GLEN COVE, NY — Writer and Cartoonist James Thurber
(1894-1961) lived in Paris from 1918 to 1920 and again from 1922 to
1925. He amused himself by reading French Western novels. In one such
novel, someone comes up to the sheriff and says that two strangers
just rode into town. The sheriff responds that he will check their
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
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
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.
In the movie, The Treasure of the
Sierra Madre, Gold
Hat says, “Badges?
We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have
to show you any stinkin’ badges.” This is usually shortened and paraphrased
as, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” The American
people should tell Congress, “We don’t need no stinkin’ photo
IDs” and begin to break the totalitarian controls of the government
over the citizen. Then once again a stranger will be able to ride into
a Western town and not tell anyone what his past was, or even what
his real name is.
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.
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