This isn’t your grandparents’ antebellum South. A generation ago it was common for historians to talk about the “regressing” southern states in the decades preceding Civil War. The advent of democracy, the spread of enlightenment, and the triumph of free labor left slaveholders reeling and the slave institution crumbling. Secession, this narrative emphasized, was the last-ditch effort of a flailing boxer on the ropes. But scholarship from the past couple decades have put that myth to rest. Michael O’Brien demonstrated that southerners were intellectuals who contemplated the most sophisticated issues of modernity. Edward Baptist showed how the slave institution increased in strength as the financial staple in America’s capitalistic order. Walter Johnson and Sven Beckert displayed how slaveholders were at the forefront of an increasingly global economy. These and many other works all point to the same crucial revision: slaveholding southerners were “modern,” and their ideas and actions cannot be merely dismissed as remnants of an antiquated age.
Now Matthew Karp, in his new book This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard UP), teases out how this reviled cast of characters were also at the center of modern international relations and foreign affairs. It is important, he notes, “to fathom [Southerners’] intentions and to take an accurate measure of their strength” by providing “not only an ideological but also an institutional account of proslavery internationalism” (4). Representing the slave power had global implications, and so we must grapple with the imprint they left on state power in the international world. A vast majority of Secretaries of State, Secretaries of War, and foreign diplomats prior to 1860 came from southern cultures and maintained southern interests. The desire to not only preserve but expand the slave power was central to how they cultivated international relations. After Britain announced emancipation in 1833, a move that would send shock waves throughout the Atlantic World, American southerners groped for an appropriate response. The British Empire now posed a serious thread to both the global system of slavery as well as their economic stronghold, and a number of skirmishes involving slave ships stoked the rumors, but it would have been a mistake to wage war on the imperial power. Instead, they came up with what Karp calls the “foreign policy of slavery”: forcefully represent their interests on the national stage, bolster its military capacity, and support fellow slaveholding nations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Prepare for battle, but avoid war at all costs. Whereas southern states-rights-focused politicians expressed wariness over federal power, some were leading the charge for centralizing policies like expanding the navy—a reversal John Quincy Adams rightly identified as coming “reeking hot from the furnace of slavery” (34). America’s pro-slavery empire required a robust defense.
But this argument over the expansion of naval power, the focus of chapter two, hints at a deeper current throughout this book: how large and coherent was this body of southern elites devoted to foreign supremacy? Like any good historian, Karp hedges his language with language like “a vigorous military wing of he southern foreign policy,” but the extent of pervasiveness is still in limbo (33). Virginian Abel Parker Upshur, the Secretary of the Navy, did indeed have these grand visions, but almost none of it was accomplished in his few years in office. Karp may be right that this “emergence of southern navalism,” though short-lived, helped “to broaden their view of federal powers” (48), but the question remains “who” and “to what extent?” This international mission of slaveholding imperialism never seemed to be as widespread as the book’s most provocative passages seems to let on, as a tight circle of participants are almost always center stage. And even amongst this cadre of elite politicians, their ideas and policies seemed neither fully consistent nor cohesive. In trying to make these southern internationalists exceptionally modern, it is tempting to impose our own sense of modern coherence. But even if there was no systematic “foreign policy of slavery,” the underlying tensions were clearly apparent and require this type of analysis.
This problem of cohesion fades as the book moves more into the late 1840s and 1850s, when more concrete events and initiatives force a more collaborative slaveholding response. Even as they held the threat of abolitionist Britain at bay, they sought to strengthen ties with an bolster the slaveholding chops of Texas, Cuba, and Brazil. The latter two countries were especially important, because if the global emancipation efforts ceased slave labor in those locations, many believed America was soon to follow. Such a prospect had to be stopped at all costs. Even diplomat Henry Wise’s attack on the African slave trade in Brazil, according to Karp, was centered on his efforts to preserve slavery within the nation. The annexation of Texas, identified as “the quintessential achievement of the foreign policy of slavery” (100), is cast as a play to save a “slaveholding republic” from Britain’s abolitionist intrigue. The Mexican/American War is also seen as the staging ground for pro-slavery imperialists testing the power of a federal army. (To do so, of course, Karp has to spend a lot of words explaining why Calhoun, an otherwise stalwart figure of the pro-slavery expansionists, verbally denounced President Polk’s actions in Mexico. The result is not fully persuasive.) With the strength of the federal structure and the wealth of the cotton system, the slaveholding empire seemed strong indeed.
Even in the 1850s, when domestic debates and divisions seemed to doom southern slaveholders, many grew increasingly optimistic. The growth of free trade, Britain’s economic troubles, and South America’s slave profits were interpreted as good omens for slavery’s future. To elite southerners, coerced labor was not a antiquated relic under siege but the foundation for a modern, global industry—it was interwoven with new scientific progress, not antagonistic toward it. One reason they were so frustrated with the sectional battles was that it took attention away from the imperial scene–they were much more interested in extending state power through the purchase of Cuba than the divisive topic of Nebraska. The latter was a small potato compared to the former. What made Lincoln’s election in 1860 so threatening was not just that southern slaveholders, for the first time, lost control of state and foreign power, but also because the powerful system they had spent decades building could now be turned directly back on them as a global antislavery force. Their scheme had backfired. In response, southern states seceded and aimed to create a new centralized state that revolved around slavery and embraced the global capitalist order. “Secession did not produce a flight away from central authority,” Karp explains, “but the eager embrace of a new and explicitly proslavery central authority” (244). The myth of a states-rights agenda has never appeared so vanquished.
The implications of This Vast Southern Empire‘s tale are broad, besides cementing Karp as one of the leading young scholars of nineteenth century American politics. Pro-slavery southerners were not opposing modernity as much as they were trying to shape it. In reading Karp’s book I kept think of the closing and haunting line of my PhD advisor’s magnum opus, wherein he claimed historians have consciously rejected “the insight that the Old South had chosen its own way with clarity of mind, had even understood things about the intractability of the human condition, and had done much consistent with the later trajectory of the American Republic, which usefully flattered itself that aristocracy, illiberalism, and rapacity had died in 1865 and could be killed” (1202). Indeed, especially in the election year of 2016 we should be well aware that notions of progress and modernity are unstable. And so grappling with the quixotic confederate south once again forces us to deal with trenchant tensions within our culture that still refuse to die.