Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution
The American Revolution was a turbulent time that forever changed the history of the world, and its impacts were far-reaching. While history tends to focus on the experiences of colonists—as both loyalists and patriots—and the British military during the Revolution, scholarship mostly overlooks how sailors and mariners navigated this tumultuous era to gain international recognition as Americans. Nathan Perl-Rosenthal seeks to offer insight into this unique struggle of American seaman piloting global waters in order to provide their fledgling nation with much needed goods, commerce, and international connections. Perl-Rosenthal argues that American seaman held an integral role in shaping the understanding of citizenship in the United States of America and in its role as a sovereign nation that needed to defend these citizens abroad. He elucidates that early American citizenship was highly inclusive as the nation sought to secure American maritime crews composed of men from all regions, classes, and—somewhat surprisingly—races. This broad inclusivity of citizenship was meant to protect Americans at sea from imprisonment or impressment while in foreign waters or ports. However, citizenship could be difficult to prove at times, and foreign nations would do everything possible to discredit claims of American citizenship. He also clearly and effectively portrays the complicated nature of citizenship, especially in a newly formed nation that is undergoing political changes.
Perl-Rosenthal makes extensive use of a myriad of sources in order to illustrate a complete picture of the American mariner’s struggle of national identity. He travelled the globe collecting sources in order to truly understand the trials and tribulations of American seaman before, during, and after the Revolution. In addition, his international scholarship incorporates the viewpoints of various nations on American sailors. These sources include naval and government records, sailors’ personal accounts, and merchant ship logs, found at the Archives Nationales in France as well as records in England and North American sites. Perl-Rosenthal deftly constructs these fragmented and unorganized personal accounts of American sailors, who travelled to far-flung ports, into a cohesive, insightful description of the struggles of American citizens at sea who had to prove their identity in order to avoid impressment at the hands of a foreign nation.
Citizen Sailors is masterfully written in a narrative style that is suitable for the public as well as academics in the field. Perl-Rosenthal currently teaches as an Assistant Professor of Early American and Atlantic History at the University of Southern California with an emphasis on political history. Overall, Perl-Rosenthal succeeds in supporting his argument that American sailors were instrumental in the development of a diverse national model of citizenship, which was more inclusive than the definition of citizenship at later points throughout American history. The success of his argument resides in the use of numerous primary sources and the inclusion of illustrations that allow the reader to step back in time.
- Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015
- 6” x 9”, hardcover, 372 pages
- Illustrations, maps, appendix, notes, index. $29.95
- ISBN: 9780674286153
Reviewed by Elise Twohy, East Carolina University