Matthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write This Vast Southern Empire?
MK: It’s been a long time coming. My senior thesis in college was on Great Britain and the annexation of Texas, so I’ve been working with the main characters and events in this book for over a dozen years. Some people might say that a dozen years is a lot of time to spend with John Tyler and John C. Calhoun.
As a student, I think what stimulated my interest was an early sense of the open-endedness, the geopolitical uncertainty, that surrounded U.S. foreign relations in the 1840s and 1850s. For Americans, Texans, Mexicans, Indians, and Europeans, there was nothing inevitable about the process we still tend to call “western expansion.” The U.S. annexation of Texas, for instance, had to be organized, planned, managed. When I got to graduate school, and started looking into it more deeply, it struck me how many of these American organizers and managers of foreign policy—men like Tyler, Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis—were slaveholding southerners. And often, the most powerful policymakers were not just run-of-the-mill southern politicians, but the country’ s most outspoken defenders of slavery. That seemed to warrant a fuller investigation.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of This Vast Southern Empire?
MK: The slaveholders who dominated antebellum American foreign policy were not sectional advocates of states’ rights, but ambitious empire-builders who saw the United States as the world’s leading champion of slavery. This Vast Southern Empire follows their strategic management of American expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, recovers their deep ideological confidence in the future of slave labor, and helps explain their ultimate decision to leave the Union in 1861.
JF: Why do we need to read This Vast Southern Empire?
MK: My book joins a wave of recent scholarship that has refocused our attention on antebellum slavery’s economic dynamism, its national and international reach, without in any way diminishing our sense of slavery’s enormous raw brutality. I think my book extends this work by exploring the geopolitical imagination of the South’s confident and prosperous slaveholding leaders.
Partly because the South lost the Civil War, we are accustomed to looking backward at the antebellum period from the perspective of Appomattox. Both scholars and the general public, I think, find it easy to imagine southern elites as provincial conservatives, hostile to the federal government and concerned above all with preserving their own social power at home. But the antebellum master class was very different: in many ways, they did not fear the federal government because they controlled the federal government. As guardians of U.S. foreign and military policy, they did not see a strong national state as a threat to their local power, but a tool to extend their international power.
In this sense, I think the book is important because it refuses to sectionalize the slave South. Slaveholding elites like U.S. Secretary of State Calhoun or U.S. Secretary of War Davis did not view themselves primarily as Southern partisans or crypto-Confederates. They saw themselves as Americans, and as proper leaders of the entire United States.
Most previous scholarship on slaveholders and foreign relations tends to focus on colorful but marginal figures like the filibuster William Walker, who led a private army to conquer Nicaragua in 1856. Walker’s story is fascinating, but it seems to me that putting weak and failed filibusters, separatists, or African slave traders at the center of the antebellum story can serve to exoticize the master class as a whole. My book concentrates instead on powerful national leaders like Calhoun and Davis—men whose fervent devotion to slavery did not, in their minds, make them anything less than the purest American patriots.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MK: When I decided I wasn’t really interested or able to become anything else—probably in my first year after college. I just wanted to keep reading what I had been reading as a history major, and I couldn’t figure out any other way to make that happen.
JF: What is your next project?
MK: I’m beginning work on a new book with the hypothetical title The Radicalism of the Republican Party. I say hypothetical because it’s based on a hypothesis—that, given what we know now about slavery’s national power and international profitability, the antebellum Republican Party looks more unlikely and perhaps even more radical than most accounts give it credit for. But I’m just at the start of this project, so it remains to be seen whether the hypothesis will hold up through deeper reading and research.
JF: Thanks, Matthew!