The Slave Owners’ Foreign Policy

A slave family, Savannah, Georgia, early 1860s

The US Civil War was once commonly interpreted as a conflict between a progressive North, industrially strong and committed to a powerful central government, and a backward South that clung to states’ rights and agrarianism in its effort to preserve slavery. In this reading, proposed most influentially by the late Eugene D. Genovese, the South was distanced from modern society and the world scene.

Recent historians increasingly have recognized the inadequacy of this explanation. As the producer of America’s leading export, cotton, the South in the first half of the nineteenth century was a major participant in the global economy. Its rate of urbanization relative to population, while not as rapid as the North’s, exceeded that of England, France, or the American Midwest. Politically, the South was dominant. Slave owners occupied the presidency for about three quarters of the nation’s first sixty-four years. A slave owner, John Marshall, served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court for over three decades and was succeeded by another one, Roger Taney, who headed the Court for almost as long. For much of this time, southerners had a grip on the cabinet and lower government positions as well.

The expansion of slavery was one of the South’s main goals. The immediate trigger of the Civil War was the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose aim of halting the westward spread of slavery led to the South’s secession and the outbreak of war. Matthew Karp’s illuminating book This Vast Southern Empire shows that the South was interested not only in gaining new slave territory but also in promoting slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere. Far from insular, proslavery leaders had a far-reaching awareness of the international status of human bondage, which they regarded as essential to progress and prosperity. Holding the reins of political power, slave owners largely determined American foreign policy from the 1830s through the 1850s. As Karp reveals, they were well positioned to use the resources of the federal government to push their agenda around the world.

This reliance on the national government, manifested in robust military spending and an aggressive policy abroad, was at odds with the states’ rights position that southerners took on other issues. Then as now, politicians were at ease with inconsistencies as long as their goals were served. The South opportunistically appealed both to states’ rights (as in its resistance to federal tampering with slavery) and to a strong national government (as in its support of the Fugitive Slave Act or the gag rule on the discussion of slavery in Congress). In foreign policy, Karp demonstrates, proslavery elites favored a powerful central government. The historian Henry Adams later recalled, “Whenever a question arose of extending or protecting slavery, the slave-holders became friends of centralized power, and used that dangerous weapon with a kind of frenzy.”

The program of…

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