The American revolution, according to U.S. history textbooks, was about freedom and liberty and justice. On the nation’s birthday, as the Trump administration cracks down on border crossers in the name of law and order, it may be a good time to consider the fact that the U.S. founders were relentless lawbreakers — particularly of laws meant to restrict who and what was allowed to cross borders.
Colonists rebelled against militarized border controls
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to 1763, when a British proclamation imposed a frontier line between the official colonies and Indian territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. King George III prohibited colonists from moving across the line and settling, and deployed thousands of troops to the western colonial frontier to enforce the law. The British feared loss of control over their subjects, and they also wished to avoid conflicts between colonists and Indians.
The colonists ignored the proclamation and illegally moved into what became Kentucky and Tennessee. Tensions between the colonists and British authorities over freedom of movement intensified until the American Revolution.
What outraged the colonists even more was the Crown’s restrictive trade laws and especially the harsh, militarized manner in which they were enforced.
The most important illicit trade in Colonial America was smuggling of West Indies molasses into New England to produce rum, New England’s top export. For decades, British authorities tolerated evasion of its trade laws through a combination of neglect, incompetence and corruption.
But from 1756 to 1763, Britain fought the costly Seven Years’ War with France. To refill its coffers, the Crown turned the Royal Navy into a customs force and instructed it to seize ships and confiscate smuggled cargo in order to induce the colonists to pay duty on imports. Local anger and resentment led to mob riots in which colonists burned customs vessels and tarred and feathered customs agents and informants.
The use of the military to impose law and order helped to spark the Revolutionary War. During that war, colonial merchants put their illicit transportation methods, skills, and networks to profitable use by supplying George Washington’s troops with smuggled arms and gunpowder. Motivated as much by profits as patriotism, they were also recruited by Washington into a makeshift naval force, commissioned to fight for independence.
Westward expansion meant illegal settlers and squatters
After independence, the new nation’s residents were just as recalcitrant about refusing to recognize borders and border laws if they seemed inconvenient or unprofitable — and unlawfully moved to and settled on federal, Indian and Mexican lands.
To raise revenue for the new nation and promote orderly migration and settlement, Congress passed land ordinances in 1784, 1785 and 1789 — which were quickly undermined by a flood of unlawful settlers unwilling or unable to pay for the land. Squatters also moved onto Indian lands in violation of federal treaty obligations, provoking violent clashes.
In 1785, Congress passed ever-harsher laws against illegal settlers and empowered the secretary of war to crack down — measures that were largely ignored. Some states, such as Vermont and Maine, actually won statehood after being settled by illegal squatters who refused to buy the land and violently resisted government eviction efforts.
The pattern of illegal settlement and intense (sometimes even violent) resistance to central government authority repeated for decades as migration accelerated and new waves of settlers pushed the frontier westward.
For instance, illegal settlers flooded into what is now the state of Texas but was then part of Mexico — against Mexico’s 1830 decree that prohibited further immigration from the United States. The Mexican government deployed garrisons to try to control the influx but failed. The famous Battle of the Alamo can be thought of as a Mexican attempt to use its military to stop illegal immigration.
What does this history mean for today’s border tensions?
The nostalgic idea that we can somehow “Make America Great Again” by “regaining control” of the border is pure mythology — there was never a golden age of territorial control. The country has always had highly porous borders and contentious politics over unlawful border crossings.
By historical standards, the U.S.-Mexico border is actually far more intensively policed, patrolled, regulated, managed and monitored than it ever has been. This increased border enforcement began long before Trump took office. The Clinton administration began more heavily patrolling the border and enforcing immigration laws in the early 1990s in response to an anti-immigrant backlash in California. The Bush administration intensified border enforcement after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration continued the border buildup, and sharply increased deportations. Clinton doubled the size of the U.S. Border Patrol in the 1990s, and it doubled again under the two subsequent presidents.
Hundreds of miles of border fencing also went up during this time. The Department of Homeland Security, which already operated hundreds of manned aircraft — the largest nonmilitary air force in the world — even began to operate a small fleet of Predator drones to patrol the border.
Unauthorized entries actually declined sharply after the 2008 financial crisis. Many of those currently being detained at the border are not even attempting illegal entry but are trying to legally claim asylum.
To ignore this border reality is to suffer from historical amnesia. But the problem goes well beyond short-term memory loss: It doesn’t only block out recent decades, it blocks out centuries. We too often conveniently forget that, for better and for worse, evading border laws made America what it is today.
Peter Andreas is the John Hay Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University, and a visiting professor this summer at the Free University of Berlin’s John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies. This essay draws from his books Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (Oxford University Press, 2013), and Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide (Cornell University Press, 2009).