Conversations at the Washington Library
Conversations at the Washington Library is a weekly podcast about early American history and the people who teach it.
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Dr. Lawrence B.A. Hatter, associate professor of early American history at Washington State University, discussed the fluidity of the U.S.-Canadian border during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Below is a transcript of only part of his interview with Dr. Joe Stoltz. You can hear the full interview in this episode of Conversations at the Washington Library.
Well, it's the story of the U.S.-Canadian border and the ways in which it was so intertwined with American nationhood. And this is nationhood thinking of the American people being distinct. So it is this sort of question of American nationalism. And this is something that Jefferson claims in the Declaration of Independence. This is many ways the idea that undergirds the sense of American sovereignty, that as a distinct people they are a distinct nation, and it makes sense for them to break the bonds with Great Britain. But it's more of an assertion than anything.
And then the sort of connected process of American imperialism, what we traditionally I guess might have called western expansion. But how these two things sort of work together. I guess one of the central arguments is that the border is this place that can make a distinction over time between who's a British subject and who's an American citizen and that this process is worked out through U.S. imperialism in the West. So that involves both the conquest of indigenous lands, but also sort of a working out of all these colonists from Britain and Spain that are out in the West, that don't have clear allegiance to the United States.
Alan Taylor has written, in Civil War of 1812, this sense of both Americans and Canadians/British subjects, that they're still one people. And it always reminds me of that scene from Full Metal Jacket when Private Joker encounters this colonel, and he's like, "Inside every Vietnamese, there's an American waiting to get out." I think that's really how, at least at the start of the War of 1812, many Americans looked at Canadians. And obviously, there's a lot of history here in terms of the American invasion of Canada at the beginning of the War of Independence, the fact that the Articles of Confederation had a space for Quebec. I mean that sort of points to the separation, or the space between rhetoric and reality. So this is rhetoric of Americans as very distinct, and then there's the reality, well, actually no. Not really.
On the side of the American government? Well, it's kind of essential to their claims of sovereignty across the North American continent. This is kind of imperial dimension. They weren't satisfied for various reasons with the original 13 colonies. That the United States needed to expand to survive was sort of the idea. And this is something that Washington was also very conscious of. I was reminding myself of a letter he wrote to Benjamin Harrison, the Governor of Virginia, in 1784. And he was really concerned about Western separatism, that people across the Appalachians would separate from the United States. The context of the letter was trying to improve the Potomac. We're obviously aware of Washington's land speculation in the Ohio Valley. And you sort of think of him as this savvy land investor. But he understood the political dimensions of this too, and that Westerners would really have no reason to be loyal to the United States.
And the vehicle that he saw for building the Union was commerce. And that's really what's at the center of my first book, and, in fact, the new project which I'll talk about, I'm sure, in due course, the ability of trade to tie people together through shared interests. Which is complicated because the geography didn't support that. The Appalachians were a significant barrier to East-West trade. And, in fact, the people that I focus on in my book, Montreal merchants, merchants in the Montreal fur trade, because the St. Lawrence River valley had much better Western access, cutting west of the Appalachians and then down through the Great Lakes connecting to the great highways of trade. The Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri.
And this was certainly the concern that builds into the 19th century, is the power of this commerce which is connecting Westerners and indigenous people with the British Empire. So there's this fear of sort of re-colonization by Britain. At the Revolution's, at the end, we often forget. The Revolution happens, or the War of Independence I guess I would say, the U.S. wins and then Britain sort of disappears from the picture after. But they're still there. They're in Canada. And, in fact, British subjects, or are they, is sort of the point of my book, are still living in Western places like Detroit.
So who are these citizens of convenience? Well, they're people tied into this transnational trade network, which is centered in Montreal but extends, as I've always alluded to, to Detroit, St. Louis, up the Missouri River eventually. Eventually to Astoria, by 1810, 1811 Fort Astoria is founded. And then in the other direction to London and markets in the Baltic, Italy, Germany, places like that.
So why are people shifting? Well, this network predates the Revolution. It's tied together through kinship among British, French, native peoples. And in that sense, these claims to nationality don't make sense to people on the ground, in that they have these sort of pre-existing relationships, and that largely the United States, but to some extent, the British Empire too, are trying to impose their sense of national identity, of national obligation. And really the book's about sort of legal status in terms of how can you command loyalty in a legal sense from these individuals.
So what happens is that the Revolution in that sense is really sort of indeterminant in the West. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 draws that line, that border. But it doesn't do anything else. And it doesn't explain how it's going to function. There's no trade agreement between Britain and the United States in 1783. And, in fact, British troops continue to garrison the Western posts. From sort of Oswego to Michigan Mackinac, British troops on American soil. And the significance of these places is these are the choke points of commerce. So these British forts are controlling key rivers and straits that control trade. So, in essence, nothing changes for these people. These people who, I mean initially the merchants are terrified. They're, "Oh my God, what's happened? We're going to lose a lot of trade. This is the end." But nothing happens.
Nothing happens until the Jay Treaty, which is negotiated in 1794, which is the first commercial agreement between the British Empire and the United States. And it helps to resolve many of these ambiguities, but it does so in a way that actually creates new ambiguities. So in the sense that the American merchants now have access to British markets, in both the archipelago, to some extent the Caribbean, and to some extent Asia too. But the Northern border there are a couple of things that are really significant.
These merchants, are allowed to choose whether or not they become an American citizen or a British subject. They have a year in which to do this, but there's no system that records this decision. And that's going to create problems. What it's going to mean is that these individuals in the future will claim, "Well, I'm an American citizen." "I'm a British subject." And there's no way to prove that they are, or are not.
The next article which is significant is freedom of movement. So what this does is guarantee freedom of movement for British subjects, American citizens, and native peoples across the border, that you cannot raise obstacles to this free movement. There's no barrier there. The border is not a place that distinguishes between people who belong within the body politic of the United States and people who are foreigners.
And this had a number of implications. Firstly for American efforts to conquer and subdue native peoples. It was a way that allowed the British Empire to continue to support native confederacies when it suited them. But in addition, it also created problems for building civil society in the West. And Detroit is a great place, a great example of this. So Detroit in the 1790s is the largest town west of the Appalachians. There's about 2,000 people living in the town and the surrounding farms. A third of them decide they're going to be British subjects, and this worried territorial officials. And it creates problems for, for example, the militia. So the Wayne County militia, the commander of the militia decides that he's no longer going to call out the militia because he doesn't trust them because he tries to muster the militia and very few people turn up. And they all say, "Well, we're busy doing other things." "We're British subjects." "We're not doing this."
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