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When the South Held the Keys

Matt Karp

The slaveholding class defeated in the Civil War were no ragtag band of sectionalists — they were the masters of the US state.

Henry Clay speaking on the Compromise of 1850 in the Senate, ca. 1855. Rothermel, Whitechurch / Library of Congress

Interview by
Connor Kilpatrick

In the years before the New Deal, the ex-Confederate states were, as Seth Ackerman put it, “a desperately poor, single-crop farm region with a per capita income roughly half the national average and a third the level of the Northeast.” And its ruling class was no exception — few would make the mistake of calling the postbellum elite “cosmopolitan.”

When history is read backwards, the continuities between the postwar and pre-war ruling classes of the Southern states are magnified and exaggerated. Suddenly, the skilled and well-traveled statesmen who sundered the United States to protect their “peculiar institution” begin to look more and more like the eccentric, reactionary rustics and provincials who dominated the region well past Reconstruction.

But Princeton historian and Jacobin contributing editor Matt Karp’s new book This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy makes clear that this is a mistake. And it’s one that has blinded us to the slaver class’s far-sighted and terrifying vision that went far beyond our national borders and into direct confrontation with a British Empire they saw as a belligerent force for abolition and thus the ruination of the United States. This Southern political elite sought to preserve slavery not only as a social institution in their homes far away from DC but — with their hands on the levers of state power in Washington — as an international empire.

I sat down with Karp to discuss his new book, slaver-statecraft, and why, in some ways, it’s the early Republicans who look like the stubborn, obstinate eccentrics and fevered ideologues and not the “reasonable” Southern veterans of the national stage.


CK

It seems to me that in writing about this you’re trying to challenge the view of the South as we see it today.

MK

Yeah. Our perspective on the South in American history is shaped by Confederate defeat in the Civil War, and what the South became after the war. In other words, often we look at the South and see a kind of economic backwater, dominated by a regional ruling class of powerful whites who were mostly content to wield their local power, and who in some sense were removed from the big action of American history.

The antebellum South was a totally different beast. The slaveholding class before the Civil War was not just a regional class. In many ways they were the nation’s ruling class, with decisive power over both major antebellum parties, and a virtual stranglehold on the executive branch of government. And because they were at the helm of US national power, they had international aspirations and they carried out a lot of international policy, too.

CK

So the sectionalism of the antebellum South was in service of a core social vision, which had an international scope?

MK

I think that’s right. The leaders of the antebellum South shared a social vision that put the idea of slave property front and center. Because they had the power of the American federal government behind them, that vision was often tied to the geopolitical ambitions of this young, hungry, imperial republic — but fundamentally, it still revolved around the social system of slavery.

CK

You push back against reading history backwards, so I want to now read history forward, from an international perspective. What is the Atlantic world of the 1830s?

MK

I think it begins with Great Britain. Economically, strategically, and in some sense ideologically, Britain was the dominant power. Britain was the largest economy in the world; it had the largest navy in the world; it had the commercial power with the greatest presence in Latin America; and was the United States’s largest trading partner. And even after the American Revolution, of course Britain still had colonies in Canada and in the Caribbean. If you look at the Atlantic world in the early nineteenth century, I think British dominance is the outstanding feature.

CK

You begin the book with the British abolition of slavery in 1833. How does that change things?

MK

It was huge. When Britain abolished slavery in the West Indies, it fundamentally reshaped the relationship between American slavery and the larger Atlantic world. Suddenly you have the world’s largest navy controlled by a government that claims to be making an ideological commitment against slavery. You have people like British foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, saying that it is British policy to oppose slavery throughout the world, on the basis that it’s immoral.

That is a total shock to the system for American slave owners. The way they see it, by abolishing slavery in the West Indies, Britain is hoping to use its power to take out the other slave-producing societies in the Western Hemisphere — sugar production in Cuba, coffee in Brazil, cotton in the United States, everywhere. Someone like John C. Calhoun looks at the situation and says, if the British can succeed in destroying slave production in those places — through economic, diplomatic, and military pressure — then Britain’s colonies in Asia are going to have complete control over the world market.

CK

This steps into what I was really excited to talk to you about. This phrase you use repeatedly in the book, you call it a “cold war.” You look a little hesitant.

MK

Yeah.

CK

It’s such an ingenious concept but I can tell you don’t want to go too far into that.

MK

No. I don’t want to go too far. I’m cautious.

CK

Such an academic, Matt.

MK

I think Southerners see Britain as a power with global aspirations that is driven by the desire to command the world markets, to undermine or destroy American slavery in order to boost their position. They want to avoid a dangerous head-on war with this major power, but they also want to defeat its global project. In that sense some Southerners do see the struggle between American slavery and British abolitionism as a kind of cold war.

I don’t want to go too far with the Cold War analogy, though, because it’s not quite like the US/Soviet struggle. The leaders of US foreign policy in the Cold War were convinced that the Soviet Union was implacably hostile, that it was totally dominated by the forces of communism. Southern leaders weren’t so sure about Britain. They were much more hopeful that British leaders would be able to throw off the domination of the abolitionists.

CK

Right, because their view of Britain changes in the 1850s.

MK

Exactly. Slaveholders thought, what we need to do is head the British off at the pass. If we make it clear that slavery is not going to buckle and fold at the slightest sign of conflict with British abolition, if we can muscle them a little bit, then they’re going to give up this strategic plan to destroy slavery and they’ll just accept having to deal with slave-produced staples in their economic system. We’re not fundamentally in conflict.

For Southern leaders, it was a matter of convincing the British ruling class that abolition had run its course, that their economic interests are best served by dealing with the slaveholding countries rather than trying to undermine them. And after the annexation of Texas and the US-Mexico War, slaveholders start to believe that this plan is working. Slavery has grown stronger in North America, and Britain seems to have stepped away from its abolitionist commitments. At that point, in the 1850s, Southerners come to see Great Britain less as an existential threat and more as a possible ally against domestic antislavery forces.

CK

Let’s step back and talk about another concept that’s very key to your book. Southern navalism — what is Southern navalism?

MK

In the 1830s and 1840s, British abolition had material consequences for Southern slaveholders. For instance, there were a couple of American slave ships going from Virginia to Louisiana that got shipwrecked somewhere in the Bahamas, and the British authorities freed the slaves. Another time, the slaves on a ship called the Creole rebelled, then piloted the ship to the Bahamas, where they were freed, too.

Partly in response to these events, a number of leading Southerners, starting in the 1840s, began to argue that the United States needed a much larger navy, a navy closer to the scale of the British Navy. The Virginian Abel Upshur, who was secretary of the navy under President John Tyler, wanted a navy that was half Britain’s size. That would have made the US Navy eight times larger than it was, overnight. But Upshur believed the British threat warranted that kind of naval buildup.

CK

You suggest that Southerners also liked the idea of a navy because they realized that a land war, no matter who starts it, will probably lead to military emancipation — which had already happened both in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812.

MK

That’s true, but there’s an important difference. In the two wars before 1833, lots of slaves won their freedom by escaping to British lines, but it was never British policy to wage a war of full-scale emancipation. Britain, after all, was still a slaveholding power. But if you fought Britain after 1833, slaveholders knew, the British would absolutely do that. Why wouldn’t they do that?

They were already accepting slave runaways, maybe they would go further. They could send an army of black troops from Jamaica into Louisiana. They could do a lot of things that would not just threaten the United States from a military perspective, but that could incite a social revolution on a scale way beyond anything that happened in the American Revolution or the War of 1812.

CK

James Oakes has written his last two books, roughly, on the fundamental logic of military emancipation that was already understood well before the American Civil War.

MK

Right. The nature and the extent of military emancipation, though, depends on whether the slaveholding side is fighting against a fellow slave power, or fighting against an antislavery power.

That’s why people like Andrew Jackson are desperately afraid of war with Britain. They’re scared of this theoretical combination of black troops from Jamaica, Indians, Mexicans, all under the aegis of the British flag — that this army would march into the South and not just incidentally emancipate the slaves, but that it would genuinely try liberate slaves, arm slaves — that it would stop at nothing to destroy slavery as the strategic purpose of war.

CK

Jackson was almost dead at this point right?

MK

He was on his last legs. I think he died in 1845. He basically lived long enough to bring in Texas, then croaked.

CK

Can you do an Andrew Jackson voice?

MK

No.

CK

Fine, I’ll do it. I love this letter with his typos: “Great Britain enters into an allience with Texas . . . She sends to Texas twenty to thirty thousand, marches though Louisiana and Arkansa, excite[s] the negroes to to insurrection and a servile war rages all over the southern and western country.” That’s so amazing. This all ended up happening.

MK

Yeah. That’s where the book ends. That is exactly what happens in the 1860s, except it was the US Army, not the British Army, that literally put arms in the hands of slaves.

CK

War often creates conditions of emancipation, whether it’s slavery or social insurrection. The Franco-Prussian War leads to the Paris Commune. In 1905 in the war between Russia and Japan, you have a revolution in Russia.

MK

Yeah, some of the basic facts of modern war — mass mobilization, property destruction, etc — weaken social hierarchy in a lot of ways. Or at least they open up possibilities for resistance.

CK

To go back to the question of Southern sectionalism versus nationalism. People argue a lot about whether the Confederates were sectionalist or nationalist.

But I think this dichotomy loses the basic truth about the Southerners at this time, which is that their total concern is the preservation of their social system. To preserve it, they’ll make international arguments, sectional arguments, national arguments — whatever they need to depending on the circumstance, to protect and expand their system. You can see this maneuvering around the question of whether to annex Cuba, for instance.

MK

Absolutely. Sure, many Southerners wanted to acquire Cuba, for all different reasons: some had immediate commercial interests involved, some of them wanted to project US power into the Caribbean, and of course there was the pure domestic political desire for Cuba as another slave state (or many slave states).

But other slaveholders were much more ambivalent about annexing Cuba. And ultimately, the most important thing for Southern leaders was not territorial acquisition, but the preservation of Cuban slavery. Whether Cuba was Spanish, American, French, independent, whatever, mattered far less than whether it was slave or free. They would much rather see Cuba Spanish and enslaved than American and free. It’s not fundamentally about political allegiance, it’s about the preservation of a certain kind of social system, and a certain kind of class power.

CK

The compromise negotiations during the secession crisis get at this, too. You point out that many Southern leaders were willing to accept the Crittenden Compromise. They were willing to stay in Lincoln’s union as long as they could have some assurances that, instead of slavery being completely ensnared, it would just have a northern border.

MK

Yeah, lots of slaveholders were on board with the compromise as long as slavery could exist in Southern territory “hereafter acquired.” Some historians have said this was a code word for Southern plans to conquer Latin America, carve it into a bunch of slave states, and then retake the balance of power in Congress. I’m not sure about that — it’s a pretty far-fetched scenario given that Republicans were in the White House. I think fundamentally, slaveholders also wanted an assurance that the American state, even under Republican rule, would not be implacably hostile toward the hemispheric system of slavery. In any case, it came to nothing because Lincoln and the Republicans rejected the Crittenden plan.

CK

That moment is the part in your book where I return to my consistent preoccupation with why I hate twenty-first century liberals acting like Lincoln was their boy.

MK

Yeah absolutely.

CK

Obama and the Democrats would have jumped at the Crittenden Compromise.

MK

“Let’s talk about Sonora. You want Sonora, we’ll find a way to get you Sonora.”

CK

That’s the pragmatic, realist thing to do! And yet the Republicans just said nope.

MK

“If Lincoln had seen a little bit of Lyndon Johnson’s deal-making with Congress, he would have seen that you’ve got to work with some unsavory folks sometimes.”

CK

In a weird way, when I read the Southerners’ arguments, they sound a lot more like the reasonable pragmatic people. Like look, come on.

MK

“We just want a piece of the pie. We just want this system that has been functioning really well so far to continue to function. Isn’t it enough that we’ve lost our control of the executive branch, which we’ve had forever, and that we’re terrified by the possibility of a Republican Party in the South? We’re terrified of Republicans using patronage to build a party among non-slaveholders, a party that might undermine slavery where it exists. We’re terrified about all these things and you won’t even give us a possibility of protecting this hemispheric slave system? You won’t even?”

The Republicans just say: nope.

CK

This is where, in a weird way, the Northern Republican Party’s intentions bears more resemblance to the neo-Confederate idea that they were these crazed ideologues than the more modern liberal and ultra-left conception that they didn’t really care about stopping slavery.

MK

Yeah. I know. That’s why I want to write a second book on the Republicans because from a pro-slavery perspective, they seem completely unyielding. They’re just a tank aimed right at the heart of slave-owning society.

CK

Reading your book, you move from understanding the slave elite less as backwards, weirdo Wes Anderson characters and more as titanic, powerful people who commanded the national state, literally telling the Republicans to be reasonable. It makes these ideas that the Republican Party’s antislavery core was anemic or worthless look even more absurd.

MK

These Southerners were hardened nationalists who had built up an increasingly powerful American state apparatus. They were cabinet members. They were committee chairmen. They were not just powerful Southerners. They were powerful Americans who dominated. The capital of their efforts was Washington DC, not Charleston or New Orleans or something like that. They ran Washington DC. When they’re thrown out by Lincoln’s election, they’re not reacting like wild-eyed fanatics. They’re reacting like sober veteran statesmen who are experienced in making hard decisions and weighing difficult options and making strategic choices.

Sometimes people describe things as if the Southerners seceded in a sort of fit, because they lost the election and were mad and basically all they wanted was to take their ball and go home and create this awesome little Confederacy where they could do their own thing. And today’s neo-Confederates buy into this because they say, “All we want to do is be left alone.” The experience of the Civil War reinforces this because to win the war, the North had to invade and subdue the South. From the perspective of the war, yes, the all the South wanted to do was be left alone.

But that’s not why they seceded. They seceded because they were thrown out of the confident, internationally minded state that they had commanded, and they wanted to continue to command on the international level.

I think for one thing when we write about Southerners, we tend to focus on the more colorful types like Shelby Foote wrote about. Or more recently, we focus on the guys who wanted to reopen the slave trade with Africa, or the guys who wanted to conquer Nicaragua like with three hundred drunks.

CK

The filibusters.

MK

Yeah, exactly. When you write about those guys, who are fascinating, you risk missing the forest for the trees. You risk missing leaders like Jeff Davis or Robert Hunter or Judah Benjamin, steely-eyed, sophisticated Washingtonians who made a decision based on their view of national and international politics, not because they were like, “Hell! Yankees can’t rule me!”

In their view, slave labor was fundamental not only to the South or the United States, but to the entire world economy. They believed this not just because of the power of King Cotton, but because all over the world, the leading powers seemed to be experimenting with similar labor systems. Sure, European opinion was officially antislavery, but for slaveholders, actions spoke louder than words.

In the 1850s, everywhere you looked, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, you saw the colonial penetration of tropical places, racial domination, and the ravenous exploitation of resources through some kind of forced labor. Why couldn’t a southern slave Confederacy exist alongside these experiments? Now, slaveholders were probably wrong to lump their slave society in with these other systems, and they were definitely overconfident about their own power, but I don’t think they were crazy.

CK

I think there should be more attention paid to how “rational” the slaveocracy was in these decisions, and how “irrational,” in a good way, the North was.

MK

Yeah. I agree.

That’s why I want to write this book on the radicals of the Republican Party. I think we get them distorted when we make it all about Lincoln. Everybody loves Lincoln, and he was the ultimate decision-maker, but Lincoln existed as the embodiment of this Republican Party and this Republican Party effort across the 1850s.

He was chosen at the convention in 1860 because he was everybody’s second choice. He was a kind of consensus Republican. He did not make the decision to reject the Crittenden Compromise, and so on, all by himself. All the aggressive decisions that Lincoln makes were decisions made by him as representative, as leader of the Republican Party.

The experience of this party came out of an intense oppositional politics, a marginalized antislavery politics. People like Salmon Chase and Hannibal Hamlin and Gideon Wells, they’re important people in Lincoln’s cabinet and inner circle who have been, throughout the antebellum period, getting crapped on by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens and these Southerners who ran the national government.

In 1860, suddenly, these guys from the far fringes, who were seen as radicals their entire careers, take control of the government. It’s not that surprising that when they come into power, they act in a way that is pretty damn aggressive.

CK

Right. That’s what so tremendous about this book, it re-centers the countries’ elite who at the time were Southern slaveholders. Reading your book, you get this idea of a mid-1850s Republican politician as being “the odd guy in DC.” The outsider. A fiery, perhaps unreasonable guy who’s willing to take huge risks. And you come away thinking of the Southern elite as cosmopolitan rational thinkers.

MK

It’s ironic, in the historical context, that these fringe Republicans end up mobilizing the largest army and fighting the most aggressive war that the United States had ever known.

There’s a revealing moment in 1856, just after the the Republicans have first arrived in Congress in large numbers. Jefferson Davis is secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, and he’s trying to pass a military appropriations bill that’s pretty standard fare. Congress is deeply divided over bleeding Kansas, the conflict between proslavery and antislavery forces, but this is just a regular appropriations bill. Let’s fund this basic arm of government that is responsible for protecting American settlers all over the West, for fighting Indians where necessary, for keeping the peace in Kansas, for doing a lot of important stuff.

But the Republicans in Congress say, we will not fund the army unless you promise that it won’t be used to support the fraudulent proslavery legislature in Kansas. They hold the whole army bill hostage for months and months, to the point where they are risking leaving the army unpaid. It’s total gridlock, and nobody is budging.

You have Republican senators saying really radical stuff. William Seward says the army isn’t an important part of the American republic. That the republic could do without the army for a few months and things would be fine. Meanwhile Robert Hunter of Virginia, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, one of the most powerful senators of the 1850s that nobody knows — Hunter says, this is revolution. You guys are holding the entire basic ordinary functions of government hostage to make this antislavery point in Kansas. You guys are fucking Jacobins. You’re bringing the wheels of government to a halt to score a political point.

From Hunter’s perspective, the Southerners are the people that want to do business as usual. They’re the ones who want to maintain Washington politics in a, dare I say, bipartisan fashion. They want to reach an agreement with the opposing party that will keep the wheels of government moving. It’s the Republicans who are being obstreperous and acting like the modern Tea Party, breaking all the rules.

They are willing disrupt ordinary politics because they represent an extraordinary brand of politics. Antislavery is not ordinary politics.

CK

Modern liberals see themselves as the inheritors of that antislavery legacy. But it’s hard to see the current Democratic Party or its leaders using such tactics.

MK

They are the party of the status quo. They’re not the party of taking risks to establish something on behalf of a transformative political vision.