The Birth Certificate

An American History

By Susan J. Pearson

388 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7933-4
    Published: February 2024
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6570-2
    Published: October 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6161-0
    Published: October 2021

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Awards & distinctions

2022 The Order of the Coif Book Award, The Order of the Coif

For many Americans, the birth certificate is a mundane piece of paper, unearthed from deep storage when applying for a driver’s license, verifying information for new employers, or claiming state and federal benefits. Yet as Donald Trump and his fellow “birthers” reminded us when they claimed that Barack Obama wasn’t an American citizen, it plays a central role in determining identity and citizenship.

In The Birth Certificate: An American History, award-winning historian Susan J. Pearson traces the document’s two-hundred-year history to explain when, how, and why birth certificates came to matter so much in the United States. Deftly weaving together social, political, and legal history, The Birth Certificate is a fascinating biography of a piece of paper that grounds our understanding of how those who live in the United States are considered Americans.

About the Author

Susan J. Pearson is associate professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America.

For more information about Susan J. Pearson, visit the Author Page.


"Absorbing...An accessible, lively study of how a now-standard record came about."—Kirkus Reviews

"This impeccable and captivating work of historical scholarship will appeal to any historian of the postbellum United States, but particularly to social historians, intellectual historians, and historians of science and technology.... In The Birth Certificate, Pearson brilliantly weaves together a variety of archival sources to elucidate the intersection between lived experience, state bureaucracy, and systems of epistemic authority."—Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Richly researched, beautifully written.... [A] crucial historical analysis of the vital bureaucratic document that establishes American identity." —American Journal of Legal History

"A crucial contribution to the study of age as a category of analysis.... Pearson's work will be thought provoking for scholars and students alike."—Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

"An exceedingly fine book, deeply and impressively researched, excavating a story that modern American historians simply did not know until now.... The scholarship is stellar: both thorough and thoroughly digested. And Pearson's discoveries about the part the birth certificate has played in American political, social, and organizational life are stunning."—Sarah E. Igo, author of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

"This is an engaging and original book, interweaving social and political history to tell the story of a small document with a big impact on American life. What really stands out is the discussion of race—and how birth registration was not a neutral policy but one used to enforce the racial caste system in the U.S. for both African Americans and Native Americans."—Lynn Weiner, author of From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820–1980