An exploration of the world of smugglers and their effect on a nascent nation and its diverging social classes.
Cohen (History/Syracuse Univ.; The Racketeer's Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940, 2004) traces the changing face of smuggling in the United States, from patriotic deeds to rum running to merchants trying to reduce overhead to ladies avoiding duties on fashions from Paris. Men like John Hancock avoided British tariffs while the Lafitte brothers, Jean and Pierre, ruled their own smuggler’s village on Grand Isle near New Orleans. Today, Hancock is a revered Founding Father, while Jean Lafitte stepped up to help Andrew Jackson repulse the British in the Battle of New Orleans—though not out of a sense of patriotism; he did it to secure the release of his brother from jail. The Civil War blockade runners perfected the trade, and there were plenty of avid students. The author follows a thread of connections to Charles L. Lawrence and his father-in-law, Mordecai M. Noah. The narrative assumes a six-degrees-of-separation aspect as relatives to both men dipped their hands into the business of defrauding customs. Lawrence is the ostensible focus, as he touched every area of smuggling, from Boss Tweed to Cuba, Brazil, London, and Paris. Merchants avoided tariffs as they undervalued their imports or tucked valuable stock in with duty-free goods. The 60 percent tariff on silk was bound to attract a talented man like Lawrence, and it was his undoing. Those who supplied the new gilded age elite especially added to the rising cries of economic inequality and protectionism in America. The book is not about romantic pirates, swashbucklers, or Rhett Butler–like blockade runners, and Cohen often gets bogged down in the less-engaging issues of customs politics, free trade, and tariff fights.
The links to Lawrence and Noah give the narrative continuity and keep it interesting. Without them, it would be somewhat dull.