“This Vast Southern Empire,” by Matthew Karp

Matthew Karp

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

Few today would recognize the name George Washington Lafayette Bickley. He lived an adventurous life which included practicing medicine in Virginia although there’s evidence he lacked the credentials. His larger interests were Southern; in the late 1850s he traveled throughout the South promoting a militia campaign to seize Mexico. A small group did assemble along the Rio Grande.

It’s not an historical footnote; Manifest Destiny expansionists, a motley collection of interest groups, were active in Southern states as well as Northern states. Although insisting that he had no interest in waging a war of conquest, Bickley may have considered extending United States sovereignty over the Yucatan and Cuba.

United, though, may not be the right word. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern political and cultural life suggested the South had become a section distinct from the rest of the nation.

But there’s an irony here; Calhoun wished to insure the power of the agrarian South by limiting the power of the federal government. That section distinct from the rest of the nation, however, eventually aimed to create its own Confederate States of America and then export that confederacy. The result would be a Southern Empire.

Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire illuminates this era of American history with an intelligent survey of those Southern politicians and their ambitions, both at the regional level and the federal level. “By the middle of the [19th] century,” he writes, “southern masters ruled over the wealthiest and most dynamic slave society the world had ever known.”

The consequence? The failure or success would depend upon southern statesmen advancing that world through United States foreign policy. “Few mid-nineteenth-century Americans,” he writes, “were more deeply engaged with international politics than southern slaveholders.” Those in positions of power, southern elites, also kept the international politics of slavery under constant surveillance, “tracking threats to slave property . . . monitoring oscillations in global attitudes toward emancipation.”

Professor Karp’s argument is that, given that global perspective, there was little in the southern “institution” that was “peculiar.” During those antebellum decades, the blunt facts illustrate a vise-like grip on the presidency, the cabinet, and the lower levels of federal administration. Professor Karp quotes Iowa Congressman Josiah Grinnell, who observed that during those antebellum years southern slaveholders held the Secretary of State office for two-thirds of the time.

He forms his thesis by arguing that historical understanding of a commitment to states’ rights actually took a back seat as those southern slave-holding leaders wielded the national government’s clout and centralized power. Protecting slavery required annexing territory both west and south.

To set the stage, Professor Karp opens with an interpretation of Great Britain’s foreign policy and its ambition to control the global market for cotton. That issue became more complicated when the Panama Congress of 1826 marked the breakdown of the Monroe Doctrine’s foreign policy. The disintegration of the Spanish Empire, for example, resulted in numerous Central and South American nations, large and small and divided. The basic order of things was rapidly changing, Professor Karp notes, complicated by Great Britain’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. The world’s greatest power was also gathering partners for an abolitionist coalition. The world stage was fast becoming a different order, a checkerboard of free and slave societies. The dividing issue would be found in the foreign policy argument that the United States must act forcefully around the globe to meet the threat posed by Great Britain.

The plot, as it were, delineates Great Britain as the “Great Apostle of Emancipation” around the globe. To force emancipation, the British were in the process of substituting the cotton of the East Indies for that of the South Atlantic states. The result was an international threat “to southern slavery and southern produce.” Southern political leaders from Jackson to Calhoun were thus profoundly aware that Britain’s ambition to control the global market for cotton was as dangerous to the South as “national tariff policy or northern abolitionism.”

Professor Karp enlarges this argument in subsequent chapters, all well documented, by surveying those southern statesmen who were at the center of international relations and foreign affairs. The deep current in this fine book is the pervasiveness of their centralizing ambitions, which include the emergence of southern navalism, a kind of gun-boat diplomacy to enforce the foreign policy of slavery.

President Tyler’s new Secretary of the Navy, Abel Parker Upshur, whom Professor Karp notes was a constitutional scholar, an ardent admirer of Mr. Calhoun, and an intellectual champion of slavery, submitted his first annual report to Congress on December 4, 1841. His recommendations for a quadrupled increase in naval forces and a globally active American sea power was intended to be a response to Great Britain’s antislavery imperialism.

Professor Karp continues his argument shaping the domestic issues around states’ rights while foreign policy became a hemispheric defense of slavery. Paraphrasing a later conservative republican, he writes, “extremism in the international defense of slavery was no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of hemispheric slave power was no virtue.”

Were there dominoes? Brazil occupied a vital position in slavery’s defense as the second largest slave-holding society. The rationale was that if Great Britain succeeded in coercing emancipation in Brazil, the dominoes would fall. Abel Upshur was then Secretary of State and urged common cause with Brazil. When Calhoun succeeded Upshur, he continued the policy, urging a “‘strict identity of interests.’”

The basic outlines of this dogma are familiar: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole. But for those Southern imperialists, the staple for their vision of a world economy was agriculture. If one reads history backward from the perspective of the Civil War, one reads Southern History not only as a pro-slavery enterprise but also a world craved by those Southern cultural and political elites. It’s a small linguistic change, but the world those slaveholders craved was also craven. Appomattox is the final act after three-quarters of a million deaths. To think of slavery as a vital element of global progress is also craven. “We can be grateful,” Professor Karp writes, that “slaveholders never gained the world they craved, [and] we achieve nothing by failing to gain the true measure of its dimensions.”

The implications of Professor Karp’s book are sure to make him one of today’s leading scholars of nineteenth century politics, but also someone aware that the tensions between progress and modernism are seminal even today.

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