A student recently asked me why new books are written on slavery and the Civil War when they are already the most written-about subjects in American history. One good reason is that things look different when the frame of reference changes. Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire takes a critical gaze at antebellum America from the perspective of foreign policy. Diplomatic history is often pegged as “dry,” but this one certainly isn’t. Karp casts doubt on numerous popularly held views in lively prose that sheds new light on America on the eve of the Civil War.
Karp denies, for example, that the South was embattled and isolated, or that slavery was—to invoke John Calhoun’s phrase—a “peculiar” institution. Most Southern appeals to states’ rights were in fact dissimulation in which few ardent theorists or powerful leaders actually believed. And why would they? As Karp bluntly asserts, pro-slavery elites held a “vise-like grip on the executive branch.” From the time John Quincy Adams left the presidency in 1829 until Lincoln assumed it in 1861, all Oval Office holders either owned slaves or supported the institution, and only Zachary Taylor (1849-50) opposed its expansion. Southerners also controlled most diplomatic posts, held secretary-of-state posts two-thirds of the time and spearheaded military modernization. President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war was none other than Jefferson Davis.
About diplomacy and war, Karp looks deeply into the views of powerful prewar Southern thinkers who get surprisingly short shrift in standard texts—among them: Duff Green, Robert Hunter, Thomas Butler King, Abel Upshur and Henry Wise. Most Southern elites did not see Northerners as threats until after 1850. Britain, not U.S. abolitionism, was on their minds.