Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Joshua B. Freeman

Committee Members

Kathleen D. McCarthy

Joshua Brown

Subject Categories

Cultural History | Labor History | Legal | Political History | Social History | United States History


Maritime history, Philanthropy, Labor legislation, Immigration legislation, World War II


This dissertation argues that merchant seamen, because of their inherent transience, diversity, and the unique nature of their work, occupied a marginal position in U.S. society, and that that marginalization produced a series of confrontations with shoreside people, communities, institutions, and the state, most specifically over the nature and definition of citizenship. This argument is developed through examination of a series of encounters and negotiations that merchant seamen provoked from the piers, back alleys, and boardinghouses of the nation’s “sailortowns” from the 1830s through World War II, including: 1) nineteenth century maritime ministry projects in the Port of New York that originated during the 1830s, in which merchant seamen and evangelical reformers confronted each other within Manhattan’s lower wards and engaged in contestations over sailors’ liberty, mobility, and masculinity; 2) the 1897 U.S. Supreme Court case Robertson v. Baldwin, in which four merchant seamen argued that their imprisonment as punishment for breaking contract through desertion constituted a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment; 3) an analysis of the 1915 Seamen’s Act that focuses on the outbreak of industrial maritime labor unionism in New York that sparked a national reckoning with seamen’s rights following the Titanic disaster; 4) a tour of the “million dollar home for sailors” at 25 South Street in lower Manhattan, and an analysis of the ideological and economic motivations behind the war that the Seamen’s Church Institute waged on the city’s sailortown and its indigenous economies from 1913-1945; and, 5) an examination of the “alien seamen problem” that became a national political issue during the 1920s, emerging alongside restrictive and exclusionary immigration legislation from 1917-1936, and the alien seamen immigration raids that took place in New York in 1931.

The dissertation concludes by addressing the question of how merchant seamen responded to the Great Depression through the lens of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, which empowered the federal government to impose unprecedented regulation and control over the U.S. merchant marine and its labor pool. The narrative ends with the coming of World War II, in which merchant seamen, acting as civilians recruited for work transporting war cargo through combat zones, suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the armed services and yet were excluded from postwar benefits despite the extent of their sacrifices.

Merchant seamen, because of their persistent transience, “bluewater masculinity,” and extreme multiculturalism, have always been perceived as inherently alien, and therefore have constantly posed challenges to the boundaries of U.S. citizenship. In response, attempts by both civil society and the state to counter these challenges have consistently attempted to marginalize and exclude merchant seamen from the full protections and rights of citizenship. These competing forces anchor an argument for a history of merchant seamen that locates them at a vanguard position in the history of U.S. citizenship, lending new perspective to the role that merchant seamen played in U.S. history; not just during the “Age of Sail,” to which historians have given ample attention, but through late nineteenth and twentieth century histories of philanthropy, law, labor, immigration, and war.