This is point of inquiry.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Andrew W.K.. Andrew is a historian at Syracuse University and the author of the book Contraband Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century Skeptic’s.
We take special delight in the cover, the hidden, the deceptive, that which is not what it seems. Smuggling is one such phenomenon. And Andrew makes the provocative argument that smuggling and attempts to control it were a driving force in U.S. history. He takes us back to a time when the U.S. was a brand new postrevolutionary country and an isolated continent, a colony remaking itself as a new kind of country. How would the nascent U.S. safeguard its independence, shore up its national identity and build a national economy? To some, smuggling represented treason in miniature in the fight against it was nothing less than the fight for national survival. And you’re welcome to the program. Thanks for coming on the show.
All right. Thank you for having me. Yes.
What inspired you to write a book about smuggling?
Well, the simple answer is that I was inspired by both the personal, political and professional. And I apologize for that alliteration. The personal is that I actually had an uncle who was a smuggler and I’d heard his stories ever since I was a small child. My Uncle Ed doesn’t like great, great uncle, but my everyone my family knew him. He grew up in a ghetto in Washington, DC on four and a half street. And after his father died, he his mother just simply couldn’t manage him. So he sort of ran away and eventually ended up in Saskatchewan, where he became a smuggler and he sort of smuggled jewelry across the border. And everybody my family kind of knew about this. He was a sort of a character in my family. One time my grandfather had to bail them out when he brought too much currency into Nacke, what was then National Airport in Washington, DC, and we’d always told stories about him. As late as his 70s, he was busted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and Kalat, with over one hundred thousand dollars in jewelry, took up shot at one of the Mounties. Eventually he got off because he was such an old man and at that point that a Canadian justice system concluded that he wasn’t really a threat to anyone.
He was awfully gracious of them.
Yes, exactly. Well, you know, he was a well-known character in Regina. So anyway, so he was known to my family and I always heard his stories. And then the political was that I started writing it in the mid 2000s when we were in the middle of a war abroad. And I thought, how did the United States go from being this country, which didn’t even have a Navy at the time of its founding, really was committed to not having a standing army, committed to not being an imperial power? How did we become this nation that projects force outward that well, the entire globe across the entire globe? How did this become something, though? You know, parts of that story we know and there’s there’s there’s dramatic, positive side, but the 19th century side of how the U.S. goes from being this nation where there is a real resistance or reluctance to engage with the world. When George Washington gives his farewell address, he warns Americans against entangling alliances. And he was specifically concerned that the United States was going to get drawn into the Napoleonic wars. And he felt that the U.S. just had no ability to deal with these crafty Europeans. Their enormous armies, a Navy, there are enormous economies. He just felt that this was a losing proposition. How did we become the opposite? Why do we become one of the great powers?
But he was correct. Right. I mean, the U.S. was a very new young republic. He wasn’t just paranoid. This was a piece of reality, right?
It was. It was it was a very real. It was a very big problem. And in fact, his successor, John Adams, really faced that problem that it did. Adams, its successor, Thomas Jefferson, assisted Jefferson successor, James Madison. So all of them confronted this problem in that they wanted to maintain their economic relationships with both England and France. There are diplomatic relationships with both England and France, but England and France wanted them to take sides at the end. The war itself is in part taking place in the Western Hemisphere, in the in the Caribbean, in Louisiana. So as a result, there’s there’s a real sense that the United States is going to get pulled into this conflict. John Adams struggles with American merchantmen being seized by the French. And there’s a real sense that that the U.S. is going to have to go to war. And we don’t even have a Navy at that point. Literally, they don’t have the ships. Thomas Jefferson’s tries to resolve to deal with this problem by Embar doing all foreign trade and. Seems just inconceivable. How would you enforce such a rule?
Absolutely everything, no matter what life saving medicines, the whole bit was embargoes on.
Well. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I mean, in the end, the answer is it doesn’t last very long. But yes, there is an embargo on pretty much everything. It’s never really they’re never able to perfectly enforce it. But they try. They don’t have a lot of life. To be honest, they really don’t have any good medicines until later in the century, they believe.
I mean, alternate people who always believed in alternative medicine, lifesaving and weren’t.
You know, the honest truth is, I mean, they you know, they just in that period, they’re starting to get, you know, opium and cocaine and various skill distillates of that. But the simple answer is they embargo everything. Well, so anyway, they and Jefferson really believes this is a real has a real possibility for success because the U.S. during the founding period or the pre founding period, the period before the Revolutionary War, had used boycotts to such great success. So there was real sense that we can use economic leverage to achieve our diplomatic goals because we don’t have a strong enough military to deal with these problems. Well, again, this is the sort of struggle the long U.S. has an open border with Canada, which makes it very difficult to police. People are accustomed to trading. You have very powerful merchants in New England who are very unhappy with the state of affairs. Eventually, the U.S. does go to war under James Madison, the War of 1812. And obviously that we’re also is a war of an attempted conquest of Canada that that failed miserably. But it’s nonetheless the case that it’s also a war that’s about the U.S. trying to achieve some kind of economic independence.
Does that fit with Thomas Jefferson’s kind of ideal for the republic itself of being these kind of independent agrarian settlements, providing them?
Yes. But he’s a he’s a very it’s a very complex. A very.
He switches. He switches teams on this notion. So initially he’s anti tariff because all of his constituents, first of all, because a lot of Phyllis offs of that period, a lot of, you know, the intellectuals period were anti mercantilism, but also because his constituents just defined mercantilism for our listeners. OK, mercantilism refers to a series of policies implemented by European powers, particularly England, which are basically taxes and restrictions that oblige the colonies to trade with the mother country. So the way it works is the colonies have to take all of their raw materials and they have to sell them in England. And conversely, they have to buy English manufacturers. Now, there are also restrictions on what kind of ships have to carry all goods to the colonies. So there are a range of different restrictions and taxes that attempt to sort of capture all colonial trade for the mother country. Now, the reality of mercantilism, this is an incredibly successful policy set of policies. You know, Britain goes from being a comparatively weak power where they really sort of overshadowed by France and Spain to actually becoming they have this enormously powerful navy. So you don’t want to act like mercantilism is just done miserable failure.
What’s the point of having colonies if you don’t have mercantile wisdom? I mean, from the point of view. Well, you know, power.
The point is that it depends on the person you’re talking to. For some people, the point is they can go there and they can make just gargantuan amounts of money they couldn’t make in the home countries. So if you’re talking about a place like Jamaica, which is the charnel house of the British Empire in the 18th century, but they’re also the most lucrative empire. It’s basically this this sort of evil machine for producing sugar. And you can go as an ordinary man and you can go there. And, yeah, there’s a good chance you’re going to die of disease or something. But you can if you can if you’re willing to risk that, you can become one of the richest men in the empire. And that’s just not possible in England itself. Everything is monopolized by people connected to the crown or connected to the aristocracy.
So by getting away from the Metropole, not from the center, you can become an enormously wealthy individual. But they still want to make certain that colonial trade remains within their orbit. And they have a series of corporations that seek to monopolize trade, which which are also part of this mercantile system. And some of those one of those corporations still exist today. If you ever go into if you’re in Canada and you go into Hudson Bay, the department store, a descendant of the Hudson Bay Corporation, which was itself the corporation, given the monopoly on the fur trade now of a particular region of North America. So these leases these corporations have. Please, those corporations have stock in them, is owned by various aristocrats, various people connected to the crown. So all of this whole system is meant to, on one hand, allow people to sort of go out, make their fortune at the same time to make certain that all the money comes back to Westminster. So. OK. So. So to so choose to take it back to where I was. The U.S. was very weakened in the 1780 1790 through the eighteen tens. They’re desperately trying to find a way to be both economically independent of England and also stay out of the Napoleonic wars. And they succeed. They, they actually sort of beat off England and the Napoleonic wars sort of come to an end. And moreover, during the war itself, the United States starts to develop its own internal industry as a product, both of just generic development of its economy, but also as a result of the embargo. As a result of boycotting British trade, the United States sort of develops early Proteau manufacturing and that manufacturing then demands protection, which is itself part of the story of other manufacturers, get political clout.
And then they say we want more protections for our industry.
Correct. One of the great ironies is that many of the people who had been the most staunchly opposed to the embargo and opposed to the War of 1812, opposed to tariffs, become very protest on after 1816 because all of a sudden they have economic interest in domestic manufacturing. They’ve shifted their investments from from trade with England to factories such as the factories that developed the what becomes law, Massachusetts. So once you start having a higher tariff, then the lure of smuggling becomes greater in the United States. So that was my. So I gave you the I gave you the personal and the political. And there’s also the professional. You will hear the professional or should I should I should I keep dancing? Right. So the third thing that you mean is simply the reality of one of the big questions that you ask historians discuss again and again we’re drawn back to is the question of statelessness in the United States. That means Americans fancy a big piece of the American exceptionalism story. And again, we will question its validity as we go along. Is the idea that somehow America is this place where we we didn’t have very much government in the 19th century. And that that weak state sort of continues even to this day, that there’s a reason that the U.S. somehow is different from Europe and that we are freer right now. Well, that’s historians have spent a lot of time discussing why did this occur? Why does the U.S. take so long to get, for instance, to get senior citizens pensions and various forms of social insurance? Why does that take so long to come to the United States? What’s the nature of the 19th century state? Well. Well, I became convinced through my early researches was that the state was located in the tariff, that the tariff was the center, that the border was the center, and that indeed it’s inscribed in the Constitution itself. That in a weird way, the Constitution offers all these protections for citizens within the United States. But in fact, the state, the Constitution sort of creates a state that can that can exercise power outside with impunity. That power can be exercised at the border. And as a result, Congress seeks to solve all domestic problems by raising calfs, by dealing with immigration, by by funding the military, that because they’re so hemmed in in the domestic sphere. So I hope that isn’t too pretentious. But that was there the intellectual things to look at the 19th century state. How does it develop? How much of it is located in the tariff? And then how does that change over time? How does the tariff ceased to be the center of the American state in the nineteen tens and then subsequently in the 1930s?
There’s a core question that you raised in the beginning of the book about that Americans have been asking themselves since the beginning, and that is how does consuming goods from unequal neighbors affect equality at home? Can you talk about how those kinds of questions first started getting raised and how we’re still asking them today?
OK, well, the original questioning of them, interestingly, is less racialized than people would imagine, meaning when they initially began making asking those questions. They’re really concerned about England in particular and Europe more generally. They’re not talking about they’re not worried about trade with Asia. They’re not worried about even trade with the Caribbean. Their initial concern is what Henry Clay, the 19th century statesman, referred to as the proper labor of Europe. And what he meant by that was these Europeans don’t have the right to vote. They don’t have the right to choose their government. They don’t have the ability to enact reforms such as the 10 hour day or other things, and therefore American workers are at a disadvantage relative to European labor. So, sure, all of these countries like France and England have these industrial powerhouses. But if we buy their products, we’re essentially disadvantaging our own workers. This is an enormously popular argument and it’s especially a useful tool for the Whig Party and then subsequently its its successor, the Republican Party. It’s a tool for them to try and appeal to working people. The Whig Party and the Republican Party both start out as parties that are aligned with more with business interests and align more, especially with Protestantism.
And so as a result, they have to find a way to get votes from working people. And many of those working people at by the eighteen fifties. Ah ah ah. Catholic there or there or there. German Protestants of their. They’re not native born. So there’s a real sense that they’re trying to find a way to appeal. And protectionism is the way they appeal. They say we need to give you protection as American citizens, as as people who have the right to vote. We need to protect you against that proper labor of Europe. So it starts out very much lacking a sort of it’s xenophobic, but it’s not it’s not racist in its original conception.
But is it even xenophobic? I mean, it seems like it’s very legitimate to say, you know, we have all these standards and, you know, it makes our goods cost more.
And we shouldn’t have to compete against people for who are engaged in a race to the bottom, as you might say, anymore. Bernie Sanders era kind of.
No, no. I mean, it’s it’s totally it’s totally a legitimate argument to make. But they’re not statistically making the comparison between the actual wage rates. So, in other words, it’s not clear to me they don’t know.
It’s kind of specious based on they actually they’re making it based upon pride.
They’re making it based on when I say xenophobic, I’m saying when you when you talk about the comparison now between the United States and, you know, some other country, the wage rates are 10 to one. I mean, you’re dealing with an enormous gap, the wage rates between the United States and Europe. There is a wage difference, but it’s not clear to me that you’re getting. For one thing, if if it were that large, you’d expect to see gargantuan numbers of Englishmen migrating to the United States. And that doesn’t happen. What you get is actually large migration from from rural places to to America. So I guess what I would say is when I say xenophobic, I mean, there’s there’s an air of conspiracy to it.
It’s an business. It’s treading on people’s fears and assumptions.
It actually evident throughout the 19th century. Protectionists always are talking about English goals, English gold. You know, free traders have been bought by English gold and there’s even an air of anti-Semitism. Sometimes you’ll see the sort of cosmopolitan Jew entering into these sort of protectionist conspiracy theories. So the stuff is quite old and it probably England uses, you see some of the same Englin being used by protectionists in England, although they’re less successful. Free trade pretty much predominates in this period in England, but they’re protectionist there. And they make these arguments that, you know, we need to protect the free Englishmen against trade with, you know, Louis Napoleon’s France or what what have you.
There’s anti-Semitism fit into the whole history of smuggling.
Well, the way I would put it is that there are two ways to look at it. One way is to say the Jews are often engaged in smuggling in the 19th century because they’re living in border regions, often alienated, and they work in trades where smuggling is lucrative. So there they are in trades like jewelry or in trades like God tobacconists. Right. And tobacco smuggling is very common there in the garment trade. But that’s not my argument. I mean, my argument is that that may be true, but the vast, vast, vast majority of Jewish merchants are not engaged in smuggling. And so what we see in the 19th century is that they’re framing a guilty man or they’re profiling is another way to put it. So if you read the autobiographies, the memoirs of various customs officials or Secret Service officials, they’re obsessed with Jews. They’re convinced the Jews are natural smugglers. I could even show you cartoons that that label just label smugglers as Jews. It’s just it’s it’s a connection they make. It’s an old connection. You would even again see it in some English writings of the early 19th century. The idea that smugglers and Jews are the same thing. And so what you find is that they’ve can they construct an entire idea of the smuggler as the cosmopolitan international? Person who can’t pledge loyalty to the state because they can’t swear Christian knows. And so it becomes a variant of an anti-Semitic story that we see with regard to banking as well. The idea that Jews are sort of naturally disloyal. They are responsible for the death of Jesus. So they’re naturally just well, they’re not loyal to the nation. They’re engaged in these trades. They’re trading across international lines. They’re not paying their taxes. And as I said, Jewish merchants protest this vehemently. They protested during justifiably, justifiably, because they’re being as I said, they’re being profiled because they’re saying, look, why are women when a Christian merchant gets arrested for smuggling? You don’t identify all Christians as as smugglers. But if a Jewish mirch is a rash, said they’re identified as Jewish in the newspaper. And this, you know, causes federal agents to continuously attempt to sort of basically harass us.
So it’s a constant complaint that Jews are not the only group that is profiled. They’re probably, I would say, the main group, but they aren’t actually the group subjected to the most intense inspection. The group that’s actually inspected most closely are Asians, East Asians and particularly the Chinese. Prior to Chinese exclusion, 1882. If you’re an Asian traveler, you will be physically inspected. You have a physical body inspection, which in the 19th century is actually quite calm. We become sort of in yeard to the inspection of our bodies because of people’s anxieties about terrorism. But in the 19th century, United States is very rare for a person to have a physical body inspection. There are terribly. Some people consider it terribly insulting, but East Asians Chris Mooney I say they’re all physically inspected for opium in particular, is what they’re looking for. But, you know, again, it’s it’s tachographs. It’s the pursuit of Smugglers’ becomes a tool of the way the state enforces its understanding of the nation. And that means that East Asians are not considered part of the nation. They can’t be assimilated or. Again, I’m I’m not saying my opinion, but they in their minds, they can be their unassimilable and therefore they’re subject to harassment.
Do you think that the actual smuggling regime was less effective because they were spent wasting all this time going after every Jewish or Asian person they saw and letting real smugglers just go through? Look.
I mean, I’ll go one step further and say that that there’s an actual you know, the harsh truth is that the biggest smugglers are really corporations in this period. And there are people calling for corporations to be held to account during the eighteen seventies. And so what we see is that at the Port of New York, there are special Treasury agents who are going after big corporations like Phelps Dodge and these men who run these corporations. So how could you possibly be going after me? I am, you know, a philanthropic, incredibly wealthy, you know, superstar businessman. I’m a tycoon. You know, I have legitimacy and therefore, you know, you can’t go after me. So there’s an enormous pushback by corporations.
The consequence of that, were they smuggling?
Well, the answer is it depends on the company. In the case of Phelps, dodge their smuggling medal and the way that they smuggle. Well, you may not even think of it as smuggling. It’s what we call undervaluation. So the weight of all importing worked in that period. Is that still today works this way as you declare what you’re bringing in. So Phelps Dodge presents, they say we’re bringing in this much brass from England and that valuation is subjective. Moreover, there it’s subject to defeat. They could say, well, we have this much and then it could turn out that they had significantly more than they claimed. And if they could bribe the inspector to look the other way, well, then he would say, OK, your valuation looks good. Check, check.
Plus, your stuff comes in and you see them and they say this in terms of tariffs. So do to reconcile with a way of saving.
It’s not smuggling in the way we think of darkened ships or, you know, a hollow. It’s more a form of tax evasion. But they it’s you know, it’s the same people enforcing. It’s viewed as smuggling. And it’s time.
This is this thing they’re bringing in less than they actually are.
So it’s bringing more than they are. They’re bringing in more. Yes, they’re they’re cleaning less. So it’s like, again, when you do your customs declaration and you’re flying and you say, well, I’m not bringing anything in, but you actually have, you know, some books and a ten thousand dollar tiara that exceeds the limit.
This is this is a form of smuggling. The sugar trust is constantly being accused. Of smuggling, because sugar is subjected to two very large tariffs. There’s first a tariff on raw sugar and then there’s a tariff on refined sugar. And the sugar trust, you know, can make an enormous amount of money if they can get their sugar taxed at either lower rates or get taxed at lower weights. And so they’re always bribing layers. They’re changing the color of their struggle to get the inspectors to think it’s raw sugar when it’s actually refined. There are a million little gambits that they use to try and get around the system. And this is all it’s all corporate fraud.
So the full moralism attached to sugar in those days in the same way that does now there, because it was going to become alcohol or because it was considered luxurious or there is there’s there’s definitely a sense that sugar has an element, that it’s a luxury, that it’s a hedonistic luxury.
It’s so expensive in that period. And so it’s one of the reasons why it’s so heavily taxed. And the tax produces an enormous amount of revenue. By the turn of the 20th century, about 15 percent of the entire federal budget comes from the sugar tax.
So it’s it’s it’s very much fraught, but it’s not as fraught, say, as tobacco or as alcohol or certainly not as much as opium. So you have other products which have higher tariffs on them. But it’s definitely part of the story is that anything that is perceived as a luxury rather than a necessity will have a higher tax. So necessities. There’s always a push, even as there is today and as there is with that in other countries, too. So the recognition that goods the people consume on a daily basis can’t be subjected to the same kinds of taxes because there’s the risk that you’re your unit, that you’re going to have a regressive tax. Well, so anyway, so there is this there is a sense, I think when you look at this period that they’re that they’re pushing against this smuggling of this very petty smuggling of of a Jewish merchant or an Asian traveler. While this much larger, more disastrous form of smuggling is taking place directly at the Port of New York by large corporations, I should say that the third group that gets profiled is women, particularly middle class and upper middle class women who are traveling to Europe. And for the some of the same reasons, the perception that women are incapable of forging the bond to the state, that men are, that somehow that women are natural consumers, they’re not producers, and that they’re not going to be loyal to the nation. They’re going to go to Europe and buy all these sort of Parisian fripperies and then come back and not pay their taxes. And so there’s an enormous focus on women and the newspapers.
Erm, Senator, we’ll see. I feel discrimination against the kind of women who would do such things.
Absolutely. I mean it’s a tax, the smuggling is something, it’s an upper class crime or it’s perceived as an upper class crime or an upper middle class crime. So it’s very much something where they focus on the affluent and again, particularly on affluent women. So when you when when you talk about the idea of sort of coastal elites consuming their international their international products. Right. Having their foreign wine and their they’re buying their foreign cars, protectionist logic always has this idea that women and and and even men are are effeminate non producers who are not loyal to the nation.
This seems a lot like Donald Trump rhetoric even today, the coalition of a feat, liberals and women and people of color who don’t really care about.
And by the way, you know, I don’t want to I don’t think that we can rule out the idea that it’s been part of Republican thinking since the 19th century. This Republicanism, the initial ideology is produce arrest. And there is a producer list ideal, the ideal that it’s producers against non producers. Well, who are the non producers? Well, they’re all those lawyers and and bankers. Right. And and middlemen, what they called middlemen. Right. And this is a continuous theme in American ideology. And it’s it’s actually a strong strain. And Republican thought that the Republicans have have used at different times and less so with other women never get to be producers even though they make more Americans.
I’m sorry. Say that again. I said, it seems ironic that women seem to get put into the nine producer class, even though they are the ones who are also celibate for producing more men. Well, exactly.
But that’s that’s the logic by that. By the late 19th century, the logic has to do also with what we want women to be doing. Women are supposed to be having children. They must be producing homespun, even though by that point the amount of homespun that’s actually being produced is miniscule in the actual Home-Made text.
So if you want to go back to the turn of the 19th century. So eighteen hundred, the average American home is producing between five and ten yards a year of textiles. It’s quite common for people to produce their own textiles.
So that would be one dress right there.
A lot of clothes. So they’re they’re really living much closer to the bone. And if you look at if you look at an 18th century woman’s what she did all day, a lot of what she spent their time doing is mending and wheat and spinning and weaving especially. And it depends on the region. If you’re talking about New England, Pennsylvania, New York State, if you travel in the south, they just trade cotton and tobacco for four European manufacturer textiles because they’re they’re engaged in international trade in slaves and cotton and tobacco. But in the north, they’re producing. So there’s this weird Stoljar on this idea that women should be doing as they should be at home and they should be engaged in productive labor. But it’s productive labor of a different type. Well, that’s what we see happening in the 19th century, is women aren’t really engaging in that kind of productive activity anymore, but they’re also reducing the number of births they have significantly. So we see demographically people, especially as they move to cities, they have fewer and fewer children. So as a result, there’s this anxiety that this America that used to exist in America where the men worked or they were farmers, the women were making textiles and having kids, you know, 12 kids to a family that that’s disappeared to be replaced by this world with rich and poor, where the rich are going to Europe and buying all these fine clothes and then coming back and not paying tax writing to you.
Can you see the whole sort of the whole conspiratorial logic? There now comes full circle.
So you see that like, again, this sort of notion that and this gets this gets how did too in the American Civil War? Because, as I said, the South has always engaged in their national trade. They’re always engaged in because they they produce this extraordinarily valuable, lucrative commodity called cotton, which we think of is that lucrative.
But to them, they drove the industrial revolution.
So they’re producing this Christmas and there they’ve had this enormous boom. And before that, an 18th century. They’re producing tobacco for the international market.
Of course, cotton was all driven by slaves. So there’s some justified moralism about those people down south and their luxury largely. Absolutely.
And there’s a sense, really, that the South is styling itself as an aristocracy. They’re trading with Europe. They see themselves as transsexual. So then when the war comes again, the northern northerners who are protectionists say, you know, this is what happens when you don’t have protection. You end up with these aristocratic slave societies that are tied to other aristocratic societies with empires. And so there are a lot of northerners who are protectionists in the in the 1850, 1860, 1870, who were poor, quite, who are strongly anti slavery, who are who are committed, anti-racist.
It’s not it doesn’t have those initially those associations that develops in the 20th century as American trade competition begins to move towards East Asia and other other countries where where people are of, quote unquote, different races.
Oh, that’s all the time we have today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It was a fascinating interview.
OK, you’re very welcome.
A point of inquiry is a production at the Center for Inquiry, become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry dot org slash membership.