Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America by Robert E. May (review)
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Slavery, Latin America, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Manifest Destiny

Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America. By Robert E. May. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. 306. Paper, $26.99.)

The title of this book might lead one to suppose that it deals more directly and extensively with Latin America than it does. In fact, Robert May’s principal focus is U.S. domestic politics, while Latin America appears largely as a figment of the imaginations of proslavery southerners and aspiring colonizers of free blacks. With the exception of a couple of ill-fated filibustering expeditions, most of the schemes May recounts [End Page 704] remain in the realm of fantasy. May has staked out territory as a leading authority on the peculiar character of antebellum American imperialism, an imperialism that refused to credit the peoples of Latin America with the slightest agency and assumed that white Anglo Americans could overwhelm them without effort and consequences.

Unrealistic though these schemes may have been, May makes a strong case that the South’s tropical fantasies played an enormous and underappreciated role in causing the Civil War. Moderate antislavery figures like Abraham Lincoln were resigned to tolerating slavery in regions where it was already established, and their primary antislavery initiative involved preventing slavery’s expansion on the assumption that this would bring about the natural demise of the institution. Proslavery southerners, on the other hand, saw expanding slavery as their only hope of salvation, and as the West was increasingly foreclosed as a haven for slavery, they looked south and imagined easy conquests in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

May uses Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to represent the contrasting views on Latin America in pre-Civil War America. Lincoln took a high-profile stand against the U.S.–Mexican War, and distinguished himself as one of the least imperialistic of U.S. presidents. His interest in Latin America was twofold. On the one hand, he imagined that tropical climes were uniquely hospitable to blacks, and he promoted or endorsed a series of colonization schemes in Haiti and Central America. May provides a nuanced assessment of Lincoln’s interest in such schemes, taking issue with some authors who have judged Lincoln harshly for his racism and lack of faith in peaceful racial integration. May cites evidence to suggest that Lincoln, understanding well the attitudes of his fellow white Americans, believed that blacks could never hope to achieve ‘‘equality and progress’’ in the United States, but that in the tropics, where race prejudice supposedly did not exist, they might enjoy better prospects. Although his knowledge of Latin American countries was deficient, at least, it seems, he meant well.

Apart from his interest in Latin American colonization projects, Lincoln was interested in Latin America as analogy. The chronic political instability and social upheaval that characterized Mexico and Central America, rather than sparking dreams of easy conquest, instead appeared to Lincoln and his allies as a cautionary tale: If secession went unchallenged, the United States would inevitably share the fate of those unfortunate countries. [End Page 705]

Stephen Douglas, by contrast, was a major proponent of Manifest Destiny. Virulently racist and an indirect beneficiary of slave labor by virtue of his first marriage, Douglas was apparently untroubled by the prospect that slavery might find a new lease on life in southern climes. By the early 1850s, in May’s words, Douglas had emerged as ‘‘one of the nation’s leading expansionists and Anglophobes, if not Washington’s premier territorial radical’’ (99). The various ‘‘compromises’’ with which Douglas was associated all tended to increase the clout of the ‘‘slave power,’’ even if Douglas himself, as a Northern Democrat, was forced to play an intricate political game to keep from alienating one or another of his constituencies. May’s narrative comes to something of a climax with his discussion of the ‘‘Crittenden Compromise,’’ a last-ditch effort to placate the southern states as they threatened secession. That ‘‘compromise’’ would have put an end to the use of ‘‘popular sovereignty’’ to determine slavery’s legality, instead resurrecting the idea of prohibiting...