Of course, the idea of Liberty Valence or Shane reaching into his saddle bag and pulling out an identification card is hilarious to Americans. Think how much funnier this would have sounded to an American in Paris in the 1920s. Only a tiny minority of Americans had any kind of identification card, but all French had them and were required to show them to the police on demand; a number of European police states were following the lead of France.
The French police state is rooted in French history. During the French Reign of Terror (1793-94), which was the prototype for the 20th-century police state, a simple permission to live in a city sometimes required the signatures of half a dozen government officials. The use of the concierge in an apartment house as a police spy is rooted in the same tradition. Daily reports to the police of where everybody in town slept are part of the legacy of the French Revolution. The official identification card was a natural development in France and in the totalitarian, authoritarian, and bureaucratic states that surrounded it.
The American tradition was the opposite of the French one. The West has had a powerful grip on the American imagination since the end of the War Between the States. The West was a place where people came from the East, did not talk about their past, and were not asked about it. The mistakes of their earlier lives did not follow them once they crossed the Mississippi. They may have even changed their names. They were still coming to the West in the 1920s. No sheriff would have carded them even if it had been possible.
The American passport had gradually evolved into a form of identification, but it was used for this almost exclusively when traveling abroad, especially in police states. Very few Americans had passports in the 1920s.
Until the 1940s, one could get a mail-order driver’s license. The last state to require drivers’ licenses did not do so until 1954. Photographs on drivers’ licenses were gradually required mostly in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Until quite recently, one could fly on a ticket issued to someone else or under an assumed name.
The practice of checking the identification of hotel guests at registration has long been in existence in Europe. In the last decade, this intrusive practice spread to America.
Fifty years ago only a small minority of Americans possessed identification cards with their photographs on them. Today it is quite common for Americans to have and need at least three: a passport, a driver’s license, and some kind of work or professional card. Today, Raleigh, North Carolina, even requires beggars to carry photo identification cards. We have caught up with France, with the Fascists, and with the Communists in practice if not in an actual law requiring a national identity card.
Some will object that in today’s world we need high-tech photo identification cards. We weathered Nazi sabotage attempts in World War II, Communist infiltration of the State Department, and theft of our nuclear secrets without requiring identification of the average citizen. When banks used to cash checks for strangers without identification, they suffered few losses because of it. There is no reason that our present dangers require subjecting our citizens to police-state instruments like personal identification cards.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.