This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy by Matthew Karp (review)
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This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy. By Matthew Karp. ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 360. $29.95 cloth)

Specialists in the late antebellum era have long understood that white southerners were devoutly wedded to states' rights theory and weak federal authority—except when they were not. From demands for a federal slave code in the territories to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—the most invasive law passed by Congress to that date—southern politicians routinely abandoned their small-government principles when it came to the protection and expansion of slavery. Yet never before has an historian systematically scrutinized the vast gulf between what planter-politicians said and what they did. In this densely researched and elegantly written volume, Matthew Karp examines American foreign policy in the two decades before secession and demonstrates that slaveholders consistently put aside their qualms about a centralized government to defend slavery both at home and abroad.

In perhaps the most provocative section of the book, Karp suggests that far from longing to rebuild a premodern world, proslavery theorists advocated both a contemporary view of slavery and a selfconsciously international one. Although their peculiar institution was increasingly under attack inside the United States, European nations were using various forms of unfree labor to forge new empires around the globe. Proslavery imperialism, Karp argues, did not only apply to southern efforts to seize Cuba or reopen the Atlantic slave trade. It "also involved an understanding of black bondage in the South as a vital analogue and precedent for global empire building" (pp. 162−63).

Particularly when it came to expanding the army or constructing a navy to rival Britain's, southerners proved to be innovators and nationalists. If slaveholders were content to allow northern men to dominate a number of important congressional committees—including, curiously, Agriculture—they packed the Military and Naval Affairs Committees. As Karp notes, between 1847 and 1861, men from the future Confederate states ran the War Department for eleven of [End Page 675] fourteen years and served as secretary of the navy for nine. Aware that men like Abel Upshur and Jefferson Davis sought to use the armed forces to create a proslavery empire, northerners spent much of the period unsuccessfully fighting increased appropriations. "Is the Army of the United States," wondered William Seward, "a necessary and indispensable institution, in our republican system" (p. 220)?

Republicans suspected that southerners wished to augment the army and navy in order to boost the sectional power of slavery, but Karp establishes that these politicians sought to extend the power of the federal government and project American influence around the Western Hemisphere. By gazing beyond their nation's borders and adopting a global understanding of their place in the world economy, they came to believe that international circumstances were on their side, even if northern Free-Soilers were not. Only when they lost control of both the House and the presidency in 1860 did these slaveholding nationalists retreat into states' rights, and then only long enough to secede and create their own nation. Ironically, Karp notes, as both a senator and secretary of war, Jefferson Davis advocated for more regiments and new rifle technologies, which left the U.S. Army in a stronger position against the Confederacy than would have been the case had critics such as Seward carried the day.

After secession, the pressures of war prompted President Davis to again promote a strong central government. By 1865, the Confederate government had conscripted and armed nearly a million soldiers, prodded their agrarian region toward industrialization, and assumed nearly total control of the southern economy. Previous scholars, most notably Emory Thomas, have chronicled this dramatic growth of power in Richmond. But by contextualizing this final chapter within the prior decades, Karp proves that the antebellum years established the precedents for what in isolation appears to be an unexpected wartime abandonment of states' rights. [End Page 676]

Douglas R. Egerton

DOUGLAS R. EGERTON teaches history at Le Moyne College. He is the author of, most recently, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (2016).