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  • Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America by Robert E. May
  • John M. Belohlavek (bio)
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. 286. Cloth, $80.00; paper, $26.99.)

The past half-century has witnessed an explosion of scholarship on Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, their political contests, and their rivalry. In spite of efforts by renowned historians such as Robert Johannsen,1 the years have not been kind to the “Little Giant.” Douglas’s practical middle ground of accommodation has been trumped by his race-baiting language, moral indifference to slavery, and notions of ethnic and cultural superiority. In turn, academics have lauded Lincoln’s view of slavery as a moral evil, while recognizing his less than egalitarian views and statements on race. Herein lies the exceptional nature of Robert E. May’s volume. Instead of walking the well-traveled road of “Bleeding Kansas” and slavery expansion into the West, the author utilizes the 1858 and 1860 campaigns and the careers of Lincoln and Douglas to mirror a more opaque battleground for slavery: the tropical climes of Central America and the Caribbean. As the preeminent scholar on filibustering in the antebellum era, May has previously written about the likes of Narciso López and William Walker. In this volume, May traces his subjects’ evolving views on slavery and southward territorial expansion, which he places within the context of party politics in the 1850s.

Biographical sketches provide insight into the lives of Lincoln and Douglas, commencing in the 1830s. They appear as traditional members of their respective parties drawn into serious discussion about southern expansion by Texas annexation and the Mexican War. Douglas quickly emerges as a passionate advocate of Manifest Destiny with little moral regard for the institution of slavery or the plight of the slave. Lincoln held moderate opinions on both the conflict and slavery. He placed the blame for the Mexican War squarely at the feet of President Polk and felt most comfortable opposing the expansion of slavery, but not its immediate abolition. Both men’s views evolved—but not radically—over time.

While Lincoln’s political career sputtered after 1848, Douglas became “the darling of the Young Americans”—the cadre of nationalistic expansionists who delighted in bashing the British and fantasizing about Cuban annexation (69). Douglas took the lead, condemning the restrictive Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, defending the Monroe Doctrine, and espousing U.S. transit rights across Central America. Even though his bluster played well in the galleries and the press, he fell short of capturing [End Page 157] the Democratic Party’s nomination in either 1852 or 1856. He remained optimistic; his popularity grew, as did his political base.

May emphasizes that the Gadsden Purchase, the attempts of Presidents Polk and Pierce to purchase Cuba, the Ostend Manifesto, and William Walker’s adventurism in Nicaragua combined with events in Kansas to heighten the fears of northern Whigs regarding expansion into the tropics. Meanwhile, Walker posed a special problem for Douglas, who vacillated but felt finally compelled to support the filibuster in order to maintain support in the South. Ultimately, the Little Giant was trapped by the language of popular sovereignty, his position undercutting the Dred Scott decision, and opposition to a proslavery Kansas bill knifing sharply into his southern support.

He needed to refocus the Democracy’s attention. Under the flag of expansion, Caribbean issues gave Douglas a last chance to engineer sectional accord within his party. The theme of nonviolent “Americanization” in Mexico, Central America, and Cuba permeated Douglas’s aggressive rhetoric into the spring of 1860. While he attempted—and failed—to walk the sectional balance beam, Republicans had somewhat covert reasons for opposing the extension of slavery southward. Motivated by idealism or notions of racial separation, many whites and some blacks viewed the Caribbean as a likely place for the settlement of free African Americans. While interested, neither Lincoln nor his fellow Republicans chose to discuss the Caribbean or colonization as a campaign issue, but rather they attacked Douglas for his sympathetic...


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