When Slaveholders Ran America

In 1837, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina strode into the US Senate chamber and thundered that slavery was a “positive good.” Black bondage was ...
The Slave Ship

In 1837, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina strode into the US Senate chamber and thundered that slavery was a “positive good.” Black bondage was essential to what we would call today white nationalism. Seven years later Calhoun was secretary of state. To turn foreign affairs over to such a man must, on reflection, strike some of us as disturbing. But Calhoun was not alone. Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy demonstrates how, before the Civil War, Southern elites dominated the State Department, the War Department, the Navy Department, and the Foreign Service. Slaveholders held the position of secretary of state for two-thirds of the antebellum period, while the secretaries of war and of navy were Southerners for four-fifths of that time. In the years before the Civil War, W. E. B. Du Bois once calculated, 80 out of 134  American diplomats were from the slave states.

In an era when slavery was under attack and retreating abroad, the US emerged as the institution’s paladin. The great British historian and politician T. B. Macaulay lamented that the “United States’ Government has openly declared itself the patron, the champion, and the upholder of slavery … It renders itself illustrious as the evil genius of the African race.” As Karp correctly observes, “British emancipation [in 1833] would transform the way southern elites thought about foreign affairs more forcefully than any other global event between the American Revolution and the Civil War.” Our popular national narrative does not dwell on the fact that by the early 1840s the United States was willing to rattle sabers with Britain over Texas, where Mexico had abolished slavery and American immigrants had reinstituted it. Although many still have a romanticized view of the Alamo and of Texas’s fight for independence, the Mexican War was intended to secure the vast area for slavery.

Slavery was not a “peculiar” institution. What was indeed peculiar was the ideological and rhetorical lengths to which its partisans went in defending it.

The spread of antebellum America was not simply a westward expansion against Native Americans; it carried within it the possibility of perpetual slavery for the vast majority of the inhabitants of the American tropics. Some Southerners hoped their country would become the great axis of an alliance of bondage, helping to prop up the institution in Brazil and in the remaining Spanish empire. Some enthusiasts even hoped that one day Southerners would exploit black labor on the banks not only of the Mississippi but even of the Amazon. In the 1850s, schemes to annex Cuba and its enslaved laborers came and went. Indeed, as Karp points out, on the eve of the Civil War some compromisers in the North thought they might appease the South by giving it Cuba.

Over 150 years after the Civil War, we are still haunted by the specter of slavery. Slavery was not a “peculiar” institution in the Americas. What was indeed peculiar, however, was the ideological and rhetorical lengths to which its partisans in Dixie went in defending it. In his last chapter, Karp records that Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, loudly proclaimed, “Our new government[’s] … foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

After the Civil War the full dimension of slave expansionism was forgotten in a wave of nostalgia. Karp reminds us that, within decades of the collapse of the slavocracy, “A fresh aspect of the white South’s lost-cause narrative had begun to emerge … more optimistic, if not triumphant, about the moral value of the Confederacy’s example to a reunited United States.” Karp’s epilogue is eloquent on this matter; he discusses Du Bois’s 1890 Harvard commencement address, “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois saw the surge of imperialism in the late 19th century as the fruit of the Southern slavocracy’s coercive code (“the cool logic of the Club”). I am reminded that later, in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois said that “The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell.” This Vast Southern Empire will help us focus on how close our country came to perpetuating that hell. Because of this, the book is essential, if unsettling, reading. icon

Featured image: J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and the Dying—Typhoon Coming On.