Marak on Andreas, 'Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America'

Peter Andreas
Andrae Marak

Peter Andreas. Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xiii + 454 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-974688-0; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-936098-7.

Reviewed by Andrae Marak (Governors State University)
Published on H-Borderlands (November, 2013)
Commissioned by Benjamin H. Johnson

The Illicit International Economy Project and Borderlands History

For the last decade and a half, two political scientists, Peter Andreas and H. Richard Friman, have been at the forefront of promoting the illicit economy as a legitimate area of study within the broader field of international political economy. They have pushed this agenda by offering arguably the first ever courses in politics of the illicit global/world economy, presenting on the illicit economy at annual International Studies Association conferences and through a series of publications. Their publication efforts began as coeditors of The Illicit Global Economy and State Power (1999), continued with Andreas’s article “Illicit International Political Economy: The Clandestine Side of Globalization” (2004), Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann’s Policing the Globe (2006), Friman’s edited volume Crime and the Global Political Economy (2009), and finally, Andreas’s article “Illicit Globalization: Myths, Misconceptions, Historical Lessons” (2011).[1] In part, they have been arguing that increases in the flows of cross-border illicit goods--guns, laundered money, drugs, toxic chemicals, and migrants--as well as increased transnational anti-criminal responses are a natural consequence of increased globalization rather than simply globalization’s dark underbelly. They have also been trying to warn us that the myriad claims that the illicit consequences of globalization are undermining the power and sovereignty of nation-states even as it emboldens and empowers non-state actors (principally criminals and terrorists) are overblown, misleading, and suffer from “historical amnesia.” Andreas’s Smuggler Nation, the first historical synthesis of smuggling in the United States from the colonial period to the present, is in many ways a natural next step, providing a convincing new interpretation of U.S. history. Importantly, this interpretation counters the current narrative that the United States (and many other nation-states) are under an unprecedented siege that requires increased state powers and resources for drones, the Border Patrol, and more and larger barriers, walls, and fences by demonstrating that our borders have always been porous and that we have often felt (unnecessarily) that we were under siege before.

Andreas draws on his extensive knowledge of illicit economies--and the politics of policing them--to offer a nuanced, though not comprehensive, narrative of U.S. history as a struggle over clandestine commerce. Smuggler Nation is broken up into five chronological parts--“The Colonial Era”; “The Early Republic”; “Westward Expansion, Slavery, and the Civil War”; “The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era”; and “Into the Modern Age”--and sixteen chapters. The chapters cover, among other things, the impact of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; the War of 1812; early American piracy; intellectual property theft and the Industrial Revolution in the United States; illegal bootleggers and fur traders in Indian country; American collusion in the African slave trade; the smuggling of pornography and contraceptives (when they were illegal); the antiwhite slavery campaign; the first illegal immigration (i.e., squatting on Indian and Mexican land by Americans); Prohibition; the War on Drugs (which began in 1906); drug prohibition and black markets; the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (which opened borders to capital and goods, but closed them to labor); and the impact of September 11th on the militarization of borders. As Andreas notes in his opening anecdote about how he inadvertently served as a smuggler’s accomplice (of toilet paper) while entering Bolivia just after he graduated from college, the struggle over combatting clandestine commerce is incredibly complex, with different governmental agencies and policies often working at cross-purposes with each other. In Andreas’s story, the United States was working with the Bolivian government to clamp down on the processing and export of Bolivian cocaine even as the United States government promoted the export of chemicals by U.S. companies that were being used for the processing of cocaine in Bolivia. The impact of clandestine commerce is not only complex and pervasive (who hasn’t taken part in the underground economy in one fashion or another?) but also, he argues convincingly, of central importance in understanding the United States’ transformation from a fledgling colony into a superpower. Clandestine commerce, or the combatting of it, played a key role at very important junctures in American history. Perhaps more important, however, is the role that combatting clandestine commerce has in creating (and reshaping) nation-states. Andreas’s insights in this area serve to amend Charles Tilly’s well-known argument about state formation. Tilly argued that the modern states that grew out of premodern Europe did so through their preparations for war. Specifically, Andreas claims that military innovations made war so expensive that only centralizing states with the ability to tax their citizens could survive. Without denying that the United States centralized and modernized through war--the North’s economic response to the Civil War is a great example--Andreas demonstrates the ways in which “the regulation and policing of trade was a driving motivation to create a central state apparatus in the first place” (p. 7). He also shows, counter to current alarmist claims, that smuggling and other illicit economic activities serve to reshape the state rather than to destroy its capacities. In fact, state officials are often complicit in (or purposely overlook) illegal behaviors when it suits larger goals. Finally, and most important, Andreas explores the nexus between the licit and the illicit, noting that what is marked as good or bad, licit or illicit is inherently political and varies greatly depending on whom one asks.

Here I want to provide an example that demonstrates the ways that using smuggling as a lens for the past allows us to reconceptualize American history even as it demonstrates that illicit economies were often quite popular. Andreas begins his book with an examination of the impact that the regular undermining of British trade laws had in the 1770s. Breaking these laws was so popular that when British officials did seize the cargoes of smugglers, local juries often let them off the hook. The rampant smuggling initially was a net benefit to the British given that it provided Americans with the necessary income to purchase British goods. Yet, when the British cracked down on smuggling (to pay for the Seven Years’ War) by eliminating the ability of smugglers to be judged by a jury of their peers and by the appointment of customs officials in London (rather than locally in America), it spawned the Boston Tea Party. Andreas calls into question the democratic nature of the independence movement by noting that it was Boston’s wealthy smugglers, not the consumers of tea, who mobilized locals for the Boston Tea Party. Interestingly, the Crown’s policies did raise additional revenues, but at a tremendous long-term political price, American independence. Smuggling also played a very important role in the War of Independence itself. Supporters of independence both strove to obtain necessary war supplies even as they greatly enriched themselves. At the same time, long-held preferences resulted in the counterproductive undermining of the (overly celebrated in U.S. history textbooks) boycott of British made goods as everyday Americans quickly returned to purchasing the goods (when available) that they were most comfortable with. Not only did the increased opportunity to make money during wartime lead some people to take up smuggling, but borderlands peoples--U.S./Mexico, U.S./Canada, and U.S./Caribbean--with transnational and cross-cultural relationships also often continued trading with their friends and neighbors even when it was illegal. In these borderlands communities (as elsewhere), customs agents were often the only federal governmental officials with whom people interacted; as you can imagine, they were seldom popular.

I have covered just one example of the ways that using smuggling as a lens allows us to reinterpret important moments of U.S. history. Andreas provides us with many others. Some, like the political and popular support of the theft of British trade secrets, make the United States, with its current advocacy for the strengthening of copyright and trademark law--the central purpose of most so-called free trade agreements--seem hypocritical. Others, such as the United States’ decision to avoid enforcing its own unpopular laws barring trade with and land incursions on Native Americans suggests the ways in which the United States has failed to uphold the rule of law at key moments. In closing, I want to suggest that Smuggler Nation demonstrates how history can serve current policy debates. To make the most of this, historians will need to work more closely with international relations experts, political scientists, public policy officials, and everyday citizens. In this task we will need to embrace presentist arguments. Bringing history back in to the public policy discussion not only will make our work more important, but will also better inform public policy outcomes.


[1]. Peter Andreas and H. Richard Friman, eds., The Illicit Global Economy and State Power (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999); Peter Andreas, “Illicit International Political Economy: The Clandestine Side of Globalization,” Review of International Political Economy 11, no.3 (2004): 641-652; Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann, Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); H. Richard Friman, ed., Crime and the Global Political Economy (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009); and Peter Andreas, “Illicit Globalization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Historical Lessons,” Political Science Quarterly 126, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 403-425.

Printable Version:

Citation: Andrae Marak. Review of Andreas, Peter, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. November, 2013.

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