This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy.
Over the past decade, scholars have challenged the assumption that slaveholders in the United States represented a backward looking, insular, and agrarian feudal class. Instead, historians have portrayed Southern planters as cosmopolitan capitalists who were fully engaged with the modern world and its politics.
Matthew Karp contributes to this now-dominant interpretation with his study of the influence that slaveholders had on antebellum American foreign policy. Between 1840 and 1860, Karp argues, slaveholders used their disproportionate control of the nation's diplomatic establishment to develop a "foreign policy of slavery," which sought to use federal power to secure human property everywhere in the hemisphere (7). While in control of the federal government, Southern statesmen strayed far from the states-rights, limited government philosophies often associated with proslavery thought; in fact, Karp argues, Southern politicians actively emulated the strong-armed practices of European imperialists.
Karp begins his book by arguing that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 proved pivotal in shaping the Southern approach to foreign affairs. Under President John Tyler, slaveholding secretaries of state Abel Upshur and John C. Calhoun presided over an expansion of the navy and sent American ships on a goodwill mission to Cuba. In both instances, they responded to the fear that an antislavery Great
Britain might seek to inaugurate "a hemispheric struggle between slavery and abolition" (67-68). Indeed, Karp argues, fear of British meddling led the Polk administration to push for the speedy acquisition of Texas. By the 1850s, the "foreign policy of slavery" became less defensive, but no less aggressive. Slaveholders in the Pierce administration, buoyed by the increasing profitability of slavery, made several attempts to acquire Cuba, and Jefferson Davis, as secretary of war, built an army that he hoped would be able to project imperial power in the American West and beyond. In all instances, slaveholders were motivated by their belief that racially bound labor held the key to the world's future. They drew inspiration from the growing prevalence in the modern world of racist pseudo-science, contract labor, and debt servitude. When slaveholders lost control of the government to an antislavery party, Karp concludes, Confederates seceded in order to construct a powerful nation that would continue to pursue imperialistic proslavery ambitions.
Karp's work provides an engaging chronological narrative of antebellum diplomacy. He convincingly establishes that Southern policymakers sought to use national power to promote and defend slavery. Still, he might have developed a more complicated analysis of the relationship between support for the national interest and support for slavery. Where did the one end and the other begin? After all, such slaveholders as Calhoun, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson championed nationalist policies long before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Conversely, decidedly antislavery secretary of state John Quincy Adams secured the acquisition of Florida. Karp might also have paid more attention to partisan politics. Most of the figures he studies were Democrats, and the administration of the slaveholding Whig Zachary Taylor and his northern successor Millard Fillmore, receives only cursory treatment.
That said, scholars will find Karp's detailed discussion of diplomatic events indispensable, and more general readers will appreciate his engaging prose. In short, Karp's book offers a well-researched, coherent, and convincing analysis of some of the most important trends in nineteenth-century foreign affairs.
Andre M. Fleche
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|Title Annotation:||THE AMERICAS|
|Author:||Fleche, Andre M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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