3 “To Guard the National Interest against the Machinations of Its Enemies ”
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78 . . . . . . 3 “To Guard the National Interest against the Machinations of Its Enemies” G eneral James Wilkinson declared martial law in Detroit on July 12, 1797, a year and a day after the United States occupied the town. “To guard the National Interests against the Machinations of its enemies, secret or ouvert, Foreign or Domestic,” Wilkinson resolved to treat “all persons resorting to or residing within the limits” of Detroit as “followers of the army.” Wilkinson’s proclamation received the support of the magistrates and sheriff of Wayne County, who entertained “disagreable apprehensions from the dangers that at present menace its tranquility from an approaching Ennemy, as well as from internal and increasing factions.”1 No matter Wilkinson’s later maverick behavior as an agent of the Spanish government, he was no loose cannon in 1797: civil officers at Detroit agreed that the authority of the U.S. government was under threat in the largest population center in the Northwest Territory.2 When U.S. troops arrived in Detroit in July 1796, they were foreigners entering a strange land. Founded by Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac in 1701, generations of Detroiters had lived and died under the French and British Empires. Until 1796, Detroit’s residents had never been American citizens; thetownhadneverbeforebeenpartoftheUnitedStates.ForDetroiters,the arrivaloftheAmericanswasnohomecoming:itwasanoccupationlittledifferent from the arrival of the British regime thirty-three years earlier. And, it might prove just as transitory. While the colonization of Native homelands by migrants from the eastern states was an important part of U.S. imperialism , it is important not to overlook the significance of places like Detroit for understanding American Empire. These long-established communities, the legacies of both French and British colonialism in the West, posed different challenges to American colonization. The United States would need to find ways to attach the loyalty of polyglot and multiethnic populations to the well-being of the American Republic to guard against separatist conspira- 79 “To Guard the National Interest” cies sponsored by rival European empires. This was particularly urgent in Detroit, given the proximity of the British Empire across the narrow straits that gave the town its name. The Jay Treaty made the American occupation of Detroit more perilous than it otherwise would have been. The rights of movement protected by the treaty created a porous border that was a constant source of anxiety and frustration for U.S. officials trying to construct a colonial regime in Detroit. The treaty’s second permanent article granted British subjects the privilege of residing and engaging in commerce in the Northwest Territory, while the third permanent article ensured that British subjects, U.S. citizens, and American Indians were free to travel back and forth across the border for the purpose of trade.3 These privileges in themselves were not extraordinary in the context of the traditional customs that governed global trade outside of the Atlantic World. Indeed, British merchants enjoyed similar rights in cosmopolitan commercial centers from the Indian Ocean to Portuguese Brazil.4 But context matters. Diasporic polities of merchants outside of the Americas were usually culturally alien communities, separated from the indigenous population by ethnicity, language, and religion.5 Not so in Detroit. The town represented a potent combination of the strange and the familiar, which complicated the ongoing challenge of disentangling the American and British peoples. Detroit’s residents included an influential Anglophone minority of Britons and a Francophone majority who were strangers to the cultural and legal underpinnings of the American regime. The presence of an influential foreign population of merchants and traders who shared some rights of American nationality was uniquely problematic in the American West.6 The Jay Treaty also created the conditions for individuals to become citizens of convenience. The second permanent article allowed the residents of Detroit and of the other western posts the right to choose their nationality. This privilege not only allowed them to sidestep the naturalization process established for new immigrants to the United States, which was becoming increasingly stringent in the late 1790s, but, in practice, it exempted the residents of the western posts from any effective government regulation of nationality in the West. After 1796, merchants and traders claimed or rejected American citizenship and British subjecthood as part of a strategy to evade government regulation of the Montreal fur trade. In doing so, they demonstrated the porous nature of the territorial border between the British Detail from Plan of the Town of Detroit and Fort Lernoult, situated on the Strait between the...


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