In a panel at Brown University’s Watson Institute, before several of his approving colleagues, Peter Andreas, a political science professor at Brown, discussed his book titled “Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America” and told the fascinating story of the role the smuggling enterprise played in the formation and development of the United States, including the state of Rhode Island and Brown University itself over a period of 300 years.
Mark Blyth, a faculty fellow, introduced Andreas as one who has written a book that is “disturbingly well-written,” because it is free of the jargon that often marks academic works. He added that while it is not devoid of theoretical heft, it is devoid of presumption. Blyth suggested that the book should have an index entry for “hypocrisy” for its outrage over the hundred-year war on drugs.
Andreas stated that his motivation for writing the book was to address what he sees as a “national amnesia” on the subject of smuggling. After digging back several centuries into history, he concluded that “illicit trade made America,” going back to such famous revolutionaries as John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton. So he decided to retell the American epic “through the lens of smuggling,” including the roles of the Brown brothers.
The author built his book around four stories:
1. The relationship between illicit trade and warfare, including conflict commodities, cocaine, opium and diamonds. He could have referred to the relationship between the opium trade and the creation of the famous Skull & Bones secret society at Yale, dating back to the 19th century. George Washington smuggled gunpowder, and John Brown, one of four brothers from the founding family of Brown University, descendants of one of the founders of Rhode Island, made a fortune charging exorbitant prices to supply American forces in the War of 1812. Andreas quipped that the United States failed to annex Canada because it was preoccupied by the smuggling trade.
2. The debate over protection of intellectual property. Andreas finds the current debate over abuses of American intellectual property by the Chinese ironic, because his research found that the United States committed similar abuses of British intellectual property. Moses Brown, another brother, hired Samuel Slater, whom he called “the grandfather of the industrial revolution,” to come to Rhode Island and install the first water-powered cotton mill in the United States.
3. Fortunes made from illicit trade, such as those of Hancock, the Browns and John Jacob Astor, who became the richest man in America by smuggling furs he acquired from the Indians and opium.
4. Border control, and the lack thereof. Andreas mocked the current controversy over control of U.S. borders, asserting that the United States has never had full control over its borders, that the border with Mexico is more secure than ever before and the porosity of the border with Canada enabled booze to be smuggled profitably during prohibition, with warehouses conveniently located on the U.S. side to receive the goods from Windsor, Ont.
Three Brown professors commented favorably on the book from their personal perspectives. Catherine Lutz, an anthropology professor, praised the book for documenting the role of the state as protection racket, and she found the book “lively and expert” for looking beyond the legend of “American exceptionalism” to the complexity of human politics.
Richard Snyder, faculty fellow and director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, hailed the book as useful both to scholars and practitioners. Snyder played a bit with the cliché quotation of George Santayana by suggesting that sometimes students learn the wrong lessons from history and that policymakers may make new mistakes rather than repeat the old ones. He added his view to others who had mentioned the role of the Browns, referring to a paper that acknowledged the role of at least one of the Browns in the slave trade. He also quoted a Spanish saying that laws and loopholes are made concurrently.
The third commenter, James Marone, a political science professor, called the United States “a nation that winks at rouges,” such as Hancock, who smuggled toilet paper, and the Sooners, who jumped the gun in order to get an unfair advantage in settling Oklahoma Territory. Marone theorized that whereas the rise of big government is generally attributed to the period of the New Deal, it is more properly traced to the early part of the 20th century and the advent of prohibition. He concluded that debates over policy become most intense when they address “who we are.” For example, who is fit to be admitted to citizenship. Once the debate centered on immigrants from central Europe and China. Now it focuses on Hispanic immigration.
In his brief response to the comments, Andreas said it would be an oversimplification to call his sentiments libertarian, because he would not go so far as to allow poaching of animals, since even weak regulations can prevent some species from becoming extinct.
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