- Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.–Canadian Border by Lawrence B. A. Hatter
Canada, Borders, Jay’s Treaty, Trade, Native Americans
Thirty years ago John Murrin opined that the Federalists, in 1787, had created a national government unsupported by any general spirit of nationalism. Subsequent scholarship has not disproven Murrin’s argument, but it has discerned, among those who supported the federal Constitution, an idealistic yearning for a particular kind of nation–state. Members of the early Federalist movement saw the United States as something more than an alliance-of-convenience between former colonies. They wanted to make the American nation respectable in the eyes of other sovereigns, to create a government that would honor its debts and protect its citizens from harm. The new government’s protective duty depended ultimately on its armed forces, but most of the time it rested on the state’s power to draw defensible political lines: borders between nations, protective perimeters around state-flagged ships, and lines of division between citizens and noncitizens. A nation–state that could not draw those lines lacked one of the core features of sovereignty, and thus a respectable place within “the Westphalian system” of nations.1 [End Page 722]
As Lawrence Hatter observes in Citizens of Convenience, political realism dampened the Federalists’ aspirations soon after they took power. In their first major diplomatic accord, Jay’s Treaty, the Washington administration and the Senate blurred their nation–state’s lines of sovereignty. The treaty allowed British merchants in the lower Great Lakes region to choose their own citizenship, without reference to Congress’s naturalization power, and allowed those same men, irrespective of citizenship, to cross the international border at will. In an international context, this represented an extraordinary concession. British traders like Robert Dickson had much more freedom of movement and self-definition in the northwestern United States than they would have enjoyed in other parts of the Anglophone commercial sphere, like the Mughal or Ottoman empires, where European trading diasporas enjoyed only limited autonomy. Jay’s Treaty also reversed the process of territorial integration that the Federalists had begun in the Northwest with their war against the region’s Indian confederacy. The accord turned most of the region back into a borderland, a region where states exerted limited authority, indigenous peoples retained autonomy, and liminal figures like traders enjoyed considerable influence.
Soon after Jay’s Treaty went into effect, American officials in the Lakes country and points west began to curtail Britons’ unique local privileges. James Wilkinson, unable to raise enough militia to keep order in Detroit, imposed martial law on the settlement instead. He later closed the Missouri River to private trading, quashing Britons’ hopes that Jay’s Treaty might apply to the Louisiana Purchase. As Anglo–American tensions rose in the early 1800s, Army officers seized or even fired on British boats lawfully carrying freight. By the eve of the War of 1812, travel had become hazardous enough for British traders that many had to partner with another liminal figure, the German American merchant John Jacob Astor. Astor limited his associates’ independence but provided them with his own right of unmolested passage through American territory.
The war itself left smoldering ruins and fresh graves throughout the Lakes borderland, and left the Americans all the more determined to run a tightly defined border. At Ghent, American peace commissioners [End Page 723] defeated a British proposal to establish an independent Native American homeland in the Old Northwest, and a new Anglo–American commercial treaty and an 1816 act of Congress terminated British traders’ right of free passage. Indian agents vigorously enforced the new ban, arresting those they considered interlopers. As far as British Canadians were concerned, the Lakes borderland had become a “bordered land.”2
The United States had consolidated its sovereignty, but this did not mean a loss of autonomy for everyone in the region. The Great Lakes Indians certainly...