The Revolutionary Roots of Modern ID Cards

By Jose Ragas

It is hard to imagine that modern-day identity or ID cards owe their form to revolutionary events, which transpired two centuries ago. During upheavals against Ancien Regime colonial powers, revolutionary leaders implemented internal passports as mandatory documents for those who sought to move within disputed territories. Eventually, internal passports evolved into more sophisticated and enduring proof of personal identity -identity cards, driver’s licenses, modern biometric passports, badges, and even hybrid forms, such as bank-sponsored ID cards used in some developing countries. Despite their changing form and materiality, their original objective has remained the same over time – to act as an instrument of authentication for  civil society. Internal passports represented a technological revolution of their own.

Page of an internal passport.

Internal passports became crucial in the development of the state-citizen relationship. Whether we focus on the Wars of Independence between the United States and the British or South America against the Spanish Empire, or the French and Soviet revolutions against the vestiges of their respective Ancien Regimes, internal passports emerge as ubiquitous tools of governance in nascent republics or socialist countries. In what follows, I will explain two salient aspects of internal passports that endure today —IDs are both personal documents, and key components in the evolution of biometric technologies. Though recent scholarship has unearthed various aspects of internal passports in the aforementioned scenarios, I aim to provide a tentative global framework in my current book project, which focuses on their material design, their extraordinary capacity to capture personal information, and their modern malleability.

It is also important to recall that unlike our laminated ID cards, internal passports were incipient artifacts, often manufactured with limited supplies and in adverse conditions. Sometimes, like in South America, internal passports were ephemeral, one-time-use documents to be discarded at the end of one’s journey. In other cases, like in the Soviet Union, they were used for longer periods. Since they contained sensitive information that should be protected, they thus emerged in close connection to the citizens they represented. Foucault might have viewed internal passports as a single mechanism in the panopticon of the state. Though this aspect has barely been analyzed, some evidence suggests that these artifacts acquired special status, being simultaneously revered and feared. As these documents became more complex and included additional markers, bearers may have felt that the chances of concealing their identities were rapidly vanishing. Whereas in a face-to-face society, personal identities were more fluid and people had more chances to disguise themselves before authorities — to blend into the community — written, individualized records like passports seemed to reduce communal dissimulation. Faced with a new system that fixated on personal identification, bearers manipulated the information on these documents. Thus began a material, symbolic, and contested relationship between citizens and documents that would prevail to the modern day.

Page of an internal passport.

Furthermore, internal passports contained the foundations of what we call “biometrics” today. Long before the sophisticated machines that authenticate our identities via our fingerprints or retinas, authorities had to manually register on paper the applicant’s physical markers and features in order to authenticate their identities at their final destinations. In a time before cameras and mug shots, authorities had to recognize passport holders based on the description recorded in the document. French passports in 1845 included up to 11 signalements or features (hair, eyes, height, beard, etc.) that had to precisely describe the person for whom the passport would serve. Peruvian passports (like the one above), on the other hand, demanded less information, limiting the requirement to only five features, whereas its Colombian counterparts only required the applicant’s name on passport paper. Written descriptions of peoples’ bodies forced clerks and officers to develop a code that could simplify the number of categories while being as precise as possible. Photographs and fingerprints made this description obsolete. Perhaps, the most important effect of the invention of passports is their effect on collective identities —and even the erosion of such identities.

By the time revolutions settled, governments had created masses of documented citizens. Internal passports act as a lens through which one can explore the multi-level transformations of state processes around the globe at both personal and institutional levels. Governments developed ambitious infrastructures designed to extract, organize, and exchange personal information about other citizens. Along the way, they improved their ability to capture data from people’s bodies. From a user’s perspective, the experience with internal artifacts was ambiguous: their possession somehow secured transit in difficult times, but it was at the expense of personal freedom. Nevertheless, they did not have an option but to adapt to new techno-political regimes represented by these pieces of paper.

The history of internal passports is certainly a fascinating one. Yet we still need to know more about the personal experiences of those who issued, applied, and even forged internal passports in a desperate effort to circumvent the official circuits of regulated mobility and control. How can we interrogate these inert pieces of paper that reside in the archives? What can they tell us about their bearers and producers? These are only a few of the many questions we can use to assess the legacy of these printed artifacts, and to know the extent of their influence that still haunts us today.

José Ragas is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His current project investigates the transnational circulation of biometrics and other technologies of biometrics during the long Cold War. You can reach email him at or tweet him @joseragas

Title image: Seal used on passport issued during the French Revolution.

Further Reading

About, Ilsen & Vincent Denis. Histoire de l’identification des personnes (Paris: La Découverte, 2010).

Gessen, Masha. “Passport for Life,” The New York Times (January 16, 2012).

Huffman, John Michael. “Americans on Paper: Identity and Identification in the American Revolution,” Ph.D. diss. Harvard University (2013).

Kessler, Gijs. “The passport system and state control over population flows in the Soviet Union, 1932-1940,” Cahiers du Monde Russe 42.2 3-4 (2001): 477-504.

Noiriel, Gerard. Histoire de la carte nationale d’identité (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004).

Ragas, Jose. “Documenting Hierarchies. State Building, Identification, and Citizenship in Modern Peru,” Ph.D. diss. University of California, Davis (2015).

Shearer, David. “Elements Near and Alien: Passportization, Policing, and Identity in the Stalinist State, 1932-1952,” The Journal of Modern History 76 (2004): 835-881.

Torpey, John. The Invention of the Passport. Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

One thought on “The Revolutionary Roots of Modern ID Cards

  1. Thanks for this piece. I would add that it wasn’t just revolutionary regimes that made use of passports, but counterrevolutionary ones, as well; German states like Prussia were particularly concerned with policing their complex internal and external borders against agitators in the nineteenth century, meaning much intra-German travel required passport use. In this way, you could still see the roots of passports in the revolutionary age – but not only among revolutionaries.


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