This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy



The Antebellum South has traditionally been portrayed as regressive and sectional, defensively focused on preserving slavery in the southern states in opposition to federal expansion. However, as historian Matthew Karp describes in his recent book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, it was southern slaveholders that led the way in attempting to establish a strong, national U.S. military. In fact, throughout most of the Antebellum era, southerners made up the vast majority of federal positions related to military policy and foreign diplomacy. Karp records:


Between 1847 and 1861 men from the future Confederate states served as secretary of war for eleven of fourteen years and secretary of the navy for nine. In Congress the proportion of southerners leading the Military and Naval Affairs Committees was equally lopsided. During a decade in which the future Confederate states accounted for less than a third of the nation’s population, and little more than a fifth of its free population, representatives from those states occupied nearly three-quarters of the key federal positions in the formulation of military policy. (Karp, This Vast Southern Empire, 199)


Their goal was not merely to expand southern interests, but to provide what Karp describes as a national, U.S. “foreign policy of slavery.” In fact, the future of slavery and American Manifest Destiny was one and the same to them. In the eyes of southern slaveowners, slavery was the economic backbone of America, and it had to be protected from the threat of free market, wage labor of abolitionist nations like Britain. To them the only way to compete with the imperial nations of Europe was to provide a counter American empire. And this would require building a strong, national military, and an alliance with the other American slaveholding nations that shared this common economic bond with the U.S.


[S]laveholders recognized that in a midcentury world dominated by open commerce and expanding empires, they could not neglect the hard power of the central state. The U.S. government, enhanced by ambitious military reforms, would play an essential role in managing the global transformations they envisioned and in shaping the new era they welcomed into being. (p. 202)


In the 1850s, under secretary of the navy, James C. Dobbin of North Carolina the U.S. Navy underwent a transformative increase and modernization from coastal gunboats to oceangoing steam frigates. Since the 1840s slaveholders had pushed for U.S. naval expansion. Jefferson Davis had declared in 1844 that the South had “a delicate and daily increasing interest in the navy” (p. 202). When the subject came up again in the 1850s under Dobbin, Southern newspapers were extremely blunt about the South’s interest in the matter. Without the ability to wage offensive military action on the high seas, the South was at the mercy of Great Britain and France should either nation decide to “resolve upon the chaotic creation of a negro confederation in the Antilles” (p. 206). For years, Southern slaveholders had feared that the introduction of European abolitionism among the Caribbean nations could create a domino effect that would destroy the international slave economy, and they firmly believed that the formation of a U.S. fleet was necessary in order to prevent any such European venture.

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