Review- Karp, “This Vast Southern Empire”

Matthew Karp, “This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy” (2016) – This is part of a new body of historical literature insisting on the essential modernity — arguably an alternative modernity, but a modernity nevertheless — of the antebellum slave system in the American south. Karp focuses on the foriegn policy of slavery. While we associate this with the efforts of the Confederacy to gain foreign recognition, Karp argues persuasively that the most influential diplomatic efforts of the slave power understood the United States, not a separate nation, as its greatest asset. Southern slaveholders dominated the congressional committees that oversaw foreign affairs and the military and were more influential in the diplomatic corps than one might expect. The leading politicians pushing military reform and expansion in the antebellum years were slaveholders, such as Abel Upshur and Jefferson Davis, who Karp argues saw US foreign policy and the policy of their class as one and the same.

The slave south had a foreign policy agenda that stressed a “hemispheric defense of the institution of slavery.” They were overwhelmingly concerned about the stability of their “peculiar institutions” in the South itself and understood its security as being tied in with slavery’s security in the rest of the Americas, particularly in Cuba and Brazil. Karp persuasively argues that while many southerners (and other Americans) desired Cuba and other foriegn territories, for southern slaveholders, maintaining Cuba as a slave state was more important than who directly owned it. Loyalty to the institution fits with what the slaveholders eventually did as an endgame, seceding from a union that ultimately was a second comer, at best. Karp shows how consistently the slave class worked towards its own interest in foreign policy, which when you think about it, makes sense- foreign policy has always been the field of American politics that responds the most to elite pressure and the least to pressure from below. Much of what southern politicians did in foreign policy only makes sense from a perspective of defense of slavery, as when Britain went from abolitionist villain in the 1830s to cotton-consumer potential ally of slavery in the 1850s.

What Karp is trying to do in this book is to force the reader to take a hemispheric and future-oriented perspective on slavery, the one he argues the south actually had. We’re used to thinking of slavery as a continental US question and as organized around defending an institution of the past, not the future, but that’s not how the southerners saw it. It’s hard to include everything in a book and I would have been interested in knowing more how the Republicans or other earlier opponents of the foriegn policy of slavery articulated an alternative foreign policy, but that would have detracted from the focus of the book, I guess. All in all, a fascinating work. ****’

Review- Karp, “This Vast Southern Empire”

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