The 1794 Jay Treaty resolved some of the outstanding issues between the United States and Great Britain. But, as Lawrence B. A. Hatter’s fascinating and cogently argued Citizens of Convenience demonstrates, it did not settle them all. In fact, it exacerbated lingering tensions in ways that were not finally settled until the 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. This succinct volume, as timely as it is historically grounded, “explores the northern border and its connection to American Empire and nationhood by examining the interactions among three different groups of actors: Canada merchants and traders, imperial agents, and policymakers and diplomats” (10). In short, it “tells the story of how the northern border helped to make the American people” (3). Hatter argues that ambiguities in the 1783 Treaty of Paris caused problems on multiple fronts: for Montreal fur traders, for European and U.S. merchants, for Native American nations, and for the territorial integrity of the United States. Chief among these obstacles was the porous Canadian border, which allowed for easy crossings and made it impossible to differentiate between American citizens and British subjects. The Jay Treaty was supposed to resolve some of the difficulty of sorting out foreigners from nationals. However, the treaty allowed individuals “to choose British subjecthood or American citizenship,” blurring the distinction between inhabitants and citizens (71). In short, inhabitants could “become citizens without being naturalized” (71); individuals could choose their nationality. This meant that U.S. officials could not determine who was or was not a legitimate citizen, not only complicating economic and political arrangements, but also compromising the young nation’s imperial aspirations. “The inability of the American national state to use the border to discriminate between its own citizens and foreign nationals was a significant obstacle to American imperialism” (77). This fluidity created “citizens of convenience” and destabilized the Detroit border, frustrating both military and civilian authorities who found it impossible to delineate between U.S. citizens and British subjects. While one-third of Detroit’s adult male population became foreign nationals instead of U.S. citizens, they nonetheless continued to live and transact business in the new nation. The Jay Treaty opened up substantive economic opportunities for many, but those benefits were not experienced equally by British and U.S. merchants, the latter of whom struggled to gain access to the Indian trade of the western country. The individual merchants—the “citizens of convenience” of the book’s title—may have done well on their own, but the treaty’s open ended-ambiguity raised tensions and “poisoned the body politic” (102). Nor did the situation improve when Federalist leaders in the 1790s gave way to their Jeffersonian rivals after 1801. In fact, Hatter shows that Secretary of State James Madison, who had been a vocal critic of the Jay Treaty, soon found himself frustrated anew with the porous border, the ambiguity of citizenship, and the difficulty of resolving conflicts between the claims of merchants, land speculators, and settlers. American territorial expansion was also compromised by the presence of the British and the persistence of Indian nations. In such an environment of competing interests, border security became a fleeting goal and the ideological consistency of Jeffersonian Republicans became sorely tested. U.S. policy was driven far more by practical considerations than by the political ideology of free trade. As Hatter observes: “Jefferson embraced free movement in the Atlantic World as a vehicle for American Empire. Colonization of the West depended on Americans gaining access to foreign markets. The free movement of foreign traders in the West, however, threatened the U.S. imperial project by bolstering rebellion and resistance among colonists and Indians alike” (134). The outbreak of the War of 1812 raised the specter of treason that “was predicated on the exclusive character of political allegiance to a nation as a territorially defined sovereign entity” (161). Amplifying the larger argument of the book, Hatter further contends that the war “was a conflict to define American nationhood as the basis for transcontinental empire” (162). The Treaty of Ghent, belying its reputation as merely, uneventfully restoring the antebellum status quo, thus actually did change circumstances and resolve the “citizens of convenience” issue. American diplomats “articulated more expansive claims over the actions of non-citizens, most notably Native peoples living within the republic’s territorial bounds” (166). No longer would commercial and residential privileges be extended to non-citizens, and no more could either Native Americans or British subjects pass freely across the U.S.-Canadian border. “Citizens of convenience” who had posed so many challenges and created so much frustration were now eliminated by the establishment and enforcement of a firm border and the end of free movement. The “success of American imperial expansion depended … on U.S. officials being able to tell who was a member of the national community and who was not” (10). Hatter’s book is marked by graceful writing and subtle analysis. It is a patient and careful historical reconstruction of diplomatic, political, and economic dimensions of citizenship. But Hatter demonstrates that scholarly subtlety need not preclude powerful argumentation. He builds a persuasive case about “citizens of convenience” and the problem of boundaries, and that thesis makes this work a valuable contribution to the ongoing historical and historiographical debates over the perennial questions of nationhood and citizenship. This book engages a wide range of fields and scholarly conversations. Hatter both draws on, and adds to, early American political, diplomatic, and military history as well as Canadian history, international relations, and Atlantic history. Hatter discovers newfound significance in well-known topics and also uncovers and reveals the importance of people, documents, and developments once thought to be obscure. His book’s achievement as a work of history is augmented by the timeliness of its questions about nation-states, immigration, and freedom of movement. Citizens of Convenience is a most impressive first book by a talented historian. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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