Book Review: Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America

Today’s guest blogger, David Purificato, is a Ph.D. student at the Department of History, SUNY at Stony Brook University, we are excited to feature his book review on Borderlands History! David is interested in nineteenth century antebellum American cultural, social, and domestic history, with a focus in material culture and the history of the book.  He is currently conducting preliminary dissertation research by looking at backgrounds in nineteenth century illustrations and Fashion Plates to better understand how the book as an object functioned in the American parlor.   

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America. By Peter Andreas, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 355 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. Paperback, $19.95).

Peter Andreas’s Smuggler Nation examines North America’s long relationship to smuggling and the nation’s history of illegal trade from the colonial period to the twenty-first century. He argues that federal attempts to stop illicit “cross border economic flows” to and away from national borders have “defined and shaped” the United States, and ultimately created the modern American police state (2). Asserting that today’s appeals for border control suffer from “historical amnesia” and the belief in the myth that the U.S. ever had secure borders, Andreas looks for a long and deep history of the clandestine to demonstrate how the United States’ development has always been tied to the practice of smuggling (3).

Rooftop Smuggler Nation

Andreas provides a synthesis of secondary scholarship to help readers understand smuggling from the 18th century to the twenty-first. Documents including American customs, immigration, and foreign relations reports; the personal correspondence of national leaders including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; and a smattering of newspaper accounts comprise his primary sources. Andreas uses this evidence to argue that official American attempts to curtail smuggling actually only increased the likelihood and practice of illicit trade. Despite his use of sources that document exchange and movement, however, Andreas’ work fails to fully examine border people as sources, and how their exchanges and movements shaped this history. This would have been particularly useful in his discussion of the long tradition of smuggling in the “porous” U.S.-Mexico borderlands (144).

In his discussion of the U.S.-Mexico border region, Andreas chooses to focus on American government policies while giving scant attention to Mexico’s legislative efforts during the first half of the nineteenth century. He particularly minimizes Mexico’s 19th-century attempt to curb the active smuggling of slaves into the territory that would become Texas. He acknowledges that the Mexican government had banned the slave trade in 1824 and outlawed slavery in 1829, which was met by protests by Texan colonists, but he misses the opportunity to delve deeper into Mexico’s rationale and reaction to slave smuggling into Texas. He merely mentions that “local Mexican officials showed little enthusiasm” in enforcing anti-slavery laws created in Mexico City (144-48). Andreas similarly neglects Mexico’s response to Anglo-American settlers’ illicit maritime smuggling of commodities, which included slaves as well. In his well-known borderlands study Changing National Identities at the Frontier (2004), Andres Reséndez mentions Mexican General Mier y Terán sending military authorities to build a garrison in Galveston Bay. This outpost would collect tariffs and even exchange gunfire with Anglo-American vessels trying to bypass the fort. By ignoring previous scholarship of the U.S.-Mexico border region such as this and the further details they provide about historical smuggling incidents between the two neighbors, Andreas produces a U.S.-centric rather than a transnational study. Foreign sources would have added welcome weight to his overarching argument that the American government fell more and more out of touch with its citizens and neighbors.

For those interested in the U.S.-Mexico borderland region, further discussion is woven throughout Smuggler Nation, continuing on from the illicit 19th-century slave trade to Prohibition-era alcohol smuggling to the 1970s drug trade and finally ending with the present war on terror. Andreas’s work is not unidirectional—he discusses illicit people and goods traveling into Mexico from the United States as well—thus offering the important reminder that one nation is not always the smuggler while the other is the receiver, but rather that illegality pervades all places.

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