Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California. This interview is based on his new book, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Citizen Sailors?
NP: Unusually for a first book, Citizen Sailors did not start out as a dissertation. I had the inklings of the idea for it while reading R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution way back in college. A footnote to a discussion about connections between the American and French Revolutions got me wondering what role sailors might have played in that story. It took me more than ten years, dozens of visits to archives and a whole bunch of writing to eventually work out the story that I had to tell about mariners in the revolutionary era, which became Citizen Sailors.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Citizen Sailors?
NP: Citizen Sailors shows how mariners, as trans-national actors, became central to forging the idea of American citizenship during the four decades after the United States declared its independence in 1776. It argues that sailors helped to create a precociously modern model of nationality in the early republic—nationally administered, instantiated in paper citizenship certificates, and available to men of all races—that for a time challenged the forms of local and racialized citizenship with which we are more familiar in the nineteenth century.
JF: Why do we need to read Citizen Sailors?
NP: You don’t need to, but I hope you will want to. I wrote the book in dialogue with a number of fields: the history of the American Revolution, maritime history, the history of citizenship, and Atlantic studies. So if you are interested in any of those areas, Citizen Sailors has something to say to you. In its most basic sense, this book offers a new account of the long struggle for American independence with unfamiliar protagonists at its heart and an unusual trajectory. Citizen Sailors is part of a new scholarship that sees the formation of a sovereign American state as among the most important outcomes of the American Revolution. The book shows how mariners were at the center of the struggle over American sovereignty in the decades after 1776 and were crucial to the United States’ efforts to define individuals as American citizens—or, in other words, to define a new political community. The United States made itself into an independent nation in good measure by making mariners into American citizens, and protecting those to whom that status had been extended.
At the same time, Citizen Sailors offers the first transnational history of early U.S. citizenship, showing how foreign notions about nationality and international pressures shaped American ideas about citizenship circa 1776 to 1815. Early American ideas about citizenship developed as much in dialogue with the wider world, I argue, as they did within the confines of the new nation’s borders. The book also shows, in line with a growing body of scholarship more focused on institution-building, that citizenship in the early Republic was a federal issue—indeed, that the federal government went out of its way to claim and defend seafaring U.S. citizens. In so doing, it offers a new way of thinking about why sailors mattered in early modern history: not only as central players in protest movements and merchant capitalism but also as co-creators of the modern state.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
NP: Some very wonderful high school teachers engaged me in studying American history, but it wasn’t until my second year of college that I seriously considered it as a career. (Until then, I thought I was going to be a biologist.) History as a discipline promised a wonderful marriage of the creative process—forming conjectures about the past and writing about it—with the rigors of assembling documentary evidence and testing hypotheses against it. After my first time in an archive, I was hooked on that work and the thrills of discovery that you can have in there.
JF: What is your next project?
NP: My next project will be a wide-angle cultural history of politics in the age of revolution, circa 1760 to 1815, which will be related to my dissertation but with a different conceptual framework and a good deal of new research.
JF: Thanks, Nathan!