4 “The Equivocal Attributes of American Citizen and British Subject”
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104 . . . . . . 4 “The Equivocal Attributes of American Citizen and British Subject ” T roubling news arrived in Montreal from Michilimackinac in February 1803. Forsyth, Richardson & Company and Parker, Gerrard , Ogilvy & Company sent an urgent memorial to LieutenantGovernor Peter Hunter of Upper Canada to complain of the actions of David Duncan, the new collector of customs for the port of Michilimackinac . They “learnt with infinite concern” that Duncan “had set out from thence for Saint Marys, with an intention of seizing a quantity of Merchandise ” worth five thousand pounds belonging to the New North West Company (better known as the XY Company). The collector claimed that the company had violated the new Customs Act passed by Congress in 1799 because “the Vessel which carried the Goods had not previously touched at Michilimackinac.”1 The Montrealers protested that Duncan’s seizure was “contrary to the Spirit of the Treaty with America.” Moreover, they explained that accepting the collector’s argument that they must enter their goods at Michilimackinac before proceeding through the Saint Marys River into Lake Superior “would be ruinous to the fair Trade of your Memorialists.”2 The U.S. collector ’s determination to levy duties on goods crossing Grand Portage had opened a new front in Montreal’s civil war between the North West Company and the New North West Company. Under the direction of the ruthless Simon McTavish, the original company attempted to put their rivals out of business by controlling the British shore of the Saint Marys River and constructing a new portage at Kaministiquia (renamed Fort William in 1807).3 The entrepreneurial McTavish hoped to mobilize U.S. customs agents to defeat his commercial enemies. To speed along the restoration of their goods, the XY Company also sent “an unofficial application” to the British minister in Washington, D.C., Edward Thornton. The merchants explained that “a delay of Restoration 105 “American Citizen and British Subject” of their Property; (as the Articles cannot be replaced from hence in time) would be as injurious to their interests almost as eventual forfeiture.” Delay was nearly as damaging as permanent loss because the Montrealers needed to convert their trade goods into furs to be able to pay their accounts in London.4 Thornton managed to recover the company’s property without much difficulty. The minister wrote the merchants in April 1803 that U.S. TreasurySecretaryAlbertGallatinhadorderedDuncantoreturntheirproperty and made “an explicit declaration that no Duties were or are meant to beleviedatStMarys.”ButMontrealmerchantswouldhopeinvainthatthey couldinthefuture“avoidtheriskofaRobberyunderpretextofLaw,similar to what the recent conduct of the American Collector seems to aim at.”5 The competition between the rival Montreal companies proved shortlived : McTavish’s nephew William McGillivray helped effect a reunion of the North West Company after his uncle’s death in 1804.6 But Duncan’s seizure was merely the opening salvo in an escalating entrepreneurial battle waged between the Montreal fur trade and U.S. agents on the northern border of the American Republic. Congress passed the Customs Act in 1799, designating six new inland ports of entry in the trans-Appalachian West, including Detroit and Michilimackinac.7 While the Jay Treaty’s third article protected British subjects from paying discriminatory customs duties, the U.S. customs establishment, in keeping with the common practice of early modern states, rewarded agents who found innovative ways to enforce revenue laws by paying them a percentage of collected duties and the proceeds of condemned chattel. As such, the creation of an inland customs establishment pitted two sets of entrepreneurs against one another: merchants and traders, who looked for ways to evade paying customs duties, and U.S. collectors , who benefited from the effective collection of revenue from crossborder trade. The local innovations of U.S. agents on the border were increasingly welcomed in Washington, particularly following the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. Jefferson appointed two of the Jay Treaty’s leading critics to important cabinet positions in 1801: Albert Gallatin became secretary of the treasury, whose responsibilities included overseeing customs collection, while James Madison headed the State Department. The Jefferson administration was not prepared to openly violate the treaty with Great Britain—doing so would undermine the United States’ claim to be a treaty-worthy nation—but the president and his cabinet were eager citizens of con venience 106 to limit and eventually renegotiate the Jay Treaty’s western provisions. The Jefferson administration could confirm or deny the local innovations of its agents according to geopolitical circumstances without undermining the U.S. government’s claim...


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