Karp casts doubt on numerous popularly held views and sheds new light on America on the eve of the Civil War. He denies, for example, that the South was embattled and isolated.

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. 


To Duff Green, for example, Parliament’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, Britain’s imperialism and its powerful navy were rapacious attempts to monopolize global trade. Southerners countered first by advocating for a strong navy. Not what you’d expect from states’-rights advocates? Karp sharply notes, “Southern navalists were seldom troubled by the constitutional implications of their views on foreign policy and military power.”

Far from feeling isolated, slaveholders saw the South, together with Cuba, Brazil and Texas, as the cornerstones for a Western-hemisphere slave system—possibly with Virginia as a breeding incubator. With so-called “scientific racism” on the rise, they articulated “slaveholding visions of modernity”—an American-led slave labor system that required a strong central government to assure that “global economics trumped domestic politics.” In Karp’s words, “the antebellum South’s commitment to states’ rights seldom went much further than the region’s commitment to slavery.” 

Karp blames Southerners for unhinging well-oiled plans. Incidents such as overly speedy attempts to annex Texas, manufactured reasons for war with Mexico and William Walker’s 1854 conquest of Nicaragua served mainly to inflame a Northern public that was hitherto lukewarm to abolitionism. Southern diplomats made matters worse.

As abolitionist sentiment grew, slaveholding ambassadors abroad encouraged their domestic counterparts to think that Britain now viewed the abolition of slavery as a mistake. This was untrue, but it led separatists to imagine that a commodity-driven alliance with a chastened Britain could sustain an independent slaveholding South. Karp sees secession as the ultimate expression “of the national state.” The Confederacy relied upon centralized authority to preserve slavery and promote its chimerical global economic ideals. It paid lip service to states’ rights, but lip service was all it was. 

Karp agrees with past scholars who argued that the South was controlled by an elitist slavocracy, though he thinks its character wasn’t quite as assumed. A deft epilogue focuses on W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1890 graduation speech at Harvard that linked the “Rod of Empire”—as expressed contemporaneously in racism, eugenics, jingoism and unbridled imperialism—to the antebellum period. The empire Du Bois referenced was not what slaveholding elites would have conjured, though it inexorably “grew out of the master’s whip.” John Locke coined the phrase “the doctrine of unintended consequences.” 

If we shift the Civil War frame as Karp has done, William Seward’s “irrepressible conflict” has a whiff of foreign-policy miscalculation. This is why scholars take new looks at old issues. 

Robert E. Weir, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and semiretired professor of American history at UMass. He has authored or edited seven books.