Slaveholding Statesmen Sought Expansion

April 24, 2017
This Vast Southern Empire

Faculty Book: Matthew Karp

Conventional wisdom holds that antebellum slaveholders who rejected abolition were clinging to their disappearing way of life. In fact, Southern statesmen — diplomats, politicians, and Cabinet members — had another focus: using the power of the United States to expand and protect institutionalized slavery across the Western Hemisphere.

“Much of the older literature on the antebellum period assumes that by the mid-19th century, slavery was an anachronism,” said assistant professor of history Matthew Karp. “But Southern slaveholders saw this racially organized, coercive labor as the endgame of human world development.”

Understanding how these government officials aimed to extend the reach of slavery domestically and internationally is the focus of Karp’s book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press). Karp examines how slaveholders paid close attention to the politics of slavery and abolition across Europe and the Americas. By the 1850s, the productivity of slave agriculture in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba helped convince Southern leaders that the modern world economy was dependent on enslaved labor.

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