When the United States emerged as a world power in the years before the Civil War, the men who presided over the nation’s triumphant territorial and economic expansion were largely southern slaveholders. As presidents, cabinet officers, and diplomats, slaveholding leaders controlled the main levers of foreign policy inside an increasingly powerful American state. This Vast Southern Empire explores the international vision and strategic operations of these southerners at the commanding heights of American politics.
For proslavery leaders like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, the nineteenth-century world was torn between two hostile forces: a rising movement against bondage, and an Atlantic plantation system that was larger and more productive than ever before. In this great struggle, southern statesmen saw the United States as slavery’s most powerful champion. Overcoming traditional qualms about a strong central government, slaveholding leaders harnessed the power of the state to defend slavery abroad. During the antebellum years, they worked energetically to modernize the U.S. military, while steering American diplomacy to protect slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas.
As Matthew Karp demonstrates, these leaders were nationalists, not separatists. Their “vast southern empire” was not an independent South but the entire United States, and only the election of Abraham Lincoln broke their grip on national power. Fortified by years at the helm of U.S. foreign affairs, slaveholding elites formed their own Confederacy—not only as a desperate effort to preserve their property but as a confident bid to shape the future of the Atlantic world.
An essential and compelling account of the slaveholding elite’s grip on national and foreign policy in antebellum America. Provocative, engaging, and beautifully written, this book will endure.
Matthew Karp demonstrates vividly how Southern control of the national government in the antebellum generation resulted in a foreign policy designed to protect slavery from threats both outside and inside the United States. Full of new information and original insights, this book expands our understanding of the ways in which Southern domination of the federal government provoked increasing sectional tensions that brought on the Civil War.
A pathbreaking work—extremely polished, imaginatively conceptualized, shrewdly organized, engagingly written, and exhaustively researched.
Adept and detailed…Karp’s thorough and polished study will be eagerly welcomed by scholars.
At the close of the Civil War, more than Southern independence and the bones of the dead lay amid the smoking ruins of the Confederacy. Also lost was the memory of the prewar decades, when Southern politicians and pro-slavery ambitions shaped the foreign policy of the United States in order to protect slavery at home and advance its interests abroad. With This Vast Southern Empire, Matthew Karp recovers that forgotten history and presents it in fascinating and often surprising detail…Karp makes a persuasive case that we cannot grasp our country’s history without taking account of slavery’s dreams and ambitions.
Karp has written a comprehensive history of the Davisonians that shows how a pro-slavery foreign policy dominated the executive branch from the presidency of John Tyler (1841–45) through the Buchanan administration, which ended in 1861… Combining immense erudition with an engaging style, Karp sheds light on an important but poorly understood era in American foreign policy and provides much food for thought about the ways in which the Davisonian legacy continued to influence the United States long after slavery died.
The book is essential, if unsettling, reading.
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…While the emancipation of the British West Indies is widely recognized as a significant event in the history of abolition, no one has described its effect on U.S. international relations as fully or persuasively as Karp does…One of Karp’s contributions is to reveal ways in which the South was not isolated, either nationally or internationally. He shows that it appropriated the main structures of federal power. In this sense, through much of the era leading up to the Civil War, the South, effectively, was the United States, at least in its contacts with the rest of the world.
This Vast Southern Empire is a much-needed redirection of focus away from the eccentric filibusters who dominated memory of antebellum proslavery expansion toward the actual policymakers who were more directly influential in shaping the government’s relations with slavery, expansion, and America’s neighbors to the south. The irony inherent in their story is that these southern policymakers were the leading proponents of the military and diplomatic power that contributed to their own destruction…Ultimately, although the Civil War officially ended slavery, the key elements of the foreign policy crafted by slaveholders lived on.
Modern Americans have a false image of Southern slaveholders as isolated reactionaries who presided over and eventually lost a feudal kingdom. In his superb book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, historian Matthew Karp argues slaveholders were worldly men. The political and economic elites of their age, slaveholders worked tirelessly to build a world in which bondage could thrive. Their chosen means was the foreign policy apparatus of the federal government.
- 2017, Winner of the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize
- 2017, Winner of the John H. Dunning Prize
- 2016, Joint winner of the James H. Broussard First Book Prize
- 368 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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