Smuggler Nation

Another retro review, this one from January 14, 2013, and it’s being posted because of its relevance to a book I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Review: Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, Peter Andreas, 2013.Smuggler Nation

Condoms and cotton, salt and slaves, blueprints and booze, molasses and marijuana, Americans and their colonial predecessors have smuggled them all.

What exactly do we mean by smuggling? Simply, it’s illegally avoiding taxes, regulations, or outright prohibitions when moving goods and people across a political border. And Andreas writes a clear, entertaining, jargon-free history making his case that smuggling did, indeed, make America from its beginnings in a tax revolt, its acquisitions of land, and its development into something like a surveillance state.

Andreas’ chronological history begins with molasses and how New England rum distilleries obviously used way more molasses than they were legally importing from other British colonies. But molasses wasn’t the only good smuggled into the colonies. There were brandies from France and clothing, gunpowder, coffee, and chocolate from Holland, a torrent of illegal goods that, incidentally, generated enough income from illegal trade for colonists to buy legal British manufactured goods. As he does throughout the book, Andreas doesn’t just throw out stats but also quotes contemporary sources about all this smuggling or, as one New Englander put it, “this Trade So very pernicious to the British Nation”. That became a literally treasonous trade during the French and the Indian War when American smugglers selling to France prolonged combat in the North American sector of the war. (It was not the last time Americans would, in the middle of a war, sell to their enemies exhibiting, depending on your predisposition, risky pragmatism or a tendency to put selfish economic gain over national interest.) Attempts to recoup its war expenses from its American colonists – and reform customs enforcement – precipitated a civil war in the British Empire – the American Revolution.

Andreas views the American Revolution from the interesting parallax of a war against smuggling. British tea undercut tea supplied by local smugglers so the reaction was the Boston Tea Party.  John Hancock, a wealthy smuggler unsuccessfully prosecuted, was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. Clandestine trading kept the Revolutionary Army supplied – but plenty of colonists traded with the enemy regardless of their stated political positions, a pernicious trade noted by George Washington.

“Taxation without Representation” was the battle cry of the Revolution but many of the smugglers, including John Brown – one of the founders of Brown University — an archetypal figure for Andreas, didn’t much like taxation with representation either. The tariffs so many evaded were basically the sole support for the young nation.  British military operations in the War of 1812 were aided greatly by American smugglers. And America’s greatest (if irrelevant) victory in the war, the Battle of New Orleans, prominently featured smuggler Jean Laffite (after his smuggling base had been destroyed by the American military and he refused overtures from the British).

Andreas has something of a general insouciant, a “seen it all before”, people-want-what- they-want tone throughout the book. Part of that may be just an academic necessity to dispassionately look at government policy and the responses to it. I don’t really think he morally equates the slave smuggling that took place after the constitutional ban went into effect in 1808 (actually there were numerous restrictions placed on the American slave trade before that) with the smuggling of condoms to evade general tariffs. But I took away different lessons than perhaps Andreas, who seems rather libertarian in his notions of not restricting the movement of goods and people across borders, intended.

The American effort, semi-official in that it was encouraged, if not directly funded by various Presidential administration, to steal British patents, skilled workers (from 1749 to 1824 various laws existed restricting the emigration of skilled labor from Britain), and actual technology was successful in developing American industrially. It was part of a plan by Alexander Hamilton, who favored tariffs, of building a strong economy and supplanting the British. And it worked eventually. One could perhaps consider that when looking at Chinese-American trade today.

In a chapter on the benefits (at least for whites) of smuggling liquor to Indians, Andreas talks about how some Indian leaders, certainly recognizing their race’s peculiar susceptibility to alcohol’s downsides, asked that liquor not be sold to Indians. The idea that members of a race might ask to, in effect, be protected from themselves would seem peculiar to us today with ideas of non-discrimination and a disdain for “paternalism”. Yet, I would add that this conflict was played out as recently as two weeks ago on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

In regards to the tariffs that financed America through most of the 19th Century, Andreas talks about the many attempts at evasion at all social levels and the corruption of the revenue service. However, does our Internal (as opposed to taxes paid at a point of entry into the country) Revenue Service and the mass of laws it is expected to enforce really seem a great substitute for tariffs despite their administrative problems?

Human trafficking is a big part of this book whether its slaves or British mechanics or “white slaves” or illegal immigrants. In a chapter on illegal Chinese immigration, we are told of the horrors of exploitation and discrimination faced by them in America. Yet, like illegal immigrants today, they often paid large amounts of money to be sent to a land that treated them badly. It all seems very irrational and stupid – unless, of course, you consider the self-smuggling immigrant has made the calculation it was worth it.  Andreas does a nice job of documenting how illegal entry methods and points varied for Chinese immigrants through the years. But it’s also fairly clear, if not explicit, that Andreas really sees nothing wrong with unrestricted immigration though he also notes America has never had a completely open door to immigration.

There are, of course, many chapters on the war on drugs which has been going on for a century in America. In typical modern moral logic, we are automatically invited to see the various efforts in this war with suspicion because they started out with the contention that certain minorities exhibited bad behavior because of a certain drug. We’re not really given any evidence one way or another about the actual truth of these charges, but in an age which places anti-discrimination before anything else, we are simply to regard anything smacking of “profiling” as illegitimate, illogical, and immoral. To be fair, Andreas does note that Prohibition did seem to curb actual alcohol consumption.

One of the important contributions Andreas makes is showing how anti-smuggling efforts created greater centralization of Federal authority.  It started with the increase in revenue cutters to enforce Thomas Jefferson’s total embargo of American commerce with other countries in 1807-1809 and really accelerated with the war on drugs. Those efforts created greater use of the military, increased surveillance, and new laws to monitor the movements of Americans’ money.

But you don’t have to agree with Andreas’ contention that laws attempting to control the movement of drugs and people causes “enormous collateral damage” (personally, I’m fairly sympathetic to the former claim but not the latter) to appreciate this book. You just have to want a well-written, unusual viewpoint for American history.

Oh, you will want to read the introduction which covers Andreas’ adventure in toilet paper smuggling.


One thought on “Smuggler Nation

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