Daniel Stashower’s most recent book is “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.”

It seems that John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress and the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, may have made his most dramatic contribution to the American Revolution as a smuggler. The clean-cut, Harvard-educated Hancock may not conform to our modern notion of a “swashbuckling sea dog,” as Andrew Wender Cohen admits in his book “Contraband,” but Hancock began his career in the importing business and “depended upon the ocean for his living.”

In June 1768, British customs commissioners seized Hancock’s sloop Liberty in Boston Harbor, having found its consignment of Madeira suspiciously light, and accused Hancock of offloading cargo prior to inspection. At a time when smuggling was a capital crime and Britain viewed efforts to avoid its taxes as “a dangerous form of rebellion,” this was a serious offense. But the seizure of Hancock’s ship found the citizens of Boston in a fractious mood, and soon a mob of several hundred people had gathered to hurl rocks at customs officers. Britain responded by sending a force of 4,000 soldiers, greatly aggravating local tensions. Though the Boston Tea Party was still nearly five years in the future, Cohen posits that “the presence of these redcoats arguably instigated the American Revolution.”

For Cohen, Hancock is just the first in a long chain of fascinating tax-dodgers whose stories illustrate America’s complex, ambivalent attitude toward smuggling, a crime that some regard as “a protest against unfair tariffs in tune with the Founders’ principles” and others denigrate as “treason in miniature, a threat to domestic industry, and a challenge to American identity.” Cohen argues persuasively that smuggling and its underlying motives are intimately bound up in the nation’s founding principles and are central to our understanding of America’s rise as a world power.

The focus of American smuggling moved closer to home in the aftermath of the revolution, Cohen explains, when a tariff on foreign trade was needed to shore up the fragile new republic. “The custom house thus became the core of the new American state,” he writes. “The tariff provided the United States with the income to hire soldiers, build ships, and borrow money against future earnings. . . . The tariff rewarded nationalism, and thus created it.” Soon the ships and manpower assigned to America’s custom houses exceeded those of the Navy.

‘Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century’ by Andrew Wender Cohen (W. W. Norton )

In time, the custom houses became so central to American politics, according to one newspaper editor, that “it would have been almost useless to consult the voters on any subject except the tariff.” The issue developed a human face, in every sense, in the years leading up to the Civil War. “The tariff was a pillar of Lincoln’s Republican Party platform,” Cohen writes. “And slavery could not be disentangled from trade.” During the war, “contraband” became the Union’s term for fugitive slaves. Though the label did nothing to dispel the notion of slaves as property, it offered an important legal expedient. “The term defined secessionists as smugglers,” Cohen writes, which meant “human property could be seized and liberated by the Army.”

Meanwhile, as Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda” plan took effect, strangling Southern commerce by means of a naval cordon, Confederate blockade runners “turned the struggle into a test of divergent economic philosophies, a clash between the fast ships of the free-trade South and the blockade squadrons of the protectionist North.” The stakes were high; if the Union failed to justify the blockade and enforce it effectively, the Confederacy’s European trading partners might find an excuse to end their neutrality.

Wisely, Cohen never misses a chance to illustrate his themes with adventurous tales of the smugglers who flouted these ever-shifting policies, often to spectacular effect. Among the more colorful miscreants is Charles L. Lawrence, the “Prince of Smugglers,” who captured the world’s attention at the time of his arrest in 1875. Lawrence stood accused of spiriting 80 shipments of silk, lace and velvet through the Port of New York, avoiding an estimated $1 million in duties — perhaps $20 million in today’s terms. At the time this ranked as the largest customs fraud in U.S. history, and Lawrence found himself incarcerated at New York’s Ludlow Street Jail alongside Boss Tweed.

Cohen also details the exploits of the Franco American privateer Jean Lafitte, who began his storied career as a slave trader but went on to join Andrew Jackson’s campaign against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. The author is careful to record that Lafitte’s military heroics came as a result of a deal he’d brokered to get his brother out of jail, rather than a sudden onset of patriotism.

We also get occasional glimpses of female smugglers, such as Rose Eytinge, a celebrated actress who once performed for Lincoln and was not above using her charms to get a trunkful of “beautiful silks and satins and laces and furbelows” past a customs inspector. Women were thought to be more prone to such crimes, Cohen tells us, because “their consumer desires trumped their patriotism.” This led a team of Michigan customs inspectors to adopt extreme measures in 1872, conducting a search of some 150 women in a single afternoon: “Some were indignant and appealed to their husbands,” ran one account. “Others wanted to faint away, but after looking at the planks and dust concluded not to.”

Cohen, also the author of “The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy,” is an associate professor of history at Syracuse University. His research is meticulous, and he has an obvious passion for the subject, though some readers will find their eyes glazing over during the longer meditations on economics, protectionism and smuggling as “a metaphor for understanding disunion.” To his credit, he usually winds up these discourses with a convenient summary: “What do citizens owe each other?” he asks at one stage. “Does the consumption of items manufactured in undemocratic countries undermine equality at home? How should the federal government assist the men, women, and children toiling in the nation’s factories?”

Cohen’s themes will resonate for modern readers and, like the Michigan customs inspectors, he has “a good deal of fun.”

Contraband
Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century

By Andrew Wender Cohen

Norton. 402 pp. $27.95