Interview with Matthew Karp, 2016 SHEAR Broussard Book Prize Co-Winner
Matthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. His book This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016) was co-winner of the James Broussard Best First Book Prize.
The Republic (TR). For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?
Matthew Karp (MK): The book explores the ways that southern slaveholders directed U.S. foreign policy in the decades before the Civil War. Slaveholders were overrepresented in every branch of the antebellum federal government, but as presidents, cabinet officers, congressional committee chairmen, and diplomats, they were especially dominant in the realm of foreign and military policy. After the shock of British emancipation in the Caribbean, the book argues, antebellum southern elites came to understand the United States as the western hemisphere’s leading champion of slavery. Slaveholders embraced an assertive, even aggressive foreign policy that mustered the full force of the federal government to help protect slave property across the hemisphere, from Texas to Cuba to Brazil. The antebellum era’s most ambitious military reformers were proslavery leaders like Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur of Virginia and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Far from isolated reactionaries, decrying the advance of modernity, America’s most powerful slaveholders were confident that slavery — by the 1850s, more extensive and more prosperous than ever — was fully compatible with modern development on a global scale. Only the victory of Abraham Lincoln and the antislavery Republican Party in 1860 convinced southern elites to abandon the United States and found their own independent slaveholding republic.
TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?
MK: It goes back a while. As an undergraduate, my favorite courses were on 20th century U.S. foreign policy — with class discussions that pivoted on the great ideological and strategic struggles of the 20th century, between fascism, communism, and capitalism. It occurred to me that not many people wrote about 19th century foreign relations in the same terms, even though the struggle over slavery was in some ways just as epochal and just as international. I did my undergraduate thesis on slavery, antislavery and the British response to the U.S. annexation of Texas. In graduate school, working with two historians of the South (Steven Hahn and Stephanie McCurry), I decided to focus more explicitly on the South and foreign policy. That led pretty directly to the foreign policy of slavery.