A Nation Built on Smuggling

It can be dangerous to read history books. You learn things you don’t necessarily want to know. I am currently reading To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman. It is the story of how the British Royal Navy shaped what we now know as our modern world. It’s an excellent read and hard to put down. As you read it you feel the mistiness of centuries past recede and you discern the often crude realities of those times. They were times that were certainly harsher than most of us can now imagine. While it often seems that today we are still a bunch of savages, reading a book like one this can make you realize we’ve still come a long way.

You learn that very famous people were not necessarily very nice people. Take for example Sir Francis Drake, the first man to circumnavigate the world. Clearly it was an incredible accomplishment but Drake was no humanitarian. Humanitarians were few and far between in the 1500s. Life was hard and brutish. But in addition Drake was no gentleman. He sailed with his good friend Thomas Doughty. But it wasn’t long after his ships passed the equator that their relationship broke down. Drake would tolerate no dissent. He interpreted some of Doughty’s words to be mutinous. On the coast of South America he convicted him for mutiny in a show trial and then had him beheaded him on the deck of his ship. Glad I wasn’t there.

I also learned that most of our founding fathers were, to put it bluntly, smugglers. Herman writes, “Virtually every wealthy American merchant involved in the rum trade, the wine trade, or even the tea trade, was to one degree or another, a smuggler. For decades, fast-running New England schooners, sleek two-masted fishing boats with fore-and-aft sails for quick handling, allowed the lawless Americans to thumb their noses at an overextended Customs Service.”

After Great Britain’s war with France, the overwhelming presence and numbers of Royal Navy ships off our coasts made it possible to effectively enforce trade laws in their colonies for the first time. Needless to say this seriously disrupted the lifestyles and incomes of the colonists. It turned out that smuggling in untaxed sugar from South America and the West Indies for other commodities like codfish and timber, and trading with countries with whom Great Britain was technically at war with, was much more profitable than trying to clear land and earn a living by farming. Much of the anger that fed the Revolutionary War was a direct result of the difficulty Americans were having maintaining our fine smuggling tradition. In short many of our forefathers were lawbreakers. And their standard of living was in jeopardy.

Naturally they did not see themselves this way. As we know the cry was about “taxation without representation”, a feeling that would doubtless be familiar to the citizens in our modern colonies like Washington D.C. But it matters not. If judged by the standards of our current administration our forefathers would be scummy lawbreakers. They would be unprincipled men for whom the ends justified the means and simply unwilling to abide by the law of the time. That Great Britain ultimately failed and that the United States won its war of independence was mostly due to the British Empire being vastly overextended. With no friendly ports on the east coast supplies for a war with America had to be imported from Great Britain itself, a ruinously expensive endeavor.

New England in particularly excelled at turning sugar from the Caribbean into high quality rum. In 1763 Massachusetts alone had 63 distilleries. Arguably rum profits were the primary source of colonial wealth, and those profits allowed a textile trade to begin in America. But Great Britain needed the money imposed on the colonies as a result of the Stamp Act to pay its massive war debts. However the Americans wanted nothing to do with paying for the costs of Great Britain’s wars, although they enjoyed the benefits of its protection.

This “have my cake and eat it too” spirit is clearly alive and well in America today. We still find taxes to be evil. We still want the benefits of free trade without any of the costs. Of course we think it is fine for us to impose tariffs on foreign goods when it is in our interests, but not okay for other countries to do the same to our products.

Maybe I was being na├»ve, but I was hoping that our founding fathers had higher ethical standards. But they must not have been complete scallywags. While they knew how to be pragmatic when it came to business, they were also deeply in touch with the base reality of human nature. As a result our constitution, instead of assuming the best from human beings, assumes the worst. “Trust no one” seems to be its guiding philosophy. We have branches of government continually checking and balancing the other branches. When one branch gets too much power it is usually in the vested interest of the others to figuratively whack the uppity branch on its head and tow it back into line.

Our forefathers may have been white-collar criminals and scallywags. But at least they were proud members of the reality-based community.

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