Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution


July 6, 2020
by David Kindy Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution by Tyson Reeder. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019

America’s struggle for liberty ushered in an era of tumult across the Western Hemisphere. Known as the Age of Revolution, a cadre of colonies on this side of the Atlantic Ocean looked to overthrow their European masters and establish their own countries. A new book by Tyson Reeder, an editor with The Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia, examines this engaging and little-understood moment in time. Through exhaustive research and careful analysis, the author reveals how free trade was used to spur the call to arms and install new republics with which the nascent United States could develop economic partnerships.

Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution focuses primarily on the relationship between America and the Portuguese colony of Brazil, which was beginning to express its own desires for independence. The United States saw its republican model as the example to be followed and pushed rebel leaders in that direction. As the book’s title suggests, American leaders used plunder, contraband and other “free trade” commerce to persuade those seeking independence in South America to join the movement toward liberty. If legal trade agreements could not be established, then piracy and smuggling were used to demonstrate how open commerce could lead to prosperity and financial freedom. However, as Reeder points out, such matters of foreign policy—especially relating to economic growth—do not always play out as planned.

The author describes how the United States saw free trade as a means to an end—that is, freedom and independence from their European overlords. As the American colonies became more rebellious, England clamped down by restricting trade and exerting oppressive governmental policies to bring its subjects across the sea back in line. On the other hand, Portugal viewed the problem of its grumbling foreign outposts from a different perspective. Instead of limiting economic opportunities, Portuguese leaders in the late 19th century loosened their iron fist on trade and allowed Brazilians a greater hand in free trade and prosperity. That seems to have had an influence on how the colony would later establish its own government. In addition, the matter of establishing a republic in Brazil became more complicated when the monarchy and government relocated from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1807 when Napoleon invaded Portugal. For thirteen years, the royal court ruled its empire while headquartered across the Atlantic. That set a formidable precedent for Brazil, which opted for a monarchy of its own when it finally cast off its imperial overlords in 1825. Before that, though, Reeder shows how the United States courted South American revolutionaries with economic and diplomatic enticements to establish republics. America truly believed its own experiment would work elsewhere and thought the time was right for Brazil.

While still in the sphere of influence of England, the American colonies had already developed a strong trade with the Portuguese empire. The Navigation Acts enabled colonial merchants to trade freely with Portugal for Madeira wine, which was acquired with American wheat. That arrangement opened the door for more lucrative and unsettling opportunities, including slavery. Eventually, the new republic would develop its own triangular trade with Portugal and Brazil, where wine, gold and slaves were exchanged with impunity. Instead of becoming fraternal republics, the United States and Brazil would grow to become major economic partners in the shared misery of human bondage. While the United States did have success in opening the doors to free trade—licit and illicit—the path to new republics proved fruitless. As South America threw off its colonial yokes, the new countries established monarchies and hierarchal structures that followed the European model. As Reeder sums up his examination of this interesting moment in history: “Smugglers, pirates and patriots had fractured empires, contested state power, and revolutionized Atlantic commerce. As the curtain fell on the Age of Revolution, North Americans abandoned faith that the United States would lead the Americas into a new era of republicanism and free trade.”

Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution is a deserving new volume on a little-known era in American history. Reeder’s detailed research and analysis provide new insight on the Luso-Atlantic trade and its influence on the development of the Americas, both North and South.

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One thought on “Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution

  • I cannot begin to tell you how valuable this information is to me – and my friends – it makes learning about the events of 1776/83 an interesting journey – full of surprises and unexpected events. The
    best thing about the articles is that they are easy to read – easy to remember and easy to share with
    friends who share the quest for knowledge of what their ancestors were faced with in the quest for the freedom for the young UNITED STATES OF AMERICA !
    Thank you and your editors for making this available.

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