Booked: When Slaveholders Controlled the Government, with Matthew Karp

George Washington and slaves in Virginia (Wikimedia Commons)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Matthew Karp about This Vast Southern Empire (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Between 1789 and 1850, the United States had twelve presidents. Ten of them owned slaves; the only two that didn’t were both named “John Adams.” The United States was a pioneering democracy, but its democracy was shaped by the demands of a slaveholding elite that had immense—and often decisive—authority over its government. Princeton historian Matthew Karp explores the consequences of this arrangement in This Vast Southern Empire. He focuses on the influence Southerners wielded over foreign policy, but Karp’s inquiry opens up new perspectives on much more, including the dynamics of proslavery ideology, the world-making ambitions of Southern elites, and the origins of a Civil War that broke American democracy in two. It is a history driven by the intertwined forces of white supremacy, state power, and coerced labor—and it is a history that would persist long after the Confederacy’s demise.

Timothy Shenk: When Americans talked about a “vast Southern empire” before the Civil War, what did they have in mind?

Matthew Karp: The short answer is that they weren’t talking about an independent Southern republic, but the entire United States.

It’s easy to find sectionalism in Southern politics before the Civil War, but the most powerful antebellum Southerners—from Andrew Jackson to Jefferson Davis—were nationalists, not separatists. What John C. Calhoun really wanted, as Richard Hofstadter wrote long ago, was not for Southerners to leave the Union but to dominate it, which they more or less did in the thirty years before the Civil War.

Southerners imagined—and worked to build—an American republic whose foundation was slavery. In their minds, this was a powerful state, continental in scope and hemispheric in influence, which put the preservation of slaveholding property at the center of U.S. politics and U.S. foreign policy. That’s what they meant by “this vast Southern empire,” and that’s the focus of the book.

Shenk: Especially in popular discussions, slaveholders are often seen as advocates of small government and states’ rights. What does looking at the foreign policy visions promoted by leading proslavery figures do to that image?

Karp: It’s true that in many antebellum political arguments, Southern leaders emphasized the limited powers of the federal government. But when slavery and states’ rights came into conflict, the abstract commitment to limited government vanished pretty quickly. The outstanding example is the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which overrode personal liberty laws in the northern states and required federal marshals to assist slaveholders in capturing runaway slaves.

You can look at this and say, “Aha, they’re hypocrites!” But the use of federal power to defend slavery went far beyond hypocrisy—it was a cornerstone of antebellum Southern politics. Looking at U.S. foreign policy makes this especially clear. On many important questions of foreign relations—the annexation of Texas, for instance—supposed small-government ideologues suddenly morphed into bold advocates of federal power. Proslavery Southerners also served as by far the most aggressive champions of U.S. military and naval expansion. They didn’t do this because they were hypocrites, but because they believed the world’s strongest bulwark for slavery was not the weak state governments of the South, but the entire United States.

Shenk: One of the most fascinating characters in this book, and in all of U.S. history, is John C. Calhoun. He was the most incisive thinker the plantation elite had—Richard Hofstadter called him “the Marx of the master class”—and he’s a central figure in your account. What do we learn about Calhoun by bringing his foreign policy into the spotlight?

Karp: We think of Calhoun as the quintessential antebellum Southern sectionalist. But from the perspective of foreign and military policy, he was much closer to a bold proslavery nationalist. As Secretary of State, he pushed aggressively for Texas annexation, bypassing Congress (and cutting constitutional corners) to offer military aid to Texas in 1844. Through the antebellum years he remained a relatively consistent advocate for army and navy expansion.

Sometimes we imagine Southern slaveholders like Calhoun as isolated elites, barricaded in the parlors of their plantation homes. But Calhoun was also a bold proslavery internationalist. He paid close attention to the politics of slavery and abolition in Europe and in Latin America, and he was very assiduous about directing U.S. power to sustain slavery in Cuba and Brazil. For him, the international strength of slavery and the international strength of the United States were tightly bound together.

Shenk: Recent historians have paid a lot of attention to the commercial relationships that bound the United States and the United Kingdom before the Civil War. As you note in the book, during this period “Britain was the world’s largest consumer of goods produced by American slaves.” But you also observe that this was the same period when the UK both abolished slavery and embarked on a renewed drive to establish a global empire. From the perspective of the American South, this combination seemed like a total jumble of ideological, cultural, and economic issues that the UK would have to sort out if they wanted to develop a coherent vision of their country’s place in the world. And it gets even more confusing when you remember that figures like Calhoun had spent most of 1812 pushing for a disastrous war with Britain. How did slavery’s defenders make sense of all this?

Karp: Southern elites saw Britain as both a vital commercial partner and a potentially dangerous strategic enemy. That’s not necessarily incoherent, but it is confusing. It helps to approach Southern attitudes toward Britain from a chronological perspective.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the British abolition of slavery in 1833. Overnight, the policy of the world’s most powerful empire was now distinctly hostile toward one of America’s most fundamental institutions. In the early 1840s, Southern leaders in and around the administration of President John Tyler believed that defending slavery against British abolitionism should be a top strategic priority for the United States. There were many dimensions to this effort, from naval expansion to Cuba diplomacy, but in some sense it culminated with the U.S. annexation of the Republic of Texas, which was in 1845 the fourth largest slaveholding society in the world.

By the 1850s, after the Texas annexation and the U.S.-Mexico war, the strategic situation had changed. Slaveholders were cheered by the apparent “failure” of emancipation in the West Indies—obviously, it wasn’t a failure for the emancipated slaves, but sugar production in Jamaica and elsewhere plummeted after abolition. Across the 1850s, slaveholding leaders eagerly reprinted evidence that Britain had soured on abolition, and was ready to accept the dominance of slave-produced staples (from the United States, Cuba, and Brazil) in the world market. This was a somewhat optimistic view, but by 1861, Southerners sincerely viewed Britain much more as a commercial partner than as a strategic rival.

Shenk: For a long time, historians tended to think of the antebellum South as an almost feudal holdover from the past that could not stand up to the forces of modernity. In the last decade or so, however, scholars have become much more likely to depict it as thoroughly modern. Where does your research fall in that debate?

Karp: You’re right about the tendency of the recent scholarship. In a lot of ways, my book is congruent with that work, although I do think there are limits to a social or economic interpretation of slavery that concentrates entirely on its modern characteristics.

Really, though, the book is less about whether slavery was or was not “modern,” and more about the fact that leading slaveholders believed it was. I like what the historian Frederick Cooper says: scholars should stop “shoehorning political discourse into modern, antimodern, or postmodern discourses” and instead “listen to what is being said in the world.” What slaveholders said, over and over again, was that “modern civilization” and African slavery were fundamentally compatible. Economically, they argued, slave labor was necessary to produce vital agricultural staples. And ideologically, slave labor fit in very well in a world increasingly dominated by free trade, expanding European empires, and hardening racist science. I think the most powerful slaveholding politicians—Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and so on—believed this most of all. We have to understand that belief to understand antebellum politics.

Shenk: By 1861, elite Southerners were no longer convinced the United States could serve as the agent of their interests, and so they break off to form the Confederacy. You argue that we should see the launching of the Confederate States of America as their “boldest foreign policy project.” What do we gain by thinking of the Confederacy in this way?

Karp: Slaveholding leaders didn’t want to abandon the Union. But their grip on the federal government was overthrown by the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1860. Suddenly the power of the national state—which they had spent decades building up—could be used to not to strengthen slavery, but to undermine it.

All the same, I don’t think Southerners would have seceded without the confident belief that a slaveholding Confederacy could thrive on the world stage. In the book I look at two of the most famous Southern documents from early 1861—the Mississippi declaration of secession and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “cornerstone address.” Both are very candid about the central importance of slavery, and in contemporary discussions they are often brandished as clear evidence that slavery, not state rights, drove Southerners to secede (like the way Jon Stewart cites the Mississippi declaration in this episode of the Daily Show).

That’s all true, but what’s most interesting about these documents is that they make a fundamentally international case for slavery. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world”: that’s the second sentence of the Mississippi declaration. It wasn’t just that slaveholders believed Britain and other European powers would come to their aid in a war against the North, although they did believe that. It was that their entire ideological and strategic worldview depended on a belief in the global necessity of slave labor. European states might oppose slavery in the abstract, but they could not escape the deeper principle of racial inequality upon which slavery rested. “The truth of this principle may be slow in development,” Stephens admitted in his famous address, but so was the case with the controversial principles of Galileo or Adam Smith. Ultimately, he and other Confederate leaders were confident that the fundamental ideas of racial hierarchy and coerced labor would receive “full recognition . . . throughout the civilized and enlightened world.” That international confidence, I think, was a true ideological cornerstone of the Confederate project.

Shenk: The book’s epigraph comes from Karl Marx—“In the foreign, as in the domestic policy of the United States, the interests of the slaveholders served as the guiding star”—and its footnotes are studded with classic works of Marxist scholarship, but your methodology here doesn’t follow the standard practice among Marxists. Your concern is with policymaking elites, and while you’re clearly aware that their work isn’t taking place in a vacuum, you’re not trying to write a history from the bottom up. Is there a contribution that you’re trying to make by shifting the angle of focus?

Karp: Part of the issue here is that the literature on slavery and the Old South is, in some ways, the richest literature in U.S. history—the crown jewel of American historiography, as I’ve heard it described. And the best books on Southern politics, from the 1960s to the 2000s (many of them written from a Marxist or Marx-ish perspective), have been grounded very firmly in the social world of the antebellum South.

I would say that my book’s focus on elite actors and elite sources should not be seen as a criticism of that literature, but an indirect appreciation of its richness. Historians are so accustomed—as we should be—to viewing slaveholders at the top of a complex pyramid of class, racial, and gender hierarchies in Southern society, that for a long time, we forgot that they were also the nation’s most powerful political leaders, and the world’s most powerful slaveholding class. Only in the past fifteen years or so have historians begun to look more systematically at slaveholders as leading national and international actors, as well as Southern social elites. Done right, I think, these approaches don’t contradict each other—they complement each other.

Shenk: You end the book by discussing a speech by that W.E.B. Du Bois gave at Harvard’s 1890 commencement, when he was twenty-two. In his address, Du Bois portrayed the Confederacy’s president Jefferson Davis as not just a successful politician but as the representative product of a whole civilization. Thirteen years after he made this argument, Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Do you see a connection running from the history you examine here and the world that Du Bois saw at the turn of the twentieth century?

Karp: Du Bois titled his 1890 address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization,” and by that he meant, provocatively, not just the civilization of the Old South, but all contemporary Western civilization itself. Davis’s life and career, according to Du Bois, prefigured the major world developments of the turn of the twentieth century—the destruction of indigenous populations, the strengthening of a global color line, the extension of Euro-American empires over Asia, Africa, and Australia. It’s an incredibly powerful and ambitious speech for anyone to give, let alone a twenty-two year old undergraduate.

Many historians would object to Du Bois’s intellectual genealogy here. Davis’s side, after all, lost the Civil War: the Confederacy was destroyed and slavery was abolished. The leading players in the world of 1890—from industrial tycoons from to European imperialists—seemingly owed little to Jefferson Davis or the slave South. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison was himself a Union Army veteran, who had marched with General Sherman into Georgia.

But what I like about Du Bois’s speech is that he refuses, unlike so many later writers, to consign Davis to a distant and departed past, entirely walled off from the twentieth-century future. Davis and other slaveholding elites thought and acted as power players in a rapidly modernizing world. Their battlefield defeat should not blind us to the ways in which many of their core ideas—about racial hierarchy, coerced labor, and imperial state power—survived long after 1865.

That doesn’t mean that the Civil War, Confederate defeat, and slave emancipation were irrelevant. If anything, it underlines their significance. The larger point, though, is that when we look back at Davis and his ilk, we should not regard them as antiquarian curiosities, but as ambitious contenders for power in an uncertain mid-nineteenth century world.

Shenk: Historians know you as a specialist in the antebellum South, but in the wider world you’re better known for your writings on contemporary politics, especially for your essays in Jacobin, which were some of the sharpest analyses of the Bernie Sanders campaign in this entire election cycle. On the surface, at least, those two don’t seem to have a lot in common. Do you see any common threads running through the two? What was it like wrapping up this book while also spending so much time with your feet planted in 2016?

Karp: I’m not sure they do have much in common! I turned in my final draft of the book in January, just as the Democratic primary really got underway and Sanders emerged as a surprising contender for the nomination. It was fortunate timing, because after working on the book for years, I now had some free time to get involved in contemporary politics.

To the extent that there is a connection between these things, it might have to do with my sense of slaveholders as a nineteenth-century ruling class. Our most powerful elites today are very different, and I don’t want to make a serious analogy between the two. But in the very general sense that slaveholders were a small and self-conscious class, nationally powerful, internationally sophisticated, and totally confident in the future of their system—despite various warning signs all around the globe—their outlook is, in some ways, comparable to the outlook of today’s big capitalist class. And control of the American national state was—as it remains today—absolutely fundamental to the operation of ruling class power.

I agree with other historians and commentators, like Manisha Sinha and Chris Hayes, that the contemporary left could stand to learn from the anti-slavery movement. The key, though, is not only to isolate and weaken the gun lobby or fossil fuel industry, for instance, but to develop a popular and more comprehensive critique of the political-economic system—a twenty-first century version of the “Slave Power” argument. Slaveholders, after all, didn’t just represent a sector of the economy; they controlled the government. For all its weaknesses, I do think the Sanders campaign represented a major step forward in this larger project, and I’m probably unreasonably optimistic about the possibilities going forward.


Matthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University, and the author of This Vast Southern Empire.

Timothy Shenk is a Carnegie Fellow at New America and a contributing editor at Dissent. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.

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