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EAC Reviews: Defying Empire by Thomas M. Truxes

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Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York by Thomas M. Truxes (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008), 288 pp.

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York by Thomas M. Truxes is about British attempts to stop trade between New York City merchants and the French during the Seven Years’ War (1754-63), otherwise known as the French and Indian War. The book isn’t about crime per se, but the line between legal and illegal trade drives its action and storyline, and it has enough descriptions of criminals and criminal activity to hold the interest of early American crime fans.

The issue of mercantile trade was contentious in eighteenth-century Britain even without the backdrop of war. England’s movement toward an economy based on the unlimited, unfettered accumulation of capital in the eighteenth century led to questions about where the line between legal and criminal behavior should be drawn, since the end goal of both merchant and criminal appeared to be the same. Commentators throughout the century often compared mercantile and criminal activity and openly wondered what constituted the difference between the two. John Gay’s theatrical hit of the century, The Beggar’s Opera, opens with the criminal businessman, Mr. Peachum, surrounded by account books and singing, “Through all the Employments of Life / Each Neighbour abuses his Brother; / Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife: / All Professions be-rogue one another.” Bernard Mandeville in The Fable of the Bees satirically equates economic and criminal values and argues that political corruption is a requisite for success in commerce, trade, and society in general.

Truxes shows how the expanding British Empire created situations where the distinction between legal and illegal trade was complicated, especially during wartime. New York City merchants who had built their businesses on trade with the French in North America were suddenly told by the British that they could no longer do business with the enemy now that war had broken out between the two countries. Not surprisingly, these merchants fought to protect their trade interests by any means possible and increasingly turned to smuggling to do so. The merchants’ strong ties to colonial officials and their deep pockets, which they could use to bribe politicians and potential informants, greatly limited the government’s ability to stop such trade.

Defying Empire is filled with fascinating and colorful characters: well-connected, ruthless merchants who will stop at nothing to protect their economic interests; professional smugglers who work directly for these men of “property and position.”; and gritty sailors and common criminals who populate the city streets. The book’s center of energy comes from George Spencer, an obstinate New York merchant who attempted to inform the government about the smuggling activities of his fellow merchants in the hope of a big reward and instead found himself feeling the full weight of their political influence by spending twenty-seven months in jail on false bankruptcy charges.

Truxes captures the spirit of early New York and is at his best when describing the crimes that took place on its rough and tumble streets. The connection between war and crime was apparent to anyone living in New York City. The scarcity of accommodations for troops during wartime forced many hard-edged soldiers into the city, especially during the winter months. Their presence noticeably raised the city’s crime statistics, resulting in a sharp increase in drunkenness, fighting, theft, and prostitution.

Unfortunately, Truxes’s descriptions of trade activities in the West Indies lack the spirit of his New York sections and are much more academic in tone. In order to get around British limits on commerce, American merchants developed an intricate system to make it appear like they were trading with neutral or friendly nations and not the French. A basic understanding of these trade maneuvers, though, is necessary for setting up the moment when George Spencer finally gets his day in court against the New York merchants who helped imprison him. Here, Truxes’s description of the shady deals, questionable testimony, and unexpected twists that occurred throughout these proceedings is highly entertaining.

A good deal of the corruption in the regulation of overseas trade was the result of neglect by the British government to follow up on reports of illegal trade. Every now and then, the government would send an eager official to America to investigate the situation, but he would inevitably become frustrated by the bureaucracy and obstructions put up by colonial officials and the American merchants and give up.

At the very end of the war, the British government finally enacted legislation to make it easier to prosecute illegal trade and made moves to enforce the law by placing British warships in the Manhattan harbor. The capture of any ship that engaged in illegal trade could bring a fortune to those involved in the seizure, because they would be entitled to half the proceeds from the disposal of the ship and its cargo (the other half would go to the king). Yet even this incentive could not result in the prosecution of more than a few token offenders of the law.

Defying Empire is ultimately a scholarly book, but the storyline is strong enough to hold the attention of readers who want to learn about the seedy side of New York City’s mercantile culture and history. At times, it requires intense focus to keep all the characters straight, but the “Glossary of Persons” near the end of the book is a tremendous help in this regard. Crime is not the central focus of Truxes’s book, but when read in this context, what emerges is a picture of eighteenth-century white-collar crime perpetrated by New York merchants during a time when the economic interests of Great Britain and its colonies were increasingly at odds.

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