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  • Slavery and Silence: Latin America and the U.S. Slave Debate by Paul D. Naish
  • John Craig Hammond (bio)

Slavery, Latin America, Race, Abolitionism, Conquest

Slavery and Silence: Latin America and the U.S. Slave Debate. By Paul D. Naish. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 304. Cloth, $55.00.)

Joining recent works by Caitlin Fitz, Matthew Karp, and Brian Delay, the late Paul Naish’s Slavery and Silence probes how perceptions of Latin America shaped culture, racial ideologies, territoriality, and expansion in the United States between the 1820s and the Civil War. A deft blend of social, cultural, literary, and political history, Slavery and Silence furthers our understandings of the construction of the racial ideologies that underwrote slavery and conquest in the early republic.

Drawing on a variety of disciplines and theories, the introduction explores why so many whites found themselves unwilling to discuss slavery in the United States between 1831 and 1852. Naish argues that most whites preferred silence over discussing slavery “because there was nothing to be gained by speaking up, and often a great deal to be gained by saying nothing” (3). The casting of abolitionists as subversives inhibited white northerners’ use of abolitionist rhetoric. In the South, planter paranoia permitted no room for internal criticisms of slavery, even from the institution’s staunchest defenders. As a result, whites from both the North and South turned to a mythicized pre-Columbian Americas and a racialized Latin America to construct ideologies about race, liberty, and civilization. [End Page 367]

In subsequent chapters, Naish fluidly weaves together social, cultural, and political analyses from a diverse array of sources. For the 1820s, Naish provides careful readings of political debates concerning U.S. attendance at the 1826 Panama Congress and Timothy Flint’s 1826 novel Francis Berrian, or, The Mexican Patriot to analyze the rhetorical processes by which white northerners and southerners used Latin America to understand race and slavery at home. In the early 1820s, many white Americans celebrated the emergence of “The Republics of the South.” But the proposal to send a delegation to the Panama Congress produced bitter denunciations from southerners who feared Latin America’s example of emancipation and racial mixing. Enlightenment thinking about environment and improvement had long competed with racial essentialism. In the 1820s debates about relations with Latin America, racial determinism largely won out. In turn, white Americans began to suspect Latin Americans’ fitness for republican government and society. Pure-blooded elites might make the transition from monarchy to republicanism, but a range of voices increasingly held that mestizos and mulattos were inherently unfit for republicanism. Once writers and politicians racialized South American states and societies, they used the region to discuss frankly what was becoming taboo for polite conversation in the United States.

From the 1820s through the 1840s, the budding pseudo-sciences of archeology, antiquarianism, and craniology held that “ancient Indians” were descended from Europeans who had originally settled in the Americas. These European-descended “ancient Indians” were allegedly responsible for the great mounds of the Midwest and the temples and pyramids of Latin America. Pseudo-science further held that a later migration of savage, Asian-descended Native Americans devastated the European-descended “ancient Indians.” Nineteenth-century Native Americans, then, were the descendants of savages who had despoiled the once-great civilizations of the Americas. These racial and archeological theories enjoyed widespread, popular support, appearing in Andrew Jackson’s 1830 address to Congress and William Henry Harrison’s works about the ancient and contemporary Native Americans of the Ohio Valley. Whenever a farming family plowed up bones or artifacts, it appeared in the popular press, lending credence to “the story of the white aborigines” (84). These myths about ancient and contemporary Indians would be used to justify the conquest and expropriation of North America and the enslavement of Africans. They further suggested that [End Page 368] the conquest of “mongrel” Spaniard–Indian–African races from Mexico to Chile would be just.

In the 1840s publication of William Hickling Prescott’s historical trilogy, Ferdinand and Isabella, The Conquest of Mexico, and The Conquest of Peru, shaped perceptions of war with Mexico while answering the growing chorus of...


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