Thursday, April 23, 2009

Smuggling in the American Revolution

From Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition:

-smuggle: to bring into or take out of a country, secretly, under illegal conditions, without paying the required import or export duties
-to bring, take, carry, secretly or stealthily

Desperate housewives from Spokane, Washington, a city not known for its revolutionary or even newsworthy activities (with respect to the local population) drive to Idaho to buy illegal dishwashing detergent. This item is hardly a commodity listed on the world’s exchanges.

Spokane has banned some very effective ingredients from detergents because of problems with the local river. Some claim a serious casualty is slimy dishes. At any rate, the generally law-abiding housewives take to the road and continue a long tradition of smuggling, which was a regular part of American trade at the time of our Revolution.

Smuggling of many goods was well-established, successful, highly profitable, often admired, and quite illegal. The British had for many years legislated the control of its colonies’ trade and manufacturing, such as the Navigation Acts, and particularly the Molasses Act (initially 1733). The latter focused on the profitable West Indies trade. Much of the legislation would have choked the American colonies, had it been successfully enforced.

Here was the problem. Britain couldn’t stop it. In fact, thousands were smuggling in Britain itself. As for the colonies, smuggling had become a sophisticated, well-organized activity. Most of the time, it could not be controlled. It was difficult to convict smugglers. Gradually, colonials regarded smuggling as a successful anti-British tactic, admirable and probably patriotic. Fortunes were made, including that of John Hancock, President of our 2nd Continental Congress and first signer of the Declaration of Independence. His illegal gains didn’t seem to have impeded his future success.

Whether the public ultimately benefited from an economy so heavily dependent on smuggling is debatable. But Britain used poor judgment to pursue its long policy to control its colonies’ commerce. It fueled the ever-increasing anger in America. It had no chance of long-term success.

Let me pose a provocative question. Is smuggling encouraged by overzealous government regulation? Certainly smuggling has never vanished from the U.S. From the Prohibition era, to cigarettes, and now prescription drugs, goods are traded illegally. In Britain during World War II, just living on ration coupons was tough going. The black market made a lot of people happy. Was this activity right? Of course not. But maybe you can understand it.

Basically, the rationale for smuggling has not changed at all since 1776. For the public, the incentive is availability of a product and a real or perceived need for it. Price is usually not a primary consideration. For the supplier, just follow the money. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

1 comment:

Frederick Guyton said...

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