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  • This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy by Matthew Karp
  • Daniel Feller (bio)
Key Words

Slavery, Foreign policy, Diplomacy, Slaveholders, South, Internationalism

This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy. By Matthew Karp. ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 368. Cloth, $29.95.)

Once we thought that slavery was an anachronism in the emerging modern world of the nineteenth century, and that in their gloomy hearts slaveholders knew it. While they fought strenuously and ingeniously to withstand the coming change, the most keen-sighted, like John C. Calhoun, knew that it was an uphill battle, and in the long run likely a losing one. Masters of reaction, prophets of the past, slaveholders struggled mightily to stave off the future. Ultimately they failed and were doomed to fail. The arc of progress, both economic and moral, bent toward liberty.

Would that it were so simple. A recent barrage of scholarship challenges this comforting teleology of advancing civilization. Slavery, it argues, was not at odds with modernity but congruent with it and even essential to it. The inherent antagonism of free- and slave-labor societies was a conscience-soothing mirage. Exploitative labor systems under-girded capitalist abundance (and still do). Apprehending this, slaveholders were not fearful reactionaries, but confident futurists. They saw the world as turning their way—and they may have been right.

Matthew Karp's This Vast Southern Empire fits within this new revisionism, sort of. His special focus is slaveholding influence within, and even control over, the United States government in the generation before secession. While others have traced the effects of that dominance in domestic affairs, Karp turns to American foreign policy, where slaveholders also ruled. He argues that a cosmopolitan planter elite, operating from a mindset that was active and expansive rather than withdrawn and defensive, spurned ideas of states' rights and limited government for the frank embrace of national power on a global stage. They were, in their eyes, American patriots, but patriots of the United States as the world's greatest slaveholding power, not as Thomas Jefferson's (or Abraham Lincoln's) empire of liberty. Their aim at the helm was to make the future safe for slavery.

It was therefore not in the fevered exposition of crabbed states'-rights doctrine, nor even in overhyped private filibustering, but in "master class foreign policy" that the planter elite most clearly showed its hand (7). [End Page 181] The slaveholders' agenda crystallized in the 1830s around the aim of counteracting Britain's antislavery thrust, which they saw as covering a drive for global commercial dominance. To foil it they championed first a strong navy and, later in the 1850s under Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, even an expanded peacetime army. Their ascendance reached its height in the early 1840s in the Tyler and Polk administrations. Karp recasts Texas annexation in 1845 as a means not so much to buttress slavery's position within the United States as to secure its hemispheric bastions without—whether by diplomacy, as in Cuba and Brazil, or, as in Texas, by direct takeover if necessary.

While domestic politics threw slaveholders on the defensive internally in the 1850s, Karp argues, their global outlook waxed yet more expansive and optimistic. Buoyed by the failure (in their eyes) of free labor in the Caribbean sugar islands, and by growing European exploitation of nonwhite labor elsewhere, southerners saw the commercial world turning toward reliance on racial slavery, or something like it, as the natural and necessary state of things, an essential element of progress. In the emerging modern order, cotton—along with sugar, rice, tobacco, and coffee—would rule, and free labor, not slavery, would be the anomaly.

This Vast Southern Empire is deeply researched, brilliantly written, incisively reasoned, and, up to a point, entirely convincing. Karp does careful work. He avoids the off-putting bombast and careless inaccuracy of Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist, whose arguments at points parallel his. He scrupulously acknowledges apparent limitations and discrepancies in his case—for instance, the existence of sharp disagreement over foreign policy between proslavery statesmen Calhoun and Polk—though to a skeptical reader his explanations...


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pp. 181-183
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