Nehemiah and the world’s first passport

Written by Andrew Henderson

Dateline: Tbilisi, Georgia

Nehemiah had a unique role in history. The Bible recounts his story: as a high-ranking royal cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, his service was well established. However, when he heard that the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down, he requested to be sent back to rebuild them.

Nehemiah was indeed sent by Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. In fact, he accomplished the feat in just fifty-two days as governor of the province of Judah.

However, what makes Nehemiah so unique from the Nomad Capitalist perspective is that he was the holder of the world’s very first passport.

Back in those days, passports were of a different nature. Rather than functioning as a document that determined whether a person could leave their country, they were requests from one king to the next soliciting safe passage for the individual in question through the foreign territory.

Nehemiah received papers from his king requesting “governors of the province beyond the river” to grant him safe passage.

This letter, known as Safe Conduct, was the beginning of a tradition extending across centuries. Through Safe Conduct, nobles and governments prepared their people for overland and overseas travel.

Eventually, this practice found its way into the law books of fifteenth-century England. In 1414, the British Parliament codified Safe Conduct, allowing Henry V to issue such documents to anyone he wished. Foreign nationals got their documents free of charge, while Brits had to pay.

From Safe Conduct to limiting freedom of movement

So how did Safe Conduct become the modern passport? The term “passport” originates from the ability to pass through a city’s gates (“portes”) or to enter from “ports” of sea. They were documents allowing entry. No one would have needed one to re-enter their own country.

But as subjects traveled outside of their kingdoms, governments found a new way to enforce their whims. In the medieval Islamic world, papers were issued to travelers who had shown “loyalty” to the kingdom and paid their taxes. Thus begun the limitations on freedom of movement.

When Oliver Cromwell dethroned Charles in 1640’s Britain, he took advantage of the deposed ruler’s new passport issuing system and imposed the Ye Olde version of a No Fly List. Quite simply, he decreed that no passport be issued to citizens until they promised not to “aid, assist, advise, or counsel against the Commonwealth”. Those not loyal to his reign were kept cooped up.

By the 1700s, Russia’s Peter the Great had caught on to the act. Seeing the possibilities that passports offered, he used them to enforce tax compliance and military service. If you didn’t fall in line, you didn’t get a passport.

The hamster wheel of Big Government spun faster looking for new ways to use the modern passport to control their citizens. Even so, the long-distance travel that required such a document was still reserved to the wealthy. Travel by ship was slow and tedious. Overland travel was just as dangerous. But the invention of the railroad changed it all.

The calm before the storm

Once rail travel became possible, more and more people traveled. New rail lines crisscrossed national borders, especially in Europe. The French were the first to raise the white flag and declare that trying to issue passports to every train-riding citizen was pointless.

Many European countries followed suit and abolished the passport. They were happy to let their citizens travel as they wished. The cumbersome bureaucracy that came with doing otherwise was difficult to manage.

Ironically, the few countries that required passports did so for use largely within their own borders. Russia and the Ottoman Empire used them to keep tabs on their own citizens. It was a move the rest of the world considered “backward” at the time.

Unfortunately, this win for freedom would not last. As World War I started, European countries were desperate to keep their citizens in check. Under the cover of “keeping out spies” (boy did it stop them), a new level of government control was required.

In Britain, the government passed a new law requiring the issuance of single-page passports, complete with facial descriptions that Brits regarded as “nasty” and “dehumanizing”. But dehumanized they would be.

At the League of Nations, the world’s leaders forever carved out their right to control the movement of their citizens.

A modern-day government tool

Today, governments are well aware of how to control their own citizens through passports. What was once an expedient thing to have has become an albatross. Your citizenship and passport have become tools owned and utilized by your government to control you.

In our modern, “civilized” world, governments use passports to enforce a litany of restrictions. Owe a few bucks to the IRS? You can’t get a passport. Owe child support? No passport for you. Have a drug or sex crime in your past? Sorry, thanks for playing.

Somehow, we’ve managed to go backward over the last 2,500 years. The governments of the world have colluded to keep you from leaving your country if the government happens to decides they don’t want you to leave. You have to seek permission just to pack up and go.

Simply trying to get a passport in the US is an ordeal. When I had to add pages to mine, they made me sign away an endless number of rights, including my right to keep any of my own information private — even from businesses.

Passport freedom and citizenship insurance

While many see their passport as a symbol of freedom, in many ways it is exactly the opposite. When your government has sole veto power over your ability to leave its grasp, you don’t really have true freedom.

Do you trust a corrupt group of bureaucrats who think they can win the “War on Drugs” to give you freedom? Of course, they trust the system. In their infinite wisdom, they’ve already decided that some kid who smoked a few joints back in college shouldn’t be allowed to hop on a flight to Europe. Do you see the potential for a huge slippery slope?

In Nazi Germany, the ruling party used any excuse they could find to strip Jews of their passports. Civil wars on almost every continent made some citizens’ passports worthless scraps of paper by the time they were over.

In places like “wealthy” Brunei, some people have family ties going back generations, yet they can’t get citizenship — or a passport — because of nationality laws that make it near impossible. Other countries have shut down certain citizens’ access to citizenship or a passport, condemning them to a life without travel freedom.

Meanwhile, in the name of governments’ favorite safe word, many politicians are passing laws that make it easier to confiscate your passport.

In a day and age when passports are documents of government control rather than documents of goodwill like in the times of Nehemiah and the world’s first passport, you must take steps to protect yourself.

Having a second passport is the first step in taking back the power and enhancing your travel options. I call it “citizenship insurance” against an irrational government whose next move can never quite be predicted. No little book can keep you truly safe.

In the end, understanding this historical decline of freedom could just save your life.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Dec 26, 2019 at 10:39PM

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1 Comment

  1. PeacefulLife

    We all need passports as many of your readers travel. I have 3 citizenships and if one country dicks me over, I can always leave it with my other passport. I’m not a sole citizen of any country and this is the wonderful part of having 2-3 citizenships.


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