The concept of a passport has ancient origins. Documents were put together to grant safe passage from one country to another. Since travel between countries was so rare, the documents had limited value.
It was Benjamin Franklin who created something like what we would call a passport today. When a Congressman and his servant needed to travel from France to Holland, Franklin used his printing press to print a single-page document which he signed and sealed asking permission for travel between countries. Little did Franklin know of what the future of that “passe-port” would be.
For the first half of the 19th century, passports remained a rarity. Only a few hundred were issued each year. There was no standard for who could issue them so Governors and mayors, in addition to the State Department, would provide travelers with passports. Nor was there a standard that a passport would apply to only one person. Families and traveling parties could be accommodated by one passport.
It was the Immigration Acts of the 1920s that formalized passport practices. The passport essentially became paper-based border security. The State Department became the only issuing authority. The appearance was also formalized. Also, identifying information was added to ensure that the person presenting the passport was in fact the right person.
At first, the standardization of the passport was strongly resisted. The elite class of American society did not feel that they should have to abide by the rules as did those of lower classes. It was a sign of the change in society. No longer would a person’s character and reputation be sufficient to vouch for their worthiness. A government-issued document was now necessary.
A passport was also a document of belonging for those whose citizenship might otherwise be questioned. It was the only thing that established a person’s identity as a U.S. citizen since the U.S. had no national identification card. Other forms of identification such as a driver’s license and a social security card can be acquired by non-citizens.
While the use of passports continues to grow in the U.S. less than half of the population has one. With the rise of cyber security issues, could the passport become the next source of identity theft? Perhaps there is a new beginning needed for authorization to cross from one country to another.
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“Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo.” – Al Gore