David S. Reynolds

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This Vast South­ern Em­pire: Slave­hold­ers at the Helm of Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy by Matthew Karp.

Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 360 pp., $29.95

The US Civil War was once com­monly in­ter­preted as a con­flict be­tween a pro­gres­sive North, in­dus­tri­ally strong and com­mit­ted to a pow­er­ful cen­tral gov­ern­ment, and a back­ward South that clung to states’ rights and agrar­i­an­ism in its ef­fort to pre­serve slav­ery. In this read­ing, pro­posed most in­flu­en­tially by the late Eu­gene D. Gen­ovese, the South was dis­tanced from mod­ern so­ci­ety and the world scene.

Re­cent his­to­ri­ans in­creas­ingly have rec­og­nized the in­ad­e­quacy of this ex­pla­na­tion. As the pro­ducer of Amer­ica’s lead­ing ex­port, cot­ton, the South in the first half of the nine­teenth cen­tury was a ma­jor par­tic­i­pant in the global econ­omy. Its rate of ur­ban­iza­tion rel­a­tive to pop­u­la­tion, while not as rapid as the North’s, ex­ceeded that of Eng­land, France, or the Amer­i­can Mid­west. Po­lit­i­cally, the South was dom­i­nant. Slave own­ers oc­cu­pied the pres­i­dency for about three quar­ters of the na­tion’s first sixty-four years. A slave owner, John Mar­shall, served as the chief jus­tice of the Supreme Court for over three decades and was suc­ceeded by an­other one, Roger Taney, who headed the Court for al­most as long. For much of this time, south­ern­ers had a grip on the cab­i­net and lower gov­ern­ment po­si­tions as well.

The ex­pan­sion of slav­ery was one of the South’s main goals. The im­me­di­ate trig­ger of the Civil War was the elec­tion of Abra­ham Lin­coln, whose aim of halt­ing the west­ward spread of slav­ery led to the South’s se­ces­sion and the out­break of war. Matthew Karp’s il­lu­mi­nat­ing book This Vast South­ern Em­pire shows that the South was in­ter­ested not only in gain­ing new slave ter­ri­tory but also in pro­mot­ing slav­ery through­out the West­ern Hemi­sphere. Far from in­su­lar, proslav­ery lead­ers had a far-reach­ing aware­ness of the in­ter­na­tional sta­tus of hu­man bondage, which they re­garded as es­sen­tial to progress and pros­per­ity. Hold­ing the reins of po­lit­i­cal power, slave own­ers largely de­ter­mined Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy from the 1830s through the 1850s. As Karp re­veals, they were well po­si­tioned to use the re­sources of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to push their agenda around the world.

This reliance on the na­tional gov­ern­ment, man­i­fested in ro­bust mil­i­tary spend­ing and an ag­gres­sive pol­icy abroad, was at odds with the states’ rights po­si­tion that south­ern­ers took on other is­sues. Then as now, politi­cians were at ease with in­con­sis­ten­cies as long as their goals were served. The South op­por­tunis­ti­cally ap­pealed both to states’ rights (as in its re­sis­tance to fed­eral tam­per­ing with slav­ery) and to a strong na­tional gov­ern­ment (as in its sup­port of the Fugi­tive Slave Act or the gag rule on the dis­cus­sion of slav­ery in Congress). In for­eign pol­icy, Karp demon­strates, proslav­ery elites fa­vored a pow­er­ful cen­tral gov­ern­ment. The his­to­rian Henry Adams later re­called, “When­ever a ques­tion arose of ex­tend­ing or pro­tect­ing slav­ery, the slave-hold­ers be­came friends of cen­tral­ized power, and used that dan­ger­ous weapon with a kind of frenzy.”

The pro­gram of de­fend­ing slav­ery in­ter­na­tion­ally, Karp demon­strates, was driven by a grow­ing con­cern over the en­croach­ments of abo­li­tion­ism abroad. In Au­gust 1833, Great Bri­tain an­nounced the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in its Caribbean colonies. While the eman­ci­pa­tion of the Bri­tish West Indies is widely rec­og­nized as a sig­nif­i­cant event in the his­tory of abo­li­tion, no one has de­scribed its ef­fect on US in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions as fully or per­sua­sively as Karp does. The lib­er­a­tion of some 800,000 blacks in the West Indies alarmed south­ern lead­ers. Alarm turned to out­rage when Bri­tish of­fi­cials in Ber­muda freed en­slaved blacks on three Amer­i­can ships stranded or wrecked there in the 1830s and sub­se­quently lib­er­ated slave rebels who had taken over the US brig Cre­ole in 1841. Fear­ing that Bri­tish-led abo­li­tion­ism would spread to slave­hold­ing pow­ers like Brazil, Cuba, and the Repub­lic of Texas, the ad­min­is­tra­tions of John Tyler and James K. Polk strength­ened the US mil­i­tary. The Vir­ginian Abel Parker Up­shur, who served un­der Tyler as sec­re­tary of the navy and then as sec­re­tary of state, ap­pealed to Congress for funds that he hoped would cre­ate a mar­itime force half the size of Eng­land’s navy, the largest in the world. Up­shur’s suc­ces­sor in the State Depart­ment, John C. Cal­houn of South Carolina, con­tin­ued the push for a mighty navy. Other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, al­most all of them cham­pi­ons of slav­ery, spear­headed the estab­lish­ment of a stand­ing army and the mod­ern­iza­tion of ships and weapons.

This gov­ern­men­tal mus­cle-flex­ing was widely seen as an­tic­i­pat­ing an in­ter­na­tional war over slav­ery. Ge­or­gia con­gress­man Thomas But­ler King, de­nounc­ing Eng­land for free­ing its slaves in the West Indies, de­clared that “we might ex­pect war—war to the knife— war with all her thun­der.” James Henry Ham­mond of South Carolina wanted to “send a strong squadron” to po­lice the Bri­tish navy. Abel Up­shur con­sid­ered war in­evitable and said that the only ques­tion was “where and by whom shall these bat­tles be fought”—whether by the navy at sea or by the army on land. The naval of­fi­cer and en­gi­neer of south­ern forts Wil­liam Henry Chase pre­dicted “a great naval bat­tle in the Gulf of Mex­ico or the Caribbean Sea” to com­bat “the pol­icy of Eng­land and the abo­li­tion­ists” who were dead set on eman­ci­pa­tion in Cuba and the rest of “the slave is­lands of West Indies.” As Karp makes clear, such prophe­cies of war had strong el­e­ments of racial para­noia. Robert Mon­roe Har­ri­son, the Vir­ginia-born US con­sul in Ja­maica, feared that Bri­tish forces in the Caribbean might send “up­wards of 200,000 blacks” from the West Indies to in­vade the Amer­i­can South. Thomas But­ler King called for stronger coastal defenses to ward off a pos­si­ble ef­fort by what he called “fleets of armed steam­ers, loaded with black troops from the West Indies, to an­noy and plun­der the coun­try.” The ag­ing ex-pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son, ob­serv­ing his na­tion from his Ten­nessee plan­ta­tion, warned that an al­liance be­tween Eng­land and the Repub­lic of Texas could lead to an in­va­sion of the Amer­i­can South by up to 30,000 troops. Such an in­va­sion, he thought, would spur slave in­sur­rec­tions that would rage “all over the south­ern and west­ern coun­try.”

The south­ern­ers, Karp notes, were just “scar­ing them­selves”; their fears were “il­lu­sory—or con­sciously pro­pa­gan­dis­tic.” But the fears were strong, and they contributed to the war be­tween the United States and Mex­ico, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. The Mex­i­can War is cus­tom­ar­ily as­so­ci­ated with the South’s greed for new slave lands to the west and with the spirit of “man­i­fest destiny” pro­claimed by the Demo­cratic ed­i­tor John L. O’Sul­li­van in 1845. With­out deny­ing these and other in­flu­ences, Karp em­pha­sizes an­other di­men­sion of the war: its align­ment with a for­eign pol­icy of so­lid­i­fy­ing slav­ery within the hemi­sphere. Texas, which be­came a state in 1845, “was above all a slave­hold­ing repub­lic in the West­ern Hemi­sphere” that

re­quired US sup­port—and, if nec­es­sary, US pro­tec­tion. Threat­ened by abo­li­tion­ist forces from both Great Bri­tain and Mex­ico, the Lone Star Repub­lic rep­re­sented a key arena in the larger bat­tle over the fu­ture of slav­ery.

The Mex­i­can War pro­voked on­go­ing dis­putes over the set­tle­ment of the vast ter­ri­to­ries won from Mex­ico, which stretched all the way to the Pa­cific. Would the ter­ri­to­ries go for slav­ery or free­dom?

Ten­sions over the is­sue es­ca­lated dur­ing the 1850s. This decade is tra­di­tion­ally viewed as a time when the South be­came in­tran­si­gent and re­vived its con­ser­va­tive tra­di­tions as northerners were in­creas­ingly at­tracted to re­forms, such as abo­li­tion­ism. Karp ar­gues that, in fact, the South saw it­self as ultramodern and for­ward-look­ing. Slave coun­tries like Brazil and Cuba, proslav­ery lead­ers held, were pros­per­ing while places where slav­ery had been abol­ished, such as Mex­ico and the West Indies, were far­ing poorly. Slav­ery, there­fore, ap­peared to south­ern­ers to make ex­cel­lent eco­nomic sense for the mod­ern world. Amer­i­can cham­pi­ons of hu­man bondage noted that even Eng­land, de­spite its of­fi­cial pol­icy of abo­li­tion, ex­ploited indige­nous peo­ples in In­dia, China, South Africa, and else­where. The ne­ces­sity of co­erced la­bor was also proved by the wide­spread use of other types of dark-skinned work­ers—whether “coolies,” “ap­pren­tices,” or “slaves”—to cul­ti­vate agri­cul­tural staples through­out the West­ern Hemi­sphere. The Amer­i­cans in­sisted that, in com­par­i­son to the de­struc­tive im­pe­ri­al­ism of Great Bri­tain and other na­tions, slav­ery in the US was be­nign and ex­em­plary.

The south­ern view, Karp re­minds us, was bol­stered by con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tific eth­nol­ogy, which iden­ti­fied “in­fe­rior” races des­tined to die off un­less they had the pro­tec­tion and se­cu­rity of­fered by Amer­i­can-style slav­ery. The po­lit­i­cal es­say­ist Louisa McCord, an out­spo­ken de­fender of slav­ery, echoed the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus when she wrote in 1851, “God’s will formed the weaker race so that they dwin­dle and die out by con­tact with the stronger.... Slav­ery, then, or ex­ter­mi­na­tion, seems to be the fate of the dark races.” South­ern masters were pre­sented to the world as mod­els of how to save black peo­ple from ex­tinc­tion. A writer for the south­ern mag­a­zine De Bow’s Re­view de­scribed the South’s “three hun­dred thou­sand masters” as an im­pe­rial army “stand­ing guard over a na­tion of four

mil­lion ne­groes, and ab­so­lutely pre­serv­ing their lives from de­struc­tion.” The Ge­or­gia agri­cul­tur­al­ist Daniel Lee ar­gued, “If civ­i­lized man has a right to sub­due, tame, teach, and civ­i­lize wild men, [then] the plow, the hoe, and the whip are the best known means to ac­com­plish such pur­poses.” These racial at­ti­tudes fed into the ethos be­hind the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica, whose vice-pres­i­dent, Alexan­der Stephens, boasted in 1861 that the Con­fed­er­acy was the first so­ci­ety founded on “the great truth, that the ne­gro is not equal to the white man; that slav­ery— sub­or­di­na­tion to the su­pe­rior race—is his nat­u­ral and nor­mal con­di­tion.” Con­vinced that they were ad­vanc­ing a no­ble cause, many south­ern­ers serv­ing in the US gov­ern­ment dur­ing the 1850s con­tin­ued to ad­vo­cate for a mil­i­tary buildup in re­sponse to what they re­garded as a world­wide threat from abo­li­tion­ism. Al­though the proslav­ery politi­cians did not get ev­ery­thing they re­quested from Congress, by 1857 they had suc­ceeded in nearly dou­bling the size of the naval fleet, qua­dru­pling the num­ber of guns on the ships, and in­creas­ing ac­tive troops in the army from 11,000 to nearly 16,000.

Karp points out ironies sur­round­ing this use of fed­eral power to bol­ster the proslav­ery cause. Many of the shal­low­draft ves­sels pro­duced as a re­sult of proslav­ery pres­sure were put to ef­fec­tive use dur­ing the Civil War by the North in its naval block­ade of south­ern ports. There was irony too in the North’s complicity in proslav­ery poli­cies. South­ern lead­ers gloated that the North, with all its moral pos­tur­ing against slav­ery, built many of the ships used in the in­ter­na­tional slave trade. Henry A. Wise of Vir­ginia de­clared that the Amer­i­cans most in­volved in the slave trade were “all from North of Balt[imore],” and that even abo­li­tion­ists some­times par­tic­i­pated, as in the case of a no­to­ri­ous ship that landed about six hun­dred slaves in Brazil and “was owned by a Quaker of Delaware who would not even eat slave sugar,” or of an­other slave ship run by some­one who was “the owner of an abo­li­tion news­pa­per in Ban­gor, Maine.” There were many other com­mer­cial ties be­tween the North and the South as well. As the Demo­cratic ed­i­tor Duff Green wrote, slav­ery “unites the in­ter­ests of the sev­eral states, fur­nishes the ba­sis of for­eign com­merce...[and] con­sti­tutes an el­e­ment of their com­mon pros­per­ity.”

One of Karp’s con­tri­bu­tions is to re­veal ways in which the South was not iso­lated, ei­ther na­tion­ally or in­ter­na­tion­ally. He shows that it ap­pro­pri­ated the main struc­tures of fed­eral power. In this sense, through much of the era lead­ing up to the Civil War, the South, ef­fec­tively, was the United States, at least in its con­tacts with the rest of the world. As Karp writes:

For nearly the whole an­te­bel­lum pe­riod, south­ern con­fi­dence in slav­ery was more of­ten syn­ony­mous with con­fi­dence in the United States, whose gov­ern­ment had done so much to nur­ture slave in­sti­tu­tions through­out the hemi­sphere.

This plau­si­ble ar­gu­ment il­lus­trates how fresh in­sights can emerge from the re­cent em­pha­sis in his­tor­i­cal and other stud­ies on global per­spec­tives and views that fol­low de­vel­op­ments across hemi­spheres. The hemi­spheric ap­proach also helps Karp ex­plain cer­tain anom­alies in the proslav­ery po­si­tion. For in­stance, pre­vi­ous his­to­ri­ans have won­dered why such fer­vent slav­ery pro­mot­ers as John Cal­houn and Henry Wise at times de­nounced the in­ter­na­tional slave trade, which was be­ing car­ried on by na­tions like Brazil and Cuba. Karp’s an­swer: some proslav­ery lead­ers wanted slav­ery to be es­tab­lished in the West­ern Hemi­sphere as a per­ma­nent, self-re­gen­er­at­ing in­sti­tu­tion, not one that had to be fed con­stantly by Africa. They and other south­ern­ers were con­vinced that this could hap­pen. As South Carolina sen­a­tor James Ch­es­nut de­clared, slav­ery “is not a dead body, but one full of life, vigor, and pli­a­bil­ity; ca­pa­ble of self-cre­at­ing power and preser­va­tion.”

One dif­fi­culty with em­pha­siz­ing the South’s po­si­tion within the hemi­sphere is that do­ing so min­i­mizes the pro­found sec­tional dif­fer­ences, real or per­ceived, that led to the Civil War. Karp is right in say­ing that some northerners par­tic­i­pated in or prof­ited from slav­ery and that the South sought to align its goals with na­tional pol­icy. But it is im­por­tant to note that pas­sion­ate an­ti­slav­ery fer­vor gath­ered in the North around some of the same in­ter­na­tional ac­tiv­i­ties that aroused proslav­ery sen­ti­ment in the South.

Take a cen­ter­piece of Karp’s book: the eman­ci­pa­tion of the Bri­tish West Indies. This was met with hos­til­ity in the South but also in­tense joy in the North. Wil­liam Lloyd Gar­ri­son de­clared that “the abo­li­tion of West In­dia slav­ery was, per­haps, the most re­mark­able, cer­tainly the most af­fect­ing event in the his­tory of hu­man eman­ci­pa­tion.” Ralph Waldo Emer­son went fur­ther, call­ing abo­li­tion in the West Indies “an event sin­gu­lar in the his­tory of civ­i­liza­tion.” For over three decades af­ter 1833, Amer­i­can an­ti­slav­ery groups cel­e­brated West Indies Eman­ci­pa­tion Day on Au­gust 1—so of­ten, in fact, that the re­former Sa­muel May could as­sert in 1865 that the day had been hon­ored in the North “more uni­formly and gen­er­ally than in Eng­land it­self.”

If there was some­thing like unity in the na­tional gov­ern­ment on for­eign pol­icy, there were bit­ter cul­tural di­vi­sions be­tween the North and the South. Ex­ten­sive anal­y­sis of cul­tural dif­fer­ences is fre­quently miss­ing from po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic his­to­ries such as Karp’s that seek to an­a­lyze events in a global per­spec­tive. Al­though Mark Twain ex­ag­ger­ated when he re­marked that the Civil War was caused by “the Sir Wal­ter [Scott] disease” that in­fected the South, he had a point. The South’s ded­i­ca­tion to ideals then as­so­ci­ated with Wal­ter Scott’s im­mensely pop­u­lar nov­els—chivalry, honor, and the like—shaped its iden­tity as much as the transat­lantic con­cerns about race that Karp dis­cusses. If the South cham­pi­oned slav­ery be­fore the world, as Karp shows us, it also built a eu­phemistic de­fense of its so­ci­ety by fab­ri­cat­ing cul­tural myths about its al­leged su­pe­ri­or­ity to the North, which it rep­re­sented as fa­nat­i­cal, base, and full of an­ar­chic ten­den­cies.

The per­ceived cul­tural di­vide was so great that some lead­ing south­ern­ers said that the war was not about slav­ery but about rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent peo­ples. A south­ern cor­re­spon­dent for the New York Her­ald, the na­tion’s most widely read news­pa­per, put it this way: “The peo­ple of the North and those of the South are dis­tinct and sep­a­rate. They think dif­fer­ently; they spring from a dif­fer­ent stock; they are dif­fer­ent ev­ery way; they can­not co­a­lesce.” Mis­sis­sip­pian J. Quit­man Moore wrote in De Bow’s Re­view, “No civil strife is this; . . . but a war of alien races, dis­tinct na­tion­al­i­ties, and op­po­site, hos­tile and eter­nally an­tag­o­nis­tic Gov­ern­ments.” A Ten­nessee-born army of­fi­cer wrote that “the bed rock cause of our po­lit­i­cal wran­gling and dis­pu­ta­tions” was a “dis­sim­i­lar­ity of hu­man na­ture” be­tween northerners and south­ern­ers.

Such ex­treme state­ments of dif­fer­ence re­flected the South’s eva­sion of the hard facts of slav­ery just as surely as did its claims to for­eign na­tions that it had an ex­em­plary his­tory of slave­hold­ing. Cul­tural myths and po­lit­i­cal lies were part of the South’s ef­fort to take the moral high road. Since Karp’s goal is to de­scribe and an­a­lyze the claims many south­ern states­men made, it’s un­der­stand­able that he is spar­ing in his ac­count of the harsh re­al­i­ties of slav­ery—the phys­i­cal suf­fer­ing and shat­tered fam­i­lies that we find in the slave nar­ra­tives and abo­li­tion­ist lit­er­a­ture of the pe­riod. One of the few times Karp gives voice to an African-Amer­i­can in his book speaks to the heart­less com­pla­cency of south­ern slave­hold­ing. He quotes Fred­er­ick Dou­glass as re­mark­ing on “the cool and thought­ful con­clu­sions of the lead­ing minds of the slave­hold­ing States. They let us into the sources of South­ern re­pose, the tran­quil­ity of tyrants.”

Dou­glass’s words were apt. The frigid cal­lous­ness en­gen­dered by the slave sys­tem was ap­palling. Herein lies a real ad­van­tage in Karp’s transna­tional ap­proach. By tak­ing a global per­spec­tive, Karp suc­cess­fully reen­acts the re­moved at­ti­tude of the slave­hold­ers them­selves. He cites a num­ber of proslav­ery com­men­ta­tors who boasted of the sleek ef­fi­ciency of slav­ery. One spoke of it as “a well-fin­ished piece of machin­ery”; an­other held that it made the worker a “bet­ter wealth ma­chine”; even an an­ti­slav­ery Bri­tish politi­cian com­pared it to “a steam-en­gine,” far more pow­er­ful than the “race horse” of eman­ci­pated la­bor.

Read­ing This Vast South­ern Em­pire is like rid­ing a huge ve­hi­cle that moves in­ex­orably over plains filled with wretched, chained hu­man be­ings. Blue skies are above, and we are perched so high that we are shielded from the sights and sounds of slav­ery—the lac­er­ated backs and cropped ears, the sweat and blood, the groan­ing and the sor­row­ful songs.

Shielded but, per­haps, all the more aware of the mis­ery than we would oth­er­wise be. One thinks of the min­i­mal­ist way Thoreau treats the Mid­dle Pas­sage in his clas­sic an­ti­slav­ery speech “A Plea for Cap­tain John Brown”: “The slave­ship is on her way, crowded with its dy­ing vic­tim. . . . What is that that I hear cast over­board? The bod­ies of the dead that have found de­liv­er­ance. That is the way we are ‘dif­fus­ing’ hu­man­ity, and its sen­ti­ments with it.” Thoreau’s ship is a synec­doche for slav­ery—the sys­tem of cru­elty cloaked by benev­o­lence that is pre­sented in Karp’s sug­ges­tive book.

A slave fam­ily, Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia, early 1860s

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