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This term was - and still occasionally is - used to signify the security given by authority of a government to a stranger for his quietly coming into and passing out of the territories over which said government has jurisdiction or control. A safe-conduct differs from a passport because the former is usually given to enemies and the latter to friends, neutrals or citizens.
A passport or permission from a neutral state to persons who are thus authorized to go and return in safety and sometimes to carry away certain things in safety. According to common usage the term passport is employed on ordinary occasions for the permission given to persons when there is no reason why they should not go where they please, while safe-conduct is the name given to the instrument which authorizes certain persons, such as enemies, to go into places where they could not go without danger unless thus authorized by the government.
A safe-conduct was also the name of an instrument given to the captain or master of a ship to proceed on a particular voyage, and usually contained his name and residence, the name, description and destination of the ship, and such other matters as the practice of the place required. This document was indispensably necessary for the safety of every neutral ship.
A 1790 act of Congress punished the violation of any safe-conduct or passport granted under the authority of the United States with imprisonment not exceeding three years and a fine at the discretion of the court.