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Smuggling and Illicit Trade Have Always Been an Essential Component of the US Economy
Peter Andreas, author of Smuggler Nation (Photo: Peter Goldberg)

Smuggling and Illicit Trade Have Always Been an Essential Component of the US Economy

Peter Andreas, author of Smuggler Nation (Photo: Peter Goldberg)

You may have watched fireworks celebrating the independence of the United States from colonial rule. However, what if you were to learn that an important factor in the US Revolution was to ensure the continuation of a robust smuggling trade? Read about it in Smuggler Nation, which you can receive with a contribution to Truthout by clicking here.

Peter Andreas a professor in the department of political science and Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, authored Smuggler Nation. The book describes unsavory motives for illicit profit through illegal trade that have played a longstanding role in the development of the US economy. Interestingly enough, Andreas discusses how the founder of Brown University, where Andreas teaches, made money from transporting slaves from Africa – and advocated for the continuation of slavery. In fact, many individuals in Rhode Island, where Brown is located, profited handsomely from slave trafficking after a federal law made it illegal to import slaves into the United States as of 1808. Brown and others invested in swift slave transport schooners that were built in Baltimore and often sailed from New York.

We talked about this revelation that debunks the notion that the North did not have an economic interest in the slave trade along with other fascinating details about the United States’ deeply engrained history of illicit trade in the following interview with Andreas.

Mark Karlin: Of the many revisionist prisms the United States has been viewed through, what drew you to writing a book about the nation’s history of relying on illicit trade as a significant contributor to its economic development?

Peter Andreas: Part of my initial motivation for writing the book was to counter the extreme case of historical amnesia that I think afflicts current debates about transnational crime issues such as drug trafficking and migrant smuggling. These are serious problems, but they are too often depicted in the media and in public policy debates as entirely new and unprecedented. For instance, a popular political slogan is that we must “regain control” of our borders, but this alarmist phrasing falsely suggests that these borders were ever actually under control in the first place. Our borders have always been extremely leaky – for better and for worse.

Whether we like to recognize it or not, all sorts of illicit cross-border trade flourished throughout the nation’s history. And as I try to demonstrate in the book, this has been an essential component of the country’s economic development from colonial times to the present. One irony I point out in the book is that a country that was partly made through smuggling is now the world’s foremost anti-smuggling policing power – conveniently glossing over our own intimate history of illicit trade. For instance, we point an accusing finger at China for stealing our intellectual property – which it is obviously guilty of – while overlooking the fact that our early industrialization was made possible by massive theft and smuggling of British industrial technologies. The message to China and others today is “do as I say, not as I did.”

One of your arguments right off the bat is that the US Revolution was in part initiated, financed and fought for the right to continue smuggling unimpeded by the British Empire. Is that correct?

The conventional wisdom is that the American Revolution was motivated by lofty goals such as freedom and liberty. But to an under-appreciated extent, this included the freedom to smuggle and evade British trade laws. Smuggling, ranging from molasses (for rum production) to tea, was essential to many of the colonies, and the militarized British crackdown on such smuggling in the years leading up to the revolution provoked riots, protests and tar and feathering of customs agents and informants. It is interesting to point out how much of colonial outrage toward the Crown was directed at the customs service and its heavy-handed enforcement tactics. I don’t want to reduce everything to smuggling and smuggling interests, but it is also important not to overlook this. After all, many of our founding fathers were deeply complicit in this trade, including John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Moreover, once the revolution was underway, the only way George Washington’s Continental Army survived in the initial years before formal French intervention was with the aid of smugglers. After all, there was no gunpowder production in the colonies – it all had to be smuggled in from outside, along with other war supplies. A lot of fortunes were made in this wartime trade, blurring the line between patriot and profiteer. There has been a lot of attention to the role of illicit trade in many recent conflicts, ranging from Afghanistan to Colombia, but our own early history shows that this is an old practice.

Certainly, one of the longstanding sub-themes of the slavery issue is that the North benefitted from the agricultural output of the slave states, particularly cotton that was utilized in manufacturing textiles in New England. You go one step further and talk about how various components of the illegal slave trafficking industry (after federal law outlawed bringing new slaves to the United States prior to the end of slavery itself) were vastly profitable to many individuals and industries in the North. Can you expand on that?

The North was complicit in all sorts of ways in the illicit slave trade. And it is important to emphasize that this was especially true in terms of outfitting slave ships for the transatlantic slave trade supplying the vast plantations in Brazil and Cuba. In the mid-19th century, New York City was one of the world’s leading ports for this. Many of the slave ships were also made in America and flew the American flag. American merchants were banned (by federal law) from participating in this international flesh trade, but this didn’t stop them.

That, of course, brings us to the man that the renowned university at which you teach was named after – [John] Brown University. Obviously, he was not the abolitionist (with whom he shares a name), since he was a prominent slave trader. He was a colleague of another even more active illegal slave trafficking family: the DeWolfs. A descendant of the DeWolf family made a documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, in 2008 that included the claim that Rhode Island was the leading slave trading state in the union, due to smuggling. Can you elaborate?

The extent of the Rhode Island and Brown connection in various illicit trades was one of the big surprises for me in researching the book. I had no idea that this tiny place and the founders of my university played such an important role in the nation’s early illicit economic history. The slave trade was more of a side business for John Brown, but he gained extra notoriety because he was such an outspoken defender of the trade at a time when it was being outlawed. He also went to great lengths to facilitate and protect the slave trafficking interests of the DeWolf family in nearby Bristol, Rhode Island, which was especially involved in the trade in the first decades of the 19th century. What is interesting is that Rhode Island was a leading advocate for abolishing the slave trade while at the same time a leading evader of the early anti-slave trade laws. John Brown’s brother, Moses, was one of the other founders of Brown University – and a leading abolitionist. The two of them were constantly arguing and feuding over the slave trade issue. Indeed, John Brown was one of the first violators of the anti-slave trade law that Moses Brown had successfully lobbied to pass.

I was fascinated with your chapter in which you detail rum smuggling and how it played a role in “pacifying” Native Americans so that their land could be taken and that they would not put up a fight. Benjamin Franklin, you quote, was a supporter of this strategy.

I think it’s fair to say that alcohol very much helped to lubricate ethnic cleansing and westward expansion in the 19th century. And much of this alcohol – dubbed “white man’s wicked water” – was actually illicit, given that selling alcohol to Native Americans was banned by many state and then federal laws (which were minimally enforced). Here the fur trade was crucially important. Fur traders such as John Jacob Astor (the richest man in America and the country’s first multi-millionaire at the time of his death) relied on illicit alcohol as a leading currency to exchange for Native American furs. In this sense, pacification took place not only through military means, but also through illicit trade. It started with rum, but was soon supplanted by whiskey in the early decades of the 19th century.

How prevalent were contraband and “embargo busting” in the early years of the United States?

American colonists opposed to British rule popularized the slogan “no taxation without representation.” But the fact was that many American merchants after independence also believed in “no taxation even with representation.” In other words, they were opposed to even modest taxes on trade, and continued to engage in illicit tax-evading trade long after the American Revolution. They also continued to routinely evade the trade laws of other countries, such as France and England, but also increasingly China. In this sense, America’s early rise as a trading nation was partly based on illicit trade. US-Canada trade ties, for example, were significantly founded on illicit trade. Adding to this was that one of Thomas Jefferson’s most ill-conceived moves was to impose an embargo on all US trade with France and England in an effort to punish those two imperial powers and avoid further entanglement in their conflict. But American merchants balked – and massively evaded Jefferson’s embargo from the very start. American merchants also engaged in substantial illicit trade with England even while the United States and England were at war during the War of 1812. In this case, profits clearly trumped patriotism.

Given the long and documented history you provide of de facto recognition and tolerance for illicit trade in the development of a robust US economy, what are the implications for the current unabated drug trade and the failure of the “war on drugs” in terms of stemming their flow into the United States?

From a broader historical perspective, drug trafficking (and government efforts to suppress it) is just a late chapter in the long history of the country’s intimate relationship with illicit trade. However, it is the longest chapter in the book, and for good reason. No other anti-illicit trade campaign has been so costly and generated so much collateral damage as the so-called “war on drugs.” It has now been going on for a century if we date it back to the Harrison Narcotics Act. Moreover, many of the dynamics we repeatedly see in the drug trade we have long seen in other illicit trades throughout American history, including geographic dispersion and shifts in smuggling methods in response to law enforcement crackdowns. We can learn much about the drug war by looking at America’s ill-fated experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s – except in the case of drugs, the product is much easier to smuggle. High levels of violence and corruption also came with alcohol prohibition, just like with the drug war today – but now, we also have unprecedented levels of incarceration, helping to turn the US into the world’s leading jailer. And while the US turned against prohibition within 13 years, a century later, the war on drugs is still going strong – with the important exception of marijuana in recent years.

Another current topic has a long history as you write in Chapter 12: the smuggling of immigrants into the United States. How does that reflect on the current migration, often with the assistance of coyotes (paid guides) into the United States?

Most of the book focuses on the smuggling of goods, but the smuggling of people is also covered in several chapters. The organized smuggling of migrants into America (not counting slave trafficking) goes back to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century, banning further importation of Chinese laborers. The ban did not end the entry of Chinese, but instead redirected it to clandestine entry methods and routes through Canada and then Mexico with the help of professional smugglers – the “coyotes” of the era. Interestingly, there was so little official US concern about the entry of Mexicans in the early 20th century that some Chinese migrants attempted to blend in with the Mexican foot traffic across the border at border crossings such as Juarez-El Paso. The federal government built up its initial immigration control apparatus partly through its efforts to curb the unauthorized entry of Chinese – long predating the now massive border enforcement system primarily dealing with Mexicans (and now increasingly Central Americans).

Your last chapter uses the term “illicit globalization.” Can you define that given its current importance?

In the last chapter I try to situate America’s long relationship with illicit trade within the context of today’s ongoing debates about globalization – which tend to lack sufficient historical perspective. The illicit side of the global economy – ranging from drug trafficking to intellectual property theft to money laundering – can be described as the illicit side of globalization. I emphasize that while there is much that is new about illicit globalization (such as illicit transactions in cyberspace), much of it is actually a continuation of past patterns that we can learn a great deal from today – and also get clues about where we may be headed. It’s the only chapter in the book that has a present day focus, bringing the long 300-year history up to the present and situating the present in this much larger story.

How long has the scourge of sex trafficking been with us in the United States?

I should probably have given this topic more attention in the book. What I found most fascinating is how much today’s raging debate over sex trafficking [to the US] in some ways resembles the debate over the so-called “white slave trade” in the early 20th century. Then, as now, there was a societal moral panic over the issue, with all sorts of hyperbolic claims of dubious validity. Just like today, this doesn’t mean there wasn’t a sex trade, but in retrospect, it was clearly less transnational and less organized by criminal syndicates than was depicted in many sensationalized media accounts at the time. And then, as now, sweeping new federal laws were passed and enforcement agencies empowered that may have had symbolic value, but lacked clearly measurable positive results [in preventing the sex trafficking].