Slavery and National ID: A Portent of Things to Come?


By Carl Watner


Jim Fussell, in a review of “group classification on National ID cards” observed that in the pre-Civil War United States “‘Free Passes’, Freedom papers, and Deeds of manumission” functioned as ID’s for the freed Negro. [1] This observation sparked my interest in the relationship between national ID and the history of slavery, and it is these two subjects which I would briefly like to comment upon in this paper.

The whole basis of chattel slavery, as it was known in the South, was the ownership of one person by another. Although some Negroes owned other blacks, for the most part slavery in the United States before the Civil War was largely along racial lines: white ownership of black people. All Negroes were presumed to be slaves, unless they could prove otherwise. The burden of proof was on the Negro. People with white skin never had to prove to anyone that they were free. In other words, the presumption was that if your skin was black, you were considered prima facie a slave, or else a runaway, or fugitive. The only way of proving that you were a free person was to show your deed of manumission (under which your owner had freed you), or some sort of certificate of freedom (often issued by the clerk of a county court) attesting to your free status.

Nearly all of the Southern states and several of the Northern states had laws which reflected this presumption. Slaves were not to leave their owner’s land unless they had permission. In Connecticut, “[a]ny slave found wandering about without a pass was to be arrested as a runaway. Pennsylvania forbade blacks to travel more than ten miles from home without a pass … . Philadelphia directed its constables to arrest Negroes found in the streets on Sunday unless they had a pass from their owners.”[2] Laws were often passed requiring all free blacks to register with local officials, in and some cases to post bond for their good behavior, and to ensure they would not become a charge upon the community. The District of Columbia had a particularly egregious ordinance passed on April 14, 1821 (effective June 1, 1821). It required all free blacks in the city to register annually with the Mayor and

to enter into bond with one good and responsible free white citizen, as surety, in the penalty of twenty dollars, conditioned for the good, sober, and orderly conduct of such person or persons of color, and his or her family, for the term of one year following the date of such bond, and that such person or persons, his or her family, nor any part thereof, shall not, during the said term of one year, become chargeable to the Corporation in any manner whatsoever, and that they will not become beggars in or about the streets. Only after the bond was posted would the mayor issue a license to permit such free blacks to reside in the city for one year. … [F]ree Negroes were not permitted to change their places of residence until after such changes had been entered on their licenses by the registrar.” [3] Similar regulations existed in such cities as Nashville, TN., Montgomery, AL., Baton Rogue, LA., Raleigh, NC., and Petersburg, VA. [4]

As I have pointed out in other articles for this anthology, the whole premise of National ID is that the government owns the citizen, and must provide the citizenry with identification, beginning with a state-issued birth certificate. In principle, this is just the same as it was during the time of American slavery. Every Negro was presumed a slave unless the government (or his master, actually ex-master) documented that he was a free person. If a freed Negro lost his “papers,” then he was automatically considered a slave. If a Negro wanted to assert his natural born freedom, including the right not to carry government papers, his existence could be quite perilous, just as it would be to an American today who refused to carry government papers proving his or her identity.

It is next to impossible to function in our statist economy without a birth certificate, a drivers license, or a social security number issued by the government. If a person should try to operate in such a manner, he or she will surely eventually be apprehended by the authorities for “failing to register one’s birth,” for “driving without a license,” or for “failing to provide a social security number.” If, and when, a national or state ID program is implemented in the United States, the situation will be worse, because then it will undoubtedly become a crime to “fail to register” and “fail to carry one’s state or federal ID card on one’s person at all times.”

Despite the danger to themselves, historians point out that many free Negroes refused to comply with the numerous municipal registration codes or the demand that they carry papers. “Many simply never bothered to register,” “probably few carried freedom papers,” and most instinctively preferred to avoid white officials. [5] “In 1853, St. Louis [MO.] authorities attempted to chase alien free Negroes out of the city and to force native free Negroes to register. Police raided well-known free Negro haunts, whipped unregistered freemen, and shipped them beyond city limits. … The raids continued for almost a year, although they ended in failure.” [6] Negroes in Virginia were no more compliant. “In Amelia County. Virginia, for example, a consecutively numbered register of free Negroes kept between 1800 and 1865 listed about 150 freemen. In 1860, however, almost 200 resided in the county and many more had been born, had been manumitted, and had migrated into and out of the area during those years.” [7]

Are the colored freemen of the 19th Century trying to tell us Americans of the 21st Century something that we might do? It is surely food for thought. [8]


[1] Jim Fussell, “Global Survey (Jo to Vi) of Group Classification on National ID Cards, at See “USA (Pre-Civil War).

[2] Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage In The North (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press), 1973, p. 73 and p. 74.

[3] Leonard P. Curry. The Free Black In Urban America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 1981, p. 86 and p. 301 (footnote 17) citing Washington, City Council, Laws of The Corporation of the City of Washington [1821] (Washington: Way and Gideon) 1821, pp. 110-111. The complete law is found at Chapter 133 of Laws Passed by the Eighteenth Council of the City of Washington, Approved April 14, 1821, Sections 1 -21 (pp. 109-116). Secs. 11 and 12 (pp. 113-114) deal with change of residence regulations.

[4] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press paperback) 1981, pp. 319.

[5] ibid., p. 327.

[6] ibid., p. 330.

[7] ibid., p. 328. By the time of the Civil War there was a large number of free Negroes in the United States. “There were 59,000 free Negroes in the United States at the time of the first decennial census in 1790. … By [1860] the number had climbed to 488,000, … .” Over 40% of them lived in the South. John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., Free Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Fortieth Anniversary Edition), 1988, p. 137.

[8] What might we ask are the supposed benefits of government identification and documentation? Among other things it appears that our income can be traced and taxed; our children can be tracked from birth and forced to attend public schools; and our ages and the ages of our children can be known so that all of us might be subject to the military draft in time of war.

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