The Progress of Slavery

Review: Matthew Karp, 'This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy'

New York Public Library

This is a book by a Princeton University professor published by Harvard University Press—with all that such Ivy League sources imply. Who would be surprised that This Vast Southern Empire proves competently written, professionally footnoted, and capably organized? An account of American history before the Civil War focused on the national influence of the Southern slaveholders, the book is exactly the kind of text that America's superior university presses aim to produce: a work sufficiently scholarly to be taken seriously by academics, but with some hope of being read by a general audience.

Curiously, This Vast Southern Empire also proves to be something of a postmodern construction, climbing toward an anti-modern and anti-constitutional conclusion about the history of America. Oh, it has none of the secondary characteristics we associate with postmodern texts: none of the word play, the pseudo-philosophical meanderings, or the caustic skepticism. But in his dampened prose and conventional structure, Matthew Karp is nonetheless pushing a set of theses that aim at postmodern ends. As it happens, Karp probably didn’t mean to be that way. He's just breathed enough of the Foucauldian fumes that he can’t help being overcome—which says something about the intellectual state of contemporary academia.

And so, beginning as a judicious study of the impact of slaveholders on American foreign policy, This Vast Southern Empire eventually becomes a fairly injudicious philosophical claim—insisting that the peculiar institution of slavery demonstrates that the ideals of modernity and progress were always false, corrupt, and self-serving. And that philosophical claim rapidly transforms into a historical claim that the pernicious effect of Southerners perverted the federal government, broke the Constitution, and directed American foreign policy toward an interest in some of the worst of the world's moral offenders.

Or, as Karp concludes, "Secession did not produce a flight away from central authority, but the eager embrace of a new and explicitly proslavery central authority." This Vast Southern Empire argues that the early decades of the 1800s saw Southern politicians and thinkers—particularly those with an interest in the military and international affairs—come increasingly to support a powerful national government as an instrument for the defense of slavery in the United States and its spread throughout the rest of the New World. As Karp points out, before 1860, a majority of American diplomats, secretaries of state, and secretaries of the Army and Navy came from the South and sought to advance the concerns of their home states through the international power of the federal government.

In Karp’s view, however, the effort would prove shortsighted. The Southerners built national government into an instrument for advancing their interests. But the election of Lincoln in 1860 put that instrument in the hands of the abolitionists. At its worst, a Lincoln administration would turn the federal government against them. At its best, a Lincoln administration would strip Southerners of the diplomatic and military posts they had long held and transform American internationalism from a pro-slavery actor on the world stage to an anti-slavery force. Committed both to preserving slavery in North America and expanding slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America, the Southerners felt that Lincoln’s election compelled them to secede and build their own centralized government for promoting slavery.

This Vast Southern Empire suggests that the great turning point came with Great Britain's banning of slavery in 1833. The same Southerners who had been wary of federal power in the 1790s—and who would trumpet the importance of states’ rights in the 1850s—began to agitate for a powerful navy and friendship with other slave-holding countries. Although the movement was diffuse, near its center stood Abel Parker Upshur, secretary of the Navy and secretary of state during President Tyler’s administration. Upshur stands as the archetype of the Southern figures in This Vast Southern Empire: a thoughtful Virginian and senior bureaucrat with a compelling dream to project American power abroad.

The later 1840s and early 1850s saw increasing Southern interest in Mexico, Cuba, Brazil—all the New World slave-holding territories outside the United States that constituted the "vast Southern empire" of the book’s title. The Southerners, Karp suggests, were typically more interested and more invested in the question of Cuba than the question of Nebraska. And they achieved "the quintessential achievement of the foreign policy of slavery" when Texas broke away from Mexico to become a slaveholding country and eventually a state. Even the Mexican-American War, in Karp’s account, was in its essence a war derived from the internationalist interests of the South—although John Calhoun’s vigorous denunciations of the war form something of a stumbling block for Karp’s narrative.

Readers will have a hard time accepting the strong form of the historical conclusion Karp draws in This Vast Southern Empire. Especially before the 1850s, the Southerners were simply not unified enough to force centralization and imperialism on the federal government. But the weaker forms of Karp’s historical conclusion seem exactly right: Southerners contributed greatly to the rise of federal power, the increasing electoral success of the abolitionists threatened to deliver that power to their opponents, and the dogma of states’ rights was a late and disingenuous political talking-point rather than a serious principle.

Karp also suggests, however, that Southerners did not see slavery as some ancient practice being washed under by the great wave of modernity. At the practical level, they streamlined slavery into a new economic institution. And at the theoretical level, they insisted that slavery was justified by all the latest advances of biology. Commercially and scientifically, slavery was an entirely modern thing in their minds—to be spread as modernity itself continued its triumphal march through the world.

And thus the anti-modern thesis that runs through This Vast Southern Empire. As Modern Times despised the Middle Ages, so postmodernism sneers at the technological, economic, and moral pretensions of modernity. It has long been claimed that slavery was America’s original sin, staining the birth of the nation. This Vast Southern Empire sees slavery as something more akin to the original sin of everything claiming to be modern. Or, at least, the Modern Age as it came to be in the United States: born from slavery, corrupted as it grew by slavery, and doomed by slavery.

That’s quite a far-reaching thesis to seek a home in a history of Southern dominance in the offices of American foreign policy during the decades before the Civil War. Too much of a thesis, in fact, for Matthew Karp to be convincing as he leads us through those years.