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American slaveholders before the Civil War oversaw an incredibly brutal economic system that generated enormous wealth for a tiny elite while denying enslaved Africans the most basic rights. But they also presided over American foreign policy, overseeing US territorial and economic expansion. As historian Matt Karp explains in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, they didn’t just want an independent slaveholding South — they wanted to spread their empire of slavery to the entire United States and beyond.
In November 2016, Karp spoke at the New School in New York City with historian Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and author of many books on the Civil War including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Karp is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor at Jacobin.
This transcript of their talk has been edited. You can also listen to the discussion as a podcast here.
The book joins a whole series of works that explore the slave South in a transnational sense. That’s another fashionable aspect: reemphasizing the dynamism and brutality of antebellum slavery. A lot of previous scholars — for instance, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman — made the argument that slavery was capitalistic because slaves had the Protestant work ethic and were well-treated and so on.
The direction of modern scholarship also emphasizes slavery as a foundational element in global capitalism and American capitalism, but precisely in the opposite direction. Its brutality, for someone like Ed Baptist or Walter Johnson, is the source of its dynamism.
I think it’s right to put my book in conversation with those books. In a way, though, my arguments are more modest about the place of slavery in global capitalism. I’m not so interested in the deep historiographical terms — asking “was slavery capitalist?” — but how slaveholders understood this institution, and how their understanding shaped the political decisions that led to the Civil War, or in some sense shaped foreign policy.
To an extent much greater than a lot of scholars have realized, they really did see slavery not simply as the kind of paternal, organically constructed institution that provided security from the tumult of modern life or wage labor society — but also as an incredibly dynamic, world-making, productive institution that was very compatible with the modern world.
I don’t want to swallow their arguments whole cloth, because I think that they were wrong in a lot of important ways. But I think we need to take seriously what they believed about the institution.
One major tendency of this new scholarship on slavery and capitalism is that there’s a parlor game: how far into the introduction do you get before you knock Genovese, directly or indirectly?
One way that Genovese’s contribution remains really important is that as a Marxist, he understood slavery as a political-economic system, and slaveholders as a ruling class. That element of his interpretation holds up, at least in my understanding of slaveholders.
In many ways they were capitalists, they were interested in profit, and they saw slavery as dynamic and a source of global economic growth. But they also understood themselves to be distinct from other capitalists, and understood that their institution was founded on a social system based on a certain kind of domination and ownership of humans as property.
That distinction is important, and the view of slaveholders as a class is something that we shouldn’t lose, despite all of the new emphases.
Some of the rhetoric about slavery facing its inevitable doom comes from the Republican Party: in their 1856 platform, they called it “a relic of barbarism.” If you read a Republican like William Seward, there’s this incredible confidence that the free labor economy is so much more dynamic and will swallow up the slave economy.
But if you look at this in real terms in 1860, there’s a considerable extent to which these guys are bluffing. Slaveholders are not just pointing to the American export of cotton, which is fundamental to the British Industrial Revolution, but also to Brazilian coffee exports, Cuban sugar exports, all across this period between 1840 and 1860: they’re spiking and increasingly dominating the world market.
There are reasons that we shouldn’t think that this means that slavery was going to last forever. But, in the 1850s, there are a lot of numbers on the slaveholders’ side, and the Republican confidence in its doom is often a bluff that we shouldn’t take literally.
Here’s a useful little fact: in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, there were more slaves in the Western Hemisphere than at any other point in history. Slavery was not going away; it was not dying out, even though it had been abolished in Haiti, of course, by revolution, in the British empire, in the Latin American nations, which had rebelled against Spain. It was still dynamic and growing, so that was the frame of mind that these Southern slaveholders brought into this period.
There’s a character in the book — a senator from Virginia who’s the chairman of the finance committee across the 1850s, one of the most powerful guys in Washington. He’s kind of lost in the sands of time, Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter.
He gave a speech at one point in 1850 where he does a thought experiment: imagine if slavery had been abolished everywhere at the time of British abolition. And he says, “Imagine this: no cotton. No sugar. Little coffee, less tobacco.” He makes the world sound really bleak without slavery. He’s this sort of rumpled, conservative, country-born Virginian, but he has this global perspective.
That global perspective really enforces their confidence about slavery’s place at the heart of the world economy. All these industrializing societies are buying more and more slave goods. Slave societies look like they are outpacing the emancipated societies, which are less productive from a pure export perspective because they’re not coercing the workers as directly.
We don’t appreciate enough the extent to which the intellectual currents of the brightest minds of Western civilization across the nineteenth century were moving away from a belief in basic human biological equality.
The Republican Party, in some sense, is fighting into a headwind, against Harvard, against Oxford and Cambridge, against the Sorbonne. You can laugh at some of the more cuckoo Southern slave doctors in the 1850s, who were doing weird experiments on lungs and so on. But the intellectual pedigree of this scientific racism was actually growing, and it continued to grow, across the late nineteenth century.
People like Louis Agassiz at Harvard, one of the most eminent scientists in America, is being claimed by Southern slaveholders as someone who supports their position about fundamental human inequality. The Republican Party, and the mid–nineteenth century antislavery movement in general, in some sense moved against the grain intellectually.
Abel Upshur was a Virginia jurist, a legal scholar who actually got kicked out of Princeton for inciting a drunken student riot in 1807. He sets up shop on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He’s a planter, and he writes very vigorous, Calhoun-style states’ rights interpretations of the Constitution.
In 1841, William Henry Harrison dies, and John Tyler steps into office right away. (This is actually an interesting twist in American history, because Harrison was an unknown quantity who was elected as the first Whig president.) But his vice president, Tyler, was a very committed Virginia pro-slavery ideologue, and he starts packing his cabinet with people who look at the world the same way.
Abel Upshur comes out of nowhere to become secretary of the navy. He doesn’t have much maritime experience of note, but he’s Tyler’s buddy. All of a sudden, in his first report as secretary of the navy, he demands a fourfold increase in the navy to make it half the size of Great Britain’s.
Why is he doing this? It seems to fly in the face of a lot of states’ rights, small government philosophy. But in his view, the abolitionist power of Great Britain demands a federal government response. The state of Virginia cannot fight off the global power of the antislavery empire of Great Britain. The United States needs to do it, and, fortunately, a slaveholder is president of the United States, and his cabinet is full of slaveholders.
They don’t get this giant navy, actually. Things grind up in Congress. But they get some increases, they get some reforms. What’s striking is that they were even trying. It says something about the ideological orientation of this states’ rights, Southern planter class that they were the strongest advocates for naval power. Jefferson Davis, as secretary of war in the 1850s, tries to do something similar for the army a little later in the antebellum period.
The classic example, and you’ve written about this, is the Fugitive Slave Act. Every time slavery and states’ rights are in tension, these guys want a powerful federal government to defend slave property and to protect against fugitive slaves. In the 1840s northern states were passing personal liberty laws, to make sure that accused fugitives had due process. Southerners had no problem empowering the federal government to override those laws with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Even beyond that, it’s not just about protecting narrow property rights, although those are fundamental. It’s about how their concept of the United States as a pro-slavery power means rebutting on an ideological and on a strategic level antislavery forces around the world — whether they be Britain, whether they be Haiti, wherever there are rebellious slaves around the world.
It was an explosive end. In the spring of 1844 he’s writing the final annexation of the Texas treaty, because he’s the original architect of Texan annexation. Meanwhile, there’s a new ship called, interestingly enough, the Princeton, one of his new steam ships that has been put into commission during his tenure as secretary of the navy.
The Tyler administration invites all of Congress and various dignitaries on board the ship. One of the newspapers described it as a “sumptuous collation” of cured meats, whatever gross stuff was considered delicacies in 1844. They’re like, “This ship has some big guns on it, let’s fire some of these guns. We’re here, we’re drinking, we’re eating, let’s fire some guns.”
So there’s a big gun called “the Peacemaker,” and they fire it once. They fire it, they take a break, they drink some more.
John Tyler is in the ship’s hold. He’s downstairs with the food and drink. His wife just died, and he’s talking to this nineteen-year-old daughter of a rich New York businessman whom he would later marry. He’s talking to her, while her father, David Gardiner, is up on the deck with Abel Upshur. And they decide to fire the gun one more time.
They fire the gun, it totally blows up, and it spews hot iron across the deck. Upshur, now secretary of state, is killed; his replacement as secretary of the navy, Thomas Walker Gilmer of Virginia, another one of these guys in the cohort, is killed. I think it’s the only incident in American history where you have two cabinet members dying in the line of duty, if you could call it that. It’s a kind of catastrophic moment.
What does Tyler do? Of course, he’s safe downstairs. He appoints John C. Calhoun as secretary of state.
We like to think about Texas as part of this inevitable process of Western expansion, like Oregon or California. But it’s a very different place than any of the other situations, because Texas is an independent, slaveholding republic. From the strategic perspective of Southern elites, it belongs alongside Cuba and Brazil. It’s the fourth-largest slaveholding society in the hemisphere at this point, one that’s under a lot of stress from Great Britain — which isn’t really that interested in trying to abolitionize Texas, but they’re toying with it.
Mexico, where slavery is outlawed, is constantly fighting border wars with Texas, and neither can really defeat the other. But Texas is under siege. A lot of the slaveholders there are concerned, and most of them want to be annexed, to join the American republic for geopolitical reasons, but also to protect slave property. From their perspective, that’s absolutely essential.
It’s important that we see this not just as a moment of American expansion, but as a moment of slave power consolidation. They’re talking in these terms of slave power of North America having one headquarters, not more than one, and that’s how we should look at it.
It’s complicated. At one point in the book I analogize it to a kind of Cold War, in the sense that there’s an ideological and strategic conflict in the United States, which at this point is run by slaveholders, and Britain, which is at least formally committed to antislavery and to a free-labor world market. But the difference is that slaveholders — as much as they’re opposed to Britain, as much as they want to build up the navy to contest the power of Great Britain, annex Texas, build relationships with Cuba and Brazil — they also don’t see Britain as inevitably, implacably opposed to slavery.
They think they can convince the British capitalist elites, some of whom are probably close to seeing the world the way they do, that free labor is never going to produce tropical staples at the same rate as a slave society, and that an abolition of slavery will be a disaster for business.
By the 1850s, they feel like, with the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, Britain has stepped back from trying to force the balance of power in North America. The United States has become the dominant continental power, and economically Britain has dialed back a bit of its antislavery rhetoric and pressure.
Slaveholders are claiming victory, and Calhoun gives this speech where he says that the United States has won the war of ideas with Britain. The British are now committed to free trade, which means they’re not trying to do anything to protect their emancipated colonies from competition with slavery. Slave states can produce goods cheaper, better, faster, and the British are just going to buy American cotton and Cuban sugar — not Jamaican sugar that’s produced by free labor. For a lot of slaveholders, that shows that the British are willing to work with a slave society, and, by 1860, they’re looking to Britain as an ally.
They’re not dummies. At times they indulge in bravado, saying that the only great military powers in world history were slave powers. Greece and Rome conquered the world as slave powers.
But when push comes to shove, they know that war with a strong antislavery power like Britain could be totally catastrophic and disastrous — not just strategically or militarily, but to their social system.
They’re always talking about the British landing the West Indian black troops. They’re very aware that if these soldiers show up in Louisiana or Florida, they could arm the slaves and there will be a “servile insurrection,” as Andrew Jackson says.
The irony is that’s exactly what happens in the 1860s. Steve Hahn says this is the greatest slave rebellion in modern history, and it’s triggered by the Union Army, including black soldiers, marching through these slave plantation areas. The antebellum slaveholders were right all along. They really did try to avoid a shooting war with Britain across this whole period.
I’m in sympathy with the irrepressible conflict thesis, as a way to approach this conflict between two fundamentally different political and economic systems. But I have a little “blundering generation” in me, in the sense that I do think that, if we take stock of all this new work on slavery’s dynamism and power and entrenchment in the American state and the world economy, it makes the antislavery movement look more strange and more unlikely and more radical.
There has to be an element of contingency, or at least an understanding that this was the product of an antislavery struggle. Maybe a conflict was inevitable. But the particular form that this conflict took — with the antislavery Republican power winning an election and taking control of the state, refusing to compromise on pretty much anything the slave owners wanted, and then the slaveholders responding to that by setting up their own kingdom — wasn’t inevitable, necessarily. There were a lot of different ways it could have gone.
The conflict was irrepressible, but I think the form that it took was dependent on not just leaders and individual decision-making, but on the nature of the movements and the ideologies of the political classes in charge in this moment.
They really thought they would not take over the American state, but establish their own independence. And, as you show, they’re thinking of other areas, like acquiring Cuba, acquiring part of Mexico.
There’s a way in which we caricature this slaveholding, ruling class, in part because they’re attached to this institution that we now regard as barbaric, as entirely beyond the pale. Because they were so resolutely defeated, at least on the battlefield, and in the Reconstruction period, to an extent.
If we regard them as “fire-eaters” — the most common word for the most aggressive pro-slavery Southerners — it has a kind of circus performer quality to it, like these people were apt to fly off the handle and say, “We lost the election. Goddamn, we’re going home.” We underestimate their coolness and the calculation.
Obviously, they made a disastrous miscalculation, but it’s important to view what they were doing as a calculation. When Frederick Douglass heard Alexander Stephens’s farewell speech from Congress in 1859 — where Stephens argued that the world economy was dependent on black inferiority, black labor, and white supremacy — Douglass didn’t describe him as a “fire-eater.” He described Stephens as cool and thoughtful, and talked about the “tranquility of tyrants.”
I would prefer we use that mentality to think about how these people operated. Not that they weren’t error-prone, but we need to give them, in a perverse way, the respect of being cool, calculating actors on the world stage, who really did think the intellectual, ideological, and economic winds were at their back, and that the world would justify them.
It’s an incredible moment. This twenty-two-year-old, the first African American to give a commencement address at Harvard, gets up on the stage in the midst of all these Cabots and Lowells and John Quincy Adamses and all these New England Brahmins — and he says, your civilization is not based on John Quincy Adams, it’s based on Jefferson Davis.
The lecture is called “Jefferson Davis Is a Representative of Civilization.” It’s not an argument about the memory of the Civil War; it’s not an argument about reconciliation and white supremacy. That’s in there, about Confederate memorials and so on, but it’s not that argument. It’s a global argument. It’s about European imperialism in Africa. It’s about “the rule of the strong over the weak,” “the cool logic of the club,” “the rod of empire”: he has all of these great phrases.
He wants to draw a straight line from Jefferson Davis and slave power to the strong states based in white supremacy that are dependent on extractive labor in colonial societies.
Is he right, as a historian? Is there a straight line? It’s complicated. You could pick it apart and say that all this stuff in Africa was done by Europeans who claimed to have been antislavery. But I think where he’s right is fundamentally that we shouldn’t write these people out of history, the Davises and the Calhouns and the Stephenses. We should take seriously the “tranquility of tyrants,” and the ways some aspects of their vision — even if not the way they foresaw it, but some aspects of that upsetting vision — based on domination, did have an enormous impact on the twentieth century.
Matt Karp is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor at Jacobin. Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University.