The United States has always had an intimate relationship with clandestine commerce…
Cartoon protesting the ‘Intolerable Acts’. From The London Magazine, May 1, 1774
From Foreign Affairs:
In the years before the American War of Independence, Colonial merchants were leading players in the Atlantic smuggling economy, most notably in the illegal importation of molasses from the West Indies for distilleries in New England.
The American rebellion was in part sparked by a British crackdown on this trade. British authorities were also outraged that Colonial merchants had made illicit fortunes by supplying French forces during the Seven Years’ War. The increasingly militarized British crackdown on smuggling in the decade before the American Revolution provoked mob riots, the burning of customs vessels, and the tarring and feathering of customs agents and informants.
It was also thanks to smuggling that a ragtag force of Colonial rebels was able to defeat the world’s most powerful military. American smugglers put their illicit transportation methods, skills, and networks to use when they covertly supplied revolutionary troops with desperately needed arms and gunpowder. Motivated as much by profit as patriotism, smugglers also served as privateers, recruited into George Washington’s makeshift naval force (although the British still considered them pirates).
Long after the country’s independence, illicit trade continued to play a major role in the rise of the United States on the global stage, not least by creating some of the first major American family fortunes. John Jacob Astor, the first American multimillionaire and the richest man in the country at the time of his death, in 1848, was an accomplished smuggler. Astor engaged in a variety of illicit trading ventures, smuggling opium to East Asia, doing business with the enemy during the War of 1812, and clandestinely exchanging banned alcohol with Native Americans for furs.
Astor was far from unique. Stephen Girard, also one of the richest men in the country when he died, in 1831, made his fortune partly through various forms of smuggling, including the Chinese opium trade. Warren Delano, Jr., grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and creator of the family fortune, also benefited from the same business, which he referred to as a “fair, honorable and legitimate trade.” Never mind that the Chinese authorities considered him an outlaw, having banned the opium trade by imperial edict in 1729.
Americans need to take a deep breath: there is no need to hyperventilate about broken borders and global crime threats. U.S. borders are more patrolled, monitored, and difficult to cross than ever before. Law enforcement agencies are cooperating both regionally and globally to an unprecedented degree. Of course, border crossings should be more effectively managed and regulated — not only to discourage unwanted crossings but also to facilitate legitimate trade and travel.
Using history to evaluate the illicit side of globalization is crucial for a number of reasons: because it is so glaringly missing from today’s debates about transnational crime, because it corrects for the hubris of the present and the common tendency to view recent developments as entirely new and unprecedented, and because it helps Americans make sense of their past, present, and future. The great irony is that a country that was born and grew up through smuggling is now the world’s leading antismuggling crusader.