This post is part of a new and recurring blog series I am editing, which announces the release of selected new works in African American and African Diaspora History. Today is the official release date for This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, published by Harvard University Press.
When the United States emerged as a world power in the years before the Civil War, the men who presided over the nation’s triumphant territorial and economic expansion were largely southern slaveholders. As presidents, cabinet officers, and diplomats, slaveholding leaders controlled the main levers of foreign policy inside an increasingly powerful American state. This Vast Southern Empire explores the international vision and strategic operations of these southerners at the commanding heights of American politics.
For proslavery leaders like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, the nineteenth-century world was torn between two hostile forces: a rising movement against bondage, and an Atlantic plantation system that was larger and more productive than ever before. In this great struggle, southern statesmen saw the United States as slavery’s most powerful champion. Overcoming traditional qualms about a strong central government, slaveholding leaders harnessed the power of the state to defend slavery abroad. During the antebellum years, they worked energetically to modernize the U.S. military, while steering American diplomacy to protect slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas.
As Matthew Karp demonstrates, these leaders were nationalists, not separatists. Their “vast southern empire” was not an independent South but the entire United States, and only the election of Abraham Lincoln broke their grip on national power. Fortified by years at the helm of U.S. foreign affairs, slaveholding elites formed their own Confederacy—not only as a desperate effort to preserve their property but as a confident bid to shape the future of the Atlantic world.
“An essential and compelling account of the slaveholding elite’s grip on national and foreign policy in antebellum America. Provocative, engaging, and beautifully written, this book will endure.” —Stephanie McCurry, author of Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South
Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principal findings or arguments of This Vast Southern Empire? What do you hope readers take away from your new book?
Matthew Karp: This Vast Southern Empire begins with the observation that the men who directed antebellum American foreign policy were overwhelmingly southern slaveholders. Of course, slaveholders — assisted by their northern political allies — had a lopsided influence over almost every aspect of the U.S. government before 1861. But my book argues that their power was especially concentrated in the parts of the government that oversaw international relations.
After Great Britain abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies in 1833, American slaveholders came to see the United States as the Western Hemisphere’s great champion of slave property. That meant that although southern politics in the 1840s and 1850s was dominated by the rhetoric of states’ rights, slaveholding politicians — men like Secretary of State John C. Calhoun and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis — became America’s most aggressive advocates of a muscular foreign policy. They led ambitious efforts to reform, expand, and centralize the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. And they sought to use the growing power of the United States to protect the institution of slavery wherever it was threatened — not only in the South but in foreign slave societies all across the Americas, from the Empire of Brazil to the Republic of Texas.
These efforts helped sustain the enormous mid-nineteenth-century boom in hemispheric slave production that scholars have begun to call “the second slavery.” Between Cuba, Brazil, and the United States, there were far more slave-produced goods, slave-produced profits, and enslaved people in 1860 than there had been in 1833. In the 1850s, American slaveholders were supremely confident that slavery would continue to survive and thrive across the hemisphere. That confidence helps explain why southern leaders were willing to abandon the union and found their own proslavery state in 1861.
I hope readers come away from the book with a richer sense of the international power and sophistication of the slaveholding class. These were not backward provincials, but men who saw themselves on the vanguard of history and had the entire power of the United States to back them up. They were defeated in the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean we should forget or diminish what they stood for, at home and abroad. My epilogue begins with W.E.B. Du Bois’s commencement speech at Harvard in 1890, which he called “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois argued that the spirit of Davis — the spirit of conquest, class domination, and racial hierarchy — long outlived the man himself, and continued to shape world affairs at the turn of the twentieth century. I hope my book pushes readers to think in this way about the long and complex legacies of slaveholding power, both in the United States and around the world.