Trader, power, profit: Inside Michael Kwass' biography of 18th-century highwayman Louis Mandrin

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Image credit: Rohan Eason

Any contemporary flâneur should know what a "loosie" is. It's an individual cigarette sold by an enterprising individual who sees profit in buying a pack of 20 smokes and selling each one for a buck on the streets. It's also illegal. Federal and state licenses are required to sell tobacco products, as taxes on each purchase kick something back to the government. New York City police, for instance, suspected Eric Garner of selling loosies when they approached him in July 2014, resulting in the fatal encounter that sparked massive protests over excessive force by police.

Image credit: Rohan Eason

Pre-rolled, commercially produced cigarette packs entered the U.S. market in the late 19th century, so it's possible that loosies hit the street economy shortly thereafter. Michael Kwass, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of history, found out that this entrepreneurial spirit goes back a little further than that. While researching in the Archives nationales in Paris, Kwass came across a report dated July 27, 1773, involving Jean-Claude Loviat, a concierge for a Paris aristocrat. Loviat also illegally sold tobacco. When three government officials came to crack down on his underground business, his wife grabbed the stash and bolted, with two agents following in hot pursuit. Loviat beat the remaining official bloody and then chased him away with a sword.

That's right: The 18th-century French shadow economy rolled hard, and a smuggler by the name of Louis Mandrin had one of the fiercest gangs in the country. From summer 1754 to spring 1755, Mandrin was the most notorious smuggler in France. He was cherished by the common folk for selling tobacco from the Americas and calico from India, goods monopolized by the state that entered the country with high custom taxes that lined government pockets while driving the cost up for the ordinary consumer. By the time Mandrin was executed for his smuggling crimes, he was a folk hero—part Robin Hood, part Che Guevara, part bad motheryouknowwhat—whose exploits inspired French books, songs, television programs, an artisanal beer, and films well into the 20th century, most recently the film Les chants de Mandrin in 2011.

In Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground (Harvard University Press, 2014), Kwass uses Mandrin's daring life to bring together and examine three strands of historical scholarship. "Smuggling was a way to put three things together—revolution, consumption, and empire, or globalization more generally—and to build connections between them," Kwass says during an interview in his Homewood office. "And with Louis Mandrin, who was a fascinating figure in so many ways, I realized I could write this broader analytical history around the narra­tive of his life. So it's really kind of a strange book—it's a microhistory embedded in a global history."

Kwass speaks with the same clear, conversational intelligence that animates his recently fêted book. In March, Contraband was awarded the biennial Annibel Jenkins Prize by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and in April it received the Gilbert Chinard Prize, awarded jointly by the Society for French Historical Studies and the Institut Français d'Amérique. Publisher Éditions Vendémiaire is slated to release the French version in 2016. Johns Hopkins Magazine caught up with Kwass to learn more about Mandrin, the relationship between rebellion and consumerism, and what an 18th-century smuggler might be able to tell us about today's shadow economies.

I like that you call Contraband a strange book, because that's what I liked about it. It's a biography as a political economic history—or a political economy exploration as a biography. Having this really interesting figure to follow makes the bigger questions more engaging to digest. How did you arrive at this approach?

At first I imagined a book like The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Davis, which is a brilliant but very short microhistory. As I was researching Mandrin and his life, however, I got into all these problems of contextualization that I needed to fold into the story. And doing it in a paragraph here or there was simply not going to be enough. I had to expand the book.

One part of the larger story I wanted to incorporate was rebellion. Historians used to think that France calmed down between the age of Louis XIV and the revolution, but recent research has found that this was not actually the case. Rebellion was very much a part of 18th-century political life, and I wanted Mandrin's story to capture the volatility of popular politics in that period.

The other context I wanted to treat was the flipside of rebellion, namely the crack­down on smuggling by the criminal justice system. To repress the illicit economy, the French monarchy completely revamped the judicial system. Traffickers were arrested, tried, and dispatched to labor camps in unprecedented numbers. I discovered that the crackdown on the underground economy led to a massive expansion of the French criminal justice system.

Bear in mind that as I was doing my research, I was also reading the newspaper. I was struck by the parallels with the United States' war on drugs and the resulting rise in incarceration rates—we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, which is nothing to be proud of. I heard a distant echo of this in the 18th century and wanted to learn more about it. I found some striking similarities, but also some important differences, between past and present.

Can you talk a bit more about consumption?

I ask because smuggling in some ways exists because there are things people want, and in the book you explore consumption as a way to talk about ordinary people's daily lives on a certain level—if these are things people were buying, what does that tell us about their lives?

A number of historians have recently suggested that Europe experienced a consumer revolution in the 18th century. The argument is that ordinary people began to purchase more and more goods on a daily basis—clothing, colonial products, furniture, decorative objects, and so on. All of these goods were booming in this period, as men and women of the middling and to some extent laboring classes experimented with new forms of consumption. It's fascinating to think that ordinary people were engaging with the material world in new ways in the 18th century. Well before the Industrial Revolution, Europeans began buying an unprecedented quantity of goods and profoundly changed their material lives.

And just the evidence of those goods is providing some indication of what people want, what their needs and desires are?

If ordinary people were suddenly acquiring more and more stuff, then the question we must ask is why. Why did they want more goods, and what did these goods mean to them? What did it mean to wear a new style of dress, to sit on chairs instead of stools, to drink coffee from the Americas and tea from China? What I'm trying to figure out is not only what these goods meant culturally to consumers but how they fit into larger social, economic, and political systems. How did the rise of consumption change European society in the 18th century? I'm also interested in the ways in which new patterns of consumption altered the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, an enormously important question. I was drawn to the topic of smuggling because it allowed me to get at these large-scale historical problems.

How do you go about contextualizing smuggling and the underground economy? You mentioned how we read in the newspapers about criminal activity now, but a couple of centuries back, that's more difficult.

The first thing I did was get a sense of the legal framework of 18th-century trade—I had to see exactly how the state intervened in the economy. To get at the actual underground economy meant going into archives, in Paris but especially in the provinces, where various royal officials were trying to track down smugglers, arrest them, and bring them to court. So I have administrative correspondence between royal officials about smuggling networks, and I also have court records. Essential to the judicial crackdown was the creation of new courts and new modes of policing, which were supposed to be temporary but remained permanently in place—we know what that looks like today as well. These new institutions went after smugglers, especially smugglers organized in gangs, so I could get at the underground economy through judicial records. And once I began digging in, the stories were fascinating—stories of ordinary smugglers and their remarkably creative attempts to circumvent the police and make their way in an illegal trade.

Had you already recognized the relationship between rebellion and illegal trade at that point, or did you come to recognize that once you started looking through the criminal justice archives?

A little bit of both, in part because there was a very good book [La rebellion française. mouvements populaires et conscience sociale : 1661–1789] written by historian Jean Nicolas who underscored the importance of rebellion in this period. So I knew intellectually that there was a rise in rebellion, but when you go into the archives and see the violence—shootouts between officials and ordinary smugglers, communal uprisings, all kinds of resistance to arrest—when you see that in a police report, you realize what was going on in a way that a sociological overview doesn't convey.

This violence was far more intense and widespread than I expected it to be, and it really surprised me. I work on these sorts of things, so I shouldn't have been completely surprised, but it really did bring home how pervasive the underground economy was and how violent it could be. Not that everyone was violent, but the growing presence of police triggered all kinds of conflict. In the 18th century, the regulation and taxation of consumer goods was a highly sensitive political issue—smugglers didn't think the state had a right to intervene in what they considered a perfectly legitimate trade. The crown, smugglers, and consumers all had very different notions about what constituted legitimate trade.

That moral world of Mandrin himself seems to have been of particular interest to you. Where did you first start coming across him, and how did you realize he is the figure to wrap this bigger picture around?

I realized that in much of the [scholarly] literature there's a conflation of the image of Mandrin, which was constructed after his death, with his actual life and the practices of his trade. I didn't want to ignore the image making, but I did want to sort those two things out and first learn what he did, who he was, why he got into smuggling, and how he smuggled. Then I could go on to see how the image of Mandrin as a folk hero developed after his death, which was very interesting because there were competing representations of Mandrin, depending on one's political perspective. The process of image making continued through the 19th and into the 20th century, when movies about Mandrin finally appeared. In France, he really is a popular folk hero, a Jesse James–type of figure.

I really liked the chapter in the book that explores Mandrin in 18th-century popular culture. It illuminates your interest in understanding what people consume as a way of getting a grasp of what ordinary people's political ideas might be.

After Mandrin was executed, there was an explosion of popular literature on him. Even people who were illiterate or semiliterate had access to images and songs, so you can get at attitudes fairly low down in the social hierarchy. Through this kaleidoscope of texts, you can see how various ideological representations of Mandrin competed with one another. These texts also provided readers with a way to vicariously experience the violence of the underground economy—like The Sopranos or The Wire does today. Crime literature as we know it was born in the 18th century.

I should say one more thing about Mandrin—he was part of a larger smuggling underground, but he improvised on the practices that people usually used to smuggle their goods. Most smugglers in the 18th century hugged the shadows to evade detection. Mandrin started out that way, but he improvised in very public and politicized ways. That's what made him a folk hero; he was doing something dramatically different.

He improvised in two steps. The first was to publicize, not hide, what he was doing. He and his gang would storm into towns and establish open public markets in contraband goods. They were armed, they were numerous, and local officials were not inclined to intervene. Of course, the consumers loved it; he sold them large quantities of illegal goods at very low prices. This brought Mandrin a lot of attention as newspapers picked up the story.

But his second improvisation was what really amazed me. And that is what we might call his forced sales. His gang would ride up to a state tobacco warehouse—the state had a monopoly on tobacco and sold it at very high prices—and Mandrin would basically say, "I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse." Under the threat of violence, he offered to sell his illegal contraband tobacco to state officials, who agreed to buy it at whatever price he demanded. These were coercive exchanges to be sure, but they were exchanges nonetheless. Mandrin did not think of himself as a thief. He thought these exchanges were, to some extent, morally legitimate. In fact, after such transactions, Mandrin wrote out receipts and left them with state retailers.

I found many of these receipts in the archives. Mandrin expected state tobacco sellers to pass the receipts up the ladder to the rich financiers at the top of the royal tobacco monopoly, so that the financiers would have to cover the costs of his forced exchanges. This suggests that Mandrin had a fairly sophisticated sense of the political and social system in which he was embedded. He was aiming his forced sales at financiers who were widely detested in popular culture. Newspapers and pamphleteers then highlighted Mandrin's subversive commercial practices, electrifying the public and turning the gang leader into a poster boy for the underground.

I like that you use the word "improvisation" because it speaks to his sophisticated understanding of what the tobacco infrastructure is and how to attack and subvert it at the same time.

He was very subversive, very sophisticated, but also very violent, and I didn't want to hide that fact. His violence was usually aimed at agents of the tobacco monopoly, which gave it a quasi-moral or legitimate dimension, but it was still violence. He killed many guards of the monopoly.

Do you have any favorite Mandrin stories, either because of their derring-do or because they illustrate points that you find really rich?

There are a couple of interesting anecdotes that bring out what I call the "moral economy" in his smuggling. In one case, a gang member killed an innocent bystander in a shootout, and the gang held a trial to determine his guilt or innocence. He was found not guilty, but [he] was instructed to cover the costs of the victim's funeral.

So the gang was not just riding into town and shooting the place up and then riding out. Its members had certain moral expectations of themselves and their behavior. And this came out in another case where one member of the gang sold some calico cloth—the other article they smuggled—at an extremely high price to an ordinary consumer. Mandrin intervened and forced the gang member to lower his price so that it was in line with the going price on the black market.

Stories like this illuminate the complex moral world Mandrin inhabited. I wanted to explore that world, to uncover its ambiguities, and to show how it was connected to a larger universe of 18th-century underground trade.

Throughout your book, I was reminded of Peter Andreas' Smuggler Nation, which tells the history of the United States through its illegal trade. You both point out that what a state chooses to prohibit has political and economic interests behind it. That's important to remember because it's very convenient to think that the war on drugs was strictly a response to drug trafficking of the 1960s and not in a tradition of power saying who gets to profit off certain things.

When people think of globalization, they often think of free trade, the decline of national borders, and the beneficial effects of an integrated world market. But we know there are problems with globalization, such as the deterioration of labor markets. I wanted to show that the problems of globalization extended as well to underground economies and violence. Sure, today the world economy is becoming increasingly integrated, but states are still powerful and they intervene in the global economy in any number of ways. They regulate and tax certain goods, and that creates opportunities for people to profit from illicit trade.

We're aware of this because we read about our own war on drugs, but this is an old problem. Over the course of the early modern period, intercontinental trade rapidly developed among Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, but all this trade was highly regulated at the same time. European rulers imposed import taxes, bans, and regulations to structure overseas trade so that it would benefit themselves, their cronies, and their realms, but this also created opportunities for ordinary people to make money in underground economies. Paradoxically, these laws ended up stimulating vast illicit economies, which constituted a kind of dark side of globalization. So there are interesting parallels between today and the 18th century.

Understanding this period you're looking at, what does that give us to think about as we consider our own shadow economies?

In some ways, the so-called neoliberal state seems to be retreating from regulating economy and society, but there are other ways in which that state is intervening heavily, most obviously with respect to narcotics and the penal repression that stems from enforcing prohibitions. So the parallels are striking: Prohibitions generate trafficking and criminality, and criminality leads to the expansion of the criminal justice system.

The state intervening to benefit its self-interest.

Yes, and I'll get to self-interest in a second because I think that's an interesting idea. But I think the ways in which my case diverges from current understandings of the war on drugs is even more interesting than the parallels. The first type of divergence has to do with race, because race played a part then and it plays a part today.

In the 18th century, race played a major role in the sphere of production because many of these smuggled goods, particularly tobacco, were produced by enslaved men and women of African descent. Today, race also plays a role but more conspicuously in the repression of illicit trade. Judicial repression not only falls heavily on the poor, as it did in the 18th century, but also disproportionately on African-Americans, who have clearly borne the brunt of the war on drugs. It is disturbing to think that descendants of slaves who were forced to grow a profitable psychoactive product, like tobacco, in the 18th century are now disproportionately pursued for trading in and consuming psychoactive products. It just goes to show you how deeply ingrained racism is in the history of the United States.

The other interesting difference between past and present is the state's own vision of what it is doing. In the 18th century, states did not attempt to moralize the issue of illicit trade. The French crown did not demonize the goods that circulated in the clandestine economy. What strikes me about the war on drugs today is the moral force behind state intervention. Since the war on drugs began in the 1970s, narcotics have been portrayed as corrupting the moral fiber of the nation—and this of course is not unrelated to the racialized forms of repression I just spoke of.

It's interesting to hear that said so plainly, the morality of the war on drugs, because it's such a given. No matter where you are on that chain of drugs in America—growing, distribution, sales, user—it's bad all along the continuum. There's something wrong with you for participating in this economy.

And what's so interesting about the movement to liberalize the marijuana trade in various states is that we're seeing a moral shift reflected at the level of law, not just an economic shift. We don't know where liberalization will lead, but it's very interesting to watch. I know from my own research that this is not going to destroy underground trade because there's still going to be significant price differentials between regulated marijuana and unregulated marijuana. But what is most fascinating to observe is how the relationship between law, popular morality, and the economy is evolving in our own day, just as it was evolving in the 18th century.

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer.