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  • The Irony of Confederate Diplomacy:Visions of Empire, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Quest for Nationhood
  • Robert E. May (bio)

And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
The tropic empire, seeking the warm sea,
The last foray of aristocracy

The South’s secession from the Union in the winter of 1860–1861 deserves remembrance, according to most current scholarship, primarily as a defensive reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s election as U.S. president and the growing political strength of his antislavery Republican Party. Fearful that America’s corridors of power were dominated by hostile politicos, appalled at northern fury against and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, aware that the free states had an unshakable grip on the western territories and would never concede to slavery’s extension, outraged by John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry and the specter of northern-inspired slave revolts, and dishonored by abolitionist diatribes against their labor system, white southerners fled such alarming trends by founding their own country. Secessionists, by this rendering, had an inchoate vision at first for their new government, devoting infinitely more thought to what was wrong with the one being forsaken than to the one being initiated. Though disunionists generally believed that the North and the South were, in the words of U.S. senator James H. Hammond of South Carolina, “distinctly separate and hostile,” they sought separation mainly to preserve slavery. Confederate nationalism, thus, was more the product than the cause of the South’s war for independence, gradually and consciously constructed.1 [End Page 69]

Still, Confederate founders shared visions beyond regional security and insulating their slave labor system. An early imagining of disunion, Virginian Nathaniel Beverley Tucker’s 1836 futuristic novel, The Partisan Leader, envisioned a free-trade southern nation booming in the wake of separation. Along similar lines, fellow Virginia radical Edmund Ruffin’s 1860 political novel, Anticipations of the Future, imagined the South winning a war for independence and accomplishing prosperity through direct trade and treaties with European countries. Taking such aspirations into account, the historian John Majewski has dubbed the founding of the Confederacy the South’s bid “to create a more modern economy.” Many southern nationalists sought freedom from northern dominance of their commerce, religious institutions, education systems, and literature. Some even envisioned dramatic transformations of political institutions once secession occurred, the initiation, in George C. Rable’s words, of a “commonwealth resting on social harmony, political consensus, and unquestionable legitimacy” and devoid of patronage and political parties. Recently, Michael T. Bernath has portrayed the immediate post-secession Confederacy as a “moment of possibility,” when agendas of enhancing women’s education, reforming and moderating slave management, and rolling back popular democracy might gain traction.2 [End Page 70]

Secessionists’ tentative aspirations included spreading Dixie’s peculiar institution into Latin America, where it was banned with the exceptions of Brazil and Spain’s colony in Cuba (and a few other locales), places with which many southern slaveholders sensed a natural affinity. As a Nashville, Tennessee, newspaper put it shortly after the Civil War began, southerners believed that their solution to the problem of relations between capitalists and working classes put them in a special relationship to Brazil and Cuba, both of which had “settled” on the same answer. Matthew Pratt Guterl observes along these lines that the Old South’s “master class . . . was connected—by ship, by overland travel, by print culture, by a sense of singular space, and by the prospect of future conquest—to the habitus and communitas of New World slaveholders.” To no small degree, this confidence in post-secession expansion, which looked toward absorbing Cuba in addition to taking over and spreading slavery into free-labor parts of Latin America, drew sustenance from the confidence that southern slaveholders had in their labor system’s health and future once they divorced themselves from antislavery politicians in Washington, D.C.—including Lincoln—who could be expected to oppose such schemes in the future as they had in the past.3

Though hardly escaping the Panic of 1857 unscathed, the slave states took less of a beating than did...