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Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century


Andrew Wender Cohen is a Scruggs scholar and associate professor of history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. His latest book is Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015). He is also the author of The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy (Cambridge, 2004).

Can you briefly describe your book?

Contraband is a history of smuggling in the United States from the founding to the “Great War” which uses unlawful commerce to understand America’s changing relationship with the world. Through strict tariff laws, the emerging American state regulated contact between its citizens and the rest of the globe. But to satisfy consumer demand for foreign products, a brisk illicit traffic developed in goods like silk, opium, tobacco, sugar, diamonds, and art. Americans worried about the effect of this trade on the nation’s character, and they empowered customhouses to protect native workers, limit consumption, define the nation, and regulate new territorial possessions. This book uses smuggling to uncover America’s doubts about its new cosmopolitanism, its debates about the use of military force abroad, and its attempts to define a national identity in the face of changing demographic, racial, and sexual realities.

But the book is also the story of Charles Lewis Lawrence, née Lazarus, the foremost smuggler of the nineteenth century, whose exploits prompted an intense manhunt, a diplomatic crisis, and a major political scandal near the end of the Reconstruction Era.

What initially drew you to your topic?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Something that was deeply criminal in the 1970s is now acceptable and even romantic.[/pullquote]

To keep me interested for during the lengthy writing process, a topic has to appeal to me on three levels: the intellectual, the political, and the personal.

The intellectual. I wanted to study the clash between globalization and nationalism, but I did not want to bore readers with the traditional discussion of tariffs and treaties. It occurred to me that smuggling could reveal how the federal government actually regulated relations between Americans and the world before the United States became a global power. And this also offered a perspective on the developing American state.

The political. I started thinking about the project in 2005 during the Iraq War. I wondered how the United States, a nation that once lacked a standing army or a navy, became a superpower engaged in wars of choice on other continents. I dwelled on the contempt some Americans had for coastal urbanites, like myself, whom they deemed effete, cosmopolitan, and unpatriotic. I wanted to know where that trope came from. And smuggling helped answer both questions.

The personal. I had an twice-great uncle, Ed Stern, who made his living as a smuggler in Regina, Saskatchewan. He died when I was a teenager, and I heard stories of his exploits. One time, my grandfather had to bail him out when he was caught entering the U.S. carrying too much currency. When he died, his sister went up to Canada searching for his gold hoard, which he allegedly hid in an old automobile. Around 1910, he had run away from his mother, a widowed abortionist in a Washington, D.C. ghetto. When he was in his eighties, he shot at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who seized $400,000 in jewelry (about $1.8M today) from his house.

And yet, because of NAFTA, most of Ed’s activities today would be legal. Something that was deeply criminal in the 1970s is now acceptable and even romantic.


“Attack upon Smugglers by United States Revenue Officers at Masonborough, North Carolina, 1867,” Harper’s Weekly, 11/16/1867, 729. Courtesy, Bird Library, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

Writing my first book, The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern Economy (Cambridge, 2004), I knew that the National Archives were a great place to do research. So I planned initially to focus on the records of the U.S. Treasury, State Department, and federal courts.

I did not realize then how fruitful digital newspapers would become. It soon became apparent that the newspapers had more information than the legal records. They reported smuggling arrests every day. And optical character recognition allowed me to follow the smugglers through time. So while I made use of court documents, the focus became the newspapers. And every single day, I discovered new things about my protagonists. 

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives/while doing research?

The remarkable careers of my characters. My protagonist, Charley Lawrence, was not just the most famous smuggler of the nineteenth century. He was a daguerreotypist, impresario, restaurateur, politician, and editor connected to Boss Tweed, Mordecai Noah, and Judah Benjamin. His backer, Abraham Hoffnung was a British Civil War blockade runner and global merchant. But he later became a Hawaii’s charge d’affaires to the Court of St. James responsible for transporting thousands of Azorean laborers to the Pacific. Louis Bieral was not just a customs inspector. He was a famous boxer, gambler, pimp, war hero, and assassin responsible for attacks on Richard Henry Dana and many others. Rose Eytinge was a stage star and the paramour of famous men; she was also accused of running a ring to smuggle French fashions into the U.S.

In short, people lived amazing, adventurous lives. You cannot pigeonhole them so easily.

What surprised you while writing this book?

First, the nineteenth-century preoccupation with economic nationalism, tariffs, and trade policy. The public was obsessed with the custom house, its employees, and its scandals. These concerns dominated the political landscape. And they intersected with the topics many modern readers care about: racial equality, women’s rights, the safety net, the right to privacy, and American territorial expansion.

Second, the extent of official anti-Semitism in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. U.S. government employees explicitly profiled Jewish travelers and merchants, indulging in notions of collective guilt guided the enforcement of the law. Politicians, treasury agents, and newspapers painted Jewish Americans as rootless, disloyal, cosmopolitan, and deceitful smugglers. Jews complained, and official prejudice declined, but the bias remained much longer than people imagine.

Third, the power of coincidence in a much smaller society. Before 1890, all of the players know one another. And random individuals really had the power to shape events. This is less true in the twentieth century, when large institutions become the dominant agents of social change.

Your book has been getting a fair amount of attention in the popular press. Did you approach the topic thinking about accessibility? What do you think about the benefit of histories written with a broader audience in mind?

I chose to write for a trade press because of my frustration with my first book, The Racketeer’s Progress. Cambridge did a wonderful job, but the book was too expensive for any normal person to buy, and regular book stores did not carry it despite its subject matter (beatings, bombings, gangsters, the origins of racketeering law, the New Deal).

I did not realize at that time the difficulty of balancing the needs of the market with intellectual rigor. Popular readers want a page-turner, but scholars do not learn pacing, plot, and other devices in graduate school. And focusing too intensely on a central narrative can imperil the academic historian’s principal contributions: research, analysis, and context. So I wrestled with the problem. I think I solved it, but only readers can decide whether I succeeded.