage is set for a totalitarian world. Once you grant local, state, or county government a role in identifying its citizens, there is no logical stopping place until you reach the federal level of demanding complete and total identification of each person in the United States, or in the world, if you are a supporter of world government. In fact, such demands have emanated from the United Nations, both in its 1966 call for the registration of every child at its birth, and as recently as December 2001, in an effort to reduce illegal immigration. [52]

“Therefore to oppose government enumeration is not only to oppose the government’s monopoly on the means of identification in modern society by opposing social security numbers, drivers licenses, biometric national ID cards, national databases, and other means now at the center of national controversy, but to oppose it at the most fundamental level, that of government-issued and-recorded birth and death certificates.” [53]



[1] Cressy L. Wilbur, M. D., The Federal Registration Service of the United States: Its Development, Problems, and Defects, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916, p. 8.

[2] John S. Billings, M.D., Appendix E: “The Registration of Vital Statistics,” in Annual Report of the [U.S.] National Board of Health: 1882, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1883, p. 357. John Shaw Billings (1838-1913) was Director of Vital Statistics of the United States government and a “leader of the medical profession,” who played an important role in the historical development of the tabulating machine, the early predecessor of the IBM computer. It was he who, in an 1880 discussion with Herman Hollerith, first suggested “that the laborious work of hand tabulation could be replaced by mechanical devices and by the use of a card with holes punched to represent the items.” Hollerith went on to develop one of the first successful mechanical tabulator/punch card readers for the Bureau of the Census in 1890. The Tabulating Machine Company, which Hollerith founded, eventually became the nucleus of the commercial organization renamed International Business Machine (IBM) in 1924. See “John Shaw Billings,” II Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, New York: The Macmillan Company, p. 542; James Connolly, History of Computing in Europe, IBM World Trade Corporation, circa 1967, pp. 5-6 and p. 22; and Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust, New York: Crown Publishers, 2001, p. 25.

[3] See Major P. Granville Edge, “Vital Registration in Europe: The Development of Official Statistics and Some Differences In Practice,” 91 Royal Statistical Society Journal (1928), pp. 346-393, especially pp. 354-355, and p. 375, “Appendix I. The [Compulsory] Registration of Births and Deaths.” Also see Billings, op. cit. p. 355.

[4] Robert Rene Kuczynski, “The Registration Laws in the Colonies of Massachusetts Bay and New Plymouth,” New Series 51, American Statistical Association, September 1900, p. 9. Also see Wilbur, op. cit., p. 37 and Billings, op. cit., p. 356.

[5] Wilbur, op. cit., p. 37.

[6] Generally see Richard Shryock, “The Origins and Significance of the Public Health Movement in the United States,” New Series I, Annals of Medical History, 1929, pp. 645-665. For the quotation see James H. Cassedy, DEMOGRAPHY IN EARLY AMERICA: Beginnings of the Statistical Mind, 1600-1800, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 211.

[7] Wilson G. Smillie, Public Health Administration in the United States, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947 (Third Edition), p. 13. An “English law of 1874 adopted provisions already in force in Scotland, compelling physicians to return certificates of death; … .” W. P. Prentice, Police Powers Arising Under the Law of Overruling Necessity, New York: Banks & Brothers, 1894, p. 156.

[8] cited in William J. Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth Century America, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996, p. 13.

[9] ibid., p. 14.

[10] Robert Gutman, Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts 1639 – 1900, New York: Milbank Memorial Fund, 1959, p. 24 and p. 10.

[11] ibid., p. 56 and p. 32.

[12] ibid. pp. 48-49.

[13] ibid., p. 60 and p. 63.

[14] ibid., p. 103.

[15] ibid., p. 106.

[16] ibid., p. 109.

[17] Smillie, op. cit., p. 189.

[18] Why Should Births and Deaths Be Registered?: A Summary of the History and Present Condition of Vital Statistics Law, Including the Text of the Model Bill, Chicago: Press of the American Medical Association, 1927, p. 8. Italics in the original.

[19] Wilbur, op. cit., p. 9.

[20] Billings, op. cit., p. 357.

[21] ibid.

[22] W. L. Sutton, “Appendix” to the Second Annual Report to the General Assembly of Kentucky Relating to the Registry and Returns of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, From January 1, 1852 to December 31, 1853, Legislative Document No. 1, Frankfort: A. G. Hodges, 1854, p. 136.

[23] ibid., p. 140.

[24] Billings, op. cit., p. 360.

[25] Smillie, op. cit., p. 191.

[26] Billings, op. cit. p. 364, and Raymond Pearl, Introduction to Medical Biometry and Statistics, Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, Third Edition, Revised and Enlarged, 1940, p. 54.

[27] “New York’s First Death Certificate,” The American Cemetery Magazine, November 1981, p. 22.

[28] Smillie, op. cit., pp. 525-526.

[29] Billings, op. cit., p. 365.

[30] Why Should Births and Deaths Be Registered?, op. cit., p. 3.

[31] Wilbur, op. cit., p. 17.

[32] Why Should Births and Deaths Be Registered?, op. cit., p. 3 and 9.

[33] Sec. 8, Model Law found in ibid., p. 27.

[34] ibid., Sec. 12, p. 31.

[35] ibid., Sec. 22, pp. 44-45.

[36] ibid., Sec. 22, p. 45.

<p[37] billings,=”” op.=”” cit.,=”” p.=”” 366.<=”” p=””>

[38] See Ron Hamowy, “The Early Development of Medical Licensing Laws in the United States 1875 – 1900,” delivered at the 6th Annual Libertarian Scholar’s Conference, Princeton Univ., October 1978, and which was published in 3 JOURNAL OF LIBERTARIAN STUDIES (No. 1, Spring 1979), and which can be found at http://www.libertarianstudies.org/journals/jls/pdfs/3_1/3_1_5.pdf. Also see Chapter 4, “Medical Societies and Medical Licensing,” in William G. Rothstein, American Physicians in the Nineteenth CenturyAMERICAN PHYSICIANS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972, pp. 63 – 84.

[39] Billings, op. cit., p. 366.

[40] James Rule, Douglas McAdam, Linda Stearns, and David Uglow, “Documentary Identification and Mass Surveillance in the United States,” 31 Social Problems (No. 2), December 1983, pp. 222-234 at p. 222 and p. 224.

[41] ibid., p. 224.

[42] Smillie, op. cit., p. 191.

[43] This point was made in personal correspondence from Aslam Effendi, a descendant of the Pathans in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who wrote “that in tribal society there is no bureaucratic system for recording of births” or deaths. [Email dated February 25, 2002.] Simon Cole makes a similar point in his book Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 8: “In general, premodern societies already had an effective method of personal, and criminal, identification: the network of personal acquaintance through which persons were ‘known’ in the memories and perceptions of their neighbors [and relatives].”

[44] Why Should Births and Deaths Be Registered?, op. cit., p. 1.

[45] ibid., pp. 5-6.

[46] Robert Ringer, Restoring the American Dream, New York: Published by QED, 1979, p. 134 (from Chapter 4, “The Gourmet Banquet,” in the next to the last paragraph of the Section headlined “The Fate of the ‘Poor’ In A Free Society”.

[47] See Steven L. Nock, The Costs of Privacy: Surveillance and Reputation in America, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993. Nock asks, “How are reputations established among strangers?” and then answers this question by discussing the role of credentials (“credit cards, educational degrees, driver’s licenses”) and ordeals (lie detector tests, drug tests, integrity tests”). Especially see pp. viii, 1-3, 14-15, 47-48, 51, 76-77, and 92-93.

[48] For greater elaboration see “Private Credentials,” Montreal: Zero-Knowledge Systems, Inc. (November 2000). This is a white paper available on Zero-Knowledge Systems’ website.

[49] For a discussion of this point see Rule, et. al., op. cit., p. 227.

[50] In 1998, the Social Security Administration began the “Enumeration at Birth” program, which “allows a parent to apply for an SSN for his/her newborn as part of the State’s birth registration process.” This program was started to ease enforcement of the January 1, 1998 IRS requirement that tax returns must have the Social Security number of all dependents claimed as exemptions. See U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Unique Health Identifier for Individuals: A White Paper,” at http://www.epic.org/privacy/medical/hhs-id-798.html at p. 12.

[51] For a general discussion of voluntaryism and anarchism see Carl Watner, I MUST SPEAK OUT: The Best of THE VOLUNTARYIST 1982 – 1999, San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1999. Especially see p. 24 and pp. 47 – 48.

[52] Article 24 (2) of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (General Assembly Resolution 2200A (XXI) of December 16, 1966 states that “Every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name.” On December 14, 2001, at a United Nations refugee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland it was proposed that “Every person in the world would be fingerprinted and registered under a universal identification scheme to fight illegal immigration and people smuggling … .” Maria Hawthorne, “Refugees meeting hears proposal to register every human,” at http:www/smh.com.au/breaking/2001/12/14/FFX058CU6VC.html.

[53] Thanks to Claire Wolfe for suggesting this conclusion.

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