publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
  • Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.-Canadian Border by Lawrence B. A. Hatter
Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.-Canadian Border. By Lawrence B. A. Hatter. Early American Histories. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017. 283 pages. Cloth, ebook

Americans have been debating their nation's border politics for as long as they have had borders. The long history of this conversation has proven an important bailiwick for southwestern borderland scholars, eliciting wide-ranging treatment in the historiographies of colonial New Spain, Mexican independence, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and subsequent U.S-Mexico relations. In his timely new book, Citizens of Convenience, Lawrence B. A. Hatter enriches the growing corpus of American border studies by drawing our attention northward to the Great Lakes, where he uncovers an infant U.S. republic born and raised in confusion about its own contours. This uncertainty provoked a nation-building project unapologetically imperial, obsessed with continental ascendency, embroiled in diplomatic intrigue, fraught with commercial rivalries, and marred by racial violence. At the center of Hatter's story lies the U.S.-Canadian boundary, elusive in location and purpose for the British, American, and Native peoples who made their lives and fortunes around it. From its very beginning, the border's meaning and bearing on citizenship generated heated contests waged by diverse combatants on local, national, and international battlegrounds.

Hatter's central argument is that the U.S.-Canadian boundary functioned as a critical site in the project of American nation building around the turn of the nineteenth century, as local questions about trade, nationality, and mobility possessed larger implications for the new republic's claims to independence, sovereignty, and nationhood. His vantage point for observing these microlevel and macro-level connections is the lucrative Montreal fur trade, which stretched from supply points throughout the North American interior to its continental headquarters in British Canada and then to countinghouses in metropolitan London. The international border negotiated after the American Revolution threatened to sever the commercial syndicates' vast exchange networks and kinship bonds, which had been forged by merchants, traders, and hunters over generations and now spanned the Great Lakes region. Company personnel and independent laborers consequently learned to navigate the new boundary's vague location and regulations. Hatter writes, "Like eighteenth-century merchant ships flying flags of convenience to help them navigate foreign waters, citizens of convenience switched between nationalities to aid their free movement [End Page 353] across national borders" (4) and enhance their bottom line. By the mid-1790s, their efforts to exploit ambiguities in the border laws governing commerce and citizenship prompted action from the U.S. government, which viewed their strategies as clashing with U.S. political and economic interests.

The Treaty of Paris confirmed American independence for much of the world, but around the Great Lakes it only heightened uncertainties. Hatter opens his narrative with the collective angst of British and Canadien traders who feared they could very well be excluded from American territory if the proposed boundary succeeded in its implicit goal—distinguishing nationals from foreigners and restricting their movement. An entire industry as they knew it hung in the balance. Running "thousands of miles from the St. Regis River in the East to the Mississippi River in the West," the author flatly states, the new boundary "threatened to destroy Montreal's fur trade" (30). Readers will come away appreciating just how palpable the threat seemed, not only to Euro-Canadians north of the border but also to the thousands of Indian people across the Ohio country who now found their mobility and economic autonomy targeted by U.S. pretensions to the rights of conquest.

Yet declaring a border and policing it were two very different matters for the new American republic of the 1780s and 1790s. Hatter stresses that though the Treaty of Paris induced panic in Montreal, it also exposed the fragility of the new nation to the south. Stymied time and again by the formidable Indian coalitions of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, Shawnee warrior Blue Jacket, Miami chief Little Turtle, and Delaware captain Buckongahelas, the United States was forced to admit that neither its pathetic military nor its "diplomatic bullying" (18) could extend American sovereignty into the Northwest. Britain recognized it too. Their North American officials opted to ignore the border and retain the British posts now ostensibly located on American soil, both "because they could" (46) and because their Native allies wanted them there. In the first decade after the Treaty of Paris, America's claims to territorial sovereignty, and to membership in a community of nations, bordered on the delusional.

The work of American nation building shifted from Herculean to Sisyphean after the ratification of a diplomatic agreement with Britain in 1794 intended to resolve the unsettled boundary. Though it came on the heels of a decisive U.S. victory over the Ohio country Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and though it ordered Britain to evacuate the western forts, the Jay Treaty proved a double-edged sword for U.S. efforts to extend dominion. The settlement stipulated that Britons, Natives, and Americans alike could enjoy free movement across the border for purposes of trade. It also permitted residents of the western posts to "choose their nationality" (71), exempting them from the standard process of naturalization.

Hatter stresses that the Jay Treaty enabled westerners to manipulate a porous border and hindered the U.S. government's capacity to exert its will [End Page 354] and command allegiance in the region. Far from a diplomatic victory for American imperialism in the 1790s, the settlement fostered ideal "conditions for citizens of convenience to erase the line between British and American nationals" (50). These "hidden costs" (72) of the treaty stung the United States at Detroit in July 1796 and Saint Louis in March 1804, when federal troops arrived at the bustling entrepôts to raise the Stars and Stripes and bring them under U.S. authority. Each town's welcome proved cold. Much of the communities' commercial elite had no intention of swearing loyalty to what they saw as an occupying force that could undermine their profits and position. This grassroots resistance to regime change revealed just how tenuous federal authority remained in the region. General James Wilkinson and other U.S. officials in the west continued to harbor fears about foreign elements infiltrating the nation through frontier corridors and the limited ability of federal power to stop it.

The Jeffersonian revolution of 1800 reverberated along the northern border, empowering American officials stationed there and chilling already tense U.S.-British relations. President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, and Secretary of State James Madison—critics of the Jay Treaty and supporters of economic nationalism in the west—encouraged a nascent inland customs establishment in its creative enforcement of revenue laws. "Entrepreneurial innovations" (12) in the collection of duties and confiscation of illicit goods—such as adding transportation costs to the calculated value of goods—were as much inventive exploitations of ambiguities in the border laws as was the fluid political allegiance of those employed in the Montreal fur trade. The ensuing battle pitted British merchants and traders struggling to evade American regulation against U.S. customs officials and policy makers determined to enforce it. Converging with both the Royal Navy's increasing impressment of American sailors and Jeffersonians' antipathy toward British aristocracy, the border dispute contributed to an intensifying international crisis. In a well-conceived chapter detailing the creation of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, the author shows how the U.S. contest with Britain allowed the New York–based magnate to reap a windfall by successfully hitching his business ambitions to the economic nationalism prevailing in Washington. Distant fortunes, financial and political alike, were made and lost in the northern borderlands.

The border battle came to a head in the War of 1812. Though the conflict proved indecisive militarily, the subsequent Treaty of Ghent resolved the struggle that had defined the northern boundary for nearly three decades. U.S. plenipotentiaries engaged in shrewd diplomacy at the peace proceedings to abrogate the Jay Treaty and solidify the border. Distracted by issues arising at the concurrent European Congress in Vienna, British ministers "played into the hands of American imperialists" (163) by relinquishing the fur trade in the American west and abandoning efforts to protect the [End Page 355] sovereignty of their Indian allies in the region. The peace settlement consequently reconfirmed the boundary's position as originally determined by the Treaty of Paris and repudiated the Jay Treaty's provisions enabling free movement and trade. By closing the northern border once and for all, U.S. officials could now wield it "as a tool to distinguish between American citizens and foreign nationals" (13).

Citizens of Convenience ultimately succeeds in its goal of locating the formation of U.S. national identity within contests over citizenship, trade, and mobility along the northern border. But another of its historiographical interventions, though less obvious, should not be overlooked. The short-term success with which Indian and British traders traversed the boundary, along with Native and British efforts to protect Indian land rights in the region, shaped the early evolution of federal Indian policy in the United States. Reckoning with its border quandary frequently forced the United States to answer difficult questions about the political status of Native noncitizens residing ostensibly within the nation's domain. Although the answers to these questions circumscribed Native economic and political autonomy, the border controversy also forced Indians to articulate their own claims to territorial and cultural sovereignty.

Perhaps the book's greatest strength is its integration of a wide range of actors into a seamless historical narrative, not as token parts but as indispensable agents. The diplomatic maneuverings of Indian leaders, the networking of Canadien traders, and the economic interests of frontier British merchants are as central to the boundary's volatile story as are the actions of figures gathered in boardrooms and around treaty tables a world away.1 Hatter and other practitioners of this consolidationist approach are making savvy use of an inheritance bequeathed by the "New" schools of the 1970s—in this case, New Social History, New Indian History, and New Political History—not by replicating their attention to history "from the ground up" but by knitting together the lived experiences, economic choices, and political activity of rank and file and privileged alike. Scholars determined to uncover a richer and more authentic early America would do well to heed the method Citizens of Convenience models so well. [End Page 356]

Matthew R. Bahar
Oberlin College


1. Examples of figures in Hatter's narrative include the Indian leaders Red Jacket, Little Turtle, and Tecumseh; the Canadien traders Jacques Porlier, Pierre Rocheblave, and Louis and Pierre Grignon; and the frontier British merchants John Askin Sr., Angus Mackintosh, and Isaac Todd.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.