This week at In The Past Lane, the history podcast, we look at how in the decades before the Civil War, proslavery southerners dominated US foreign policy and promoted a vision of an ever expanding empire of slavery, both within the US but also throughout the western hemisphere. I’ll speak with historian Matthew Karp about his new book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy.
Let’s start with some key background to this period. Between 1820 and 1860, the US was an emerging industrial power with the rise of factories, railroads, and large cities. But in those same years, the US enjoyed the status of the world’s most prominent slave holding society. Between 1820 and 1860, the population of enslaved people grew from 1.5 million to 4 million. Cotton production soared from 400,000 bales in 1820 to 4,000,000 bales in 1860. As southerners liked to say, Cotton was King.
But while slavery grew more prominent and profitable, it also grew more controversial. The abolitionist movement grew more vocal in its condemnation of slavery. As it did so, it helped spark controversy after controversy in the 1830s through the 1840s and 1850s – controversies that often dominated national politics.
Most of us remember some of the key ones: the Gag Rule, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, and the Dred Scott decision. Throughout these controversies over the future of slavery, proslavery southerners used their political influence to defend slavery and demand the right to extend it throughout the US.
But as Matthew Karp makes clear in his book, these proslavery southerners did not confine to their vision of slavery’s future to the United States. They developed in these decades before the Civil War a bold and enthusiastic vision of slavery’s growth and expansion elsewhere in the world. And to make this vision a reality, proslavery southerners pushed for US territorial expansion. Hence, the war with Mexico in 1846 that allowed the US to seize what is now much of the western United States.
Equally important, they also exerted their political power to use US foreign policy and military power to protect other slaveholding societies like Brazil, Cuba, and in the years before it was annexed by the US, the independent slaveholding republic of Texas.
One of their top priorities was to thwart efforts by Great Britain to end the practice of slavery. For centuries, Great Britain was one of the world’s foremost participants in slavery and the international slave trade. But in the early 1830s, Great Britain abolished slavery in its empire and made global abolition a top foreign policy concern. This move infuriated proslavery southerners and made them suspect British plots at every turn – plots they were prepared to use US power to foil.
So while proslavery southerners defended slavery and pushed for expansion within the United States, they also used American power to defend slavery in places far beyond US borders, and to push for its global expansion.
Among the many things discussed in this episode:
How proslavery southerners shaped US foreign policy to protect slaveholding societies like Brazil and Cuba and to promote the global expansion of slavery.
Why US proslavery policy versus British antislavery efforts resembled a 19th century Cold War.
Why proslavery southerners feared Great Britain would push Texas to abolish slavery.
How proslavery southerners were sectionalists in domestic policy, but nationalists in foreign affairs.
How proslavery southerners rejected abolitionist claims that slavery was a relic of barbarism, arguing that history was on their side.
More about Matthew Karp – website
Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2017).
Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860 (1982)
Paul Finkelman, Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South: A Brief History with Documents (2003)
Michel Gobat, Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America (2018)
Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (1973)
Robert E. May, Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (2013).
Related ITPL Podcast Episodes:
Manisha Sinha talks about her book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition https://inthepastlane.com/podcast-episode-004-the-abolitionist-movement-more/
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Sage the Hunter” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer
Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson
Podcasting Consultant: Darrell Darnell of Pro Podcast Solutions
Photographer: John Buckingham
Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci
Website by: ERI Design
Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too
Social Media management: The Pony Express
Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates
Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight
© In The Past Lane, 2018