KARP, M. .This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. 360p. Resenha de: CAPRICE, K. Panta Rei. Revista Digital de Ciencia y Didáctica de la Historia, Murcia, p. 187-188, 2018.
In This Vast Southern Empire, Matthew Karp steps back from the previous historiography of the slaveholding antebellum South, a historiography that situates slaveholders as antiquated and inward looking, and, instead, Karp sees a slaveholding Southern elite looking outward in an attempt to enshrine their vision of modernity: a world economy run on slave labor. Karp bookends his study with the 1833 British emancipation of the West Indies, seen by Southerners as a global threat to the proliferation of slavery, and the creation and ultimate failure of the Confederate States of America, which Karp deems the “boldest foreign policy project of all” (p. 2). In this fresh take, Karp argues that, from 1833 to 1861, Southern elites eagerly utilized Federal power to secure the safety of slavery, not just in the United States, but throughout the Western Hemisphere.
By looking globally, Karp provides new and broader understandings to events previously seen as having only insular motivations. American interest in Cuba was less about the expansion of American slavery, Karp argues, and more about blocking the expansion of British anti-slavery, what Karp brilliantly terms as the “nineteenth-century domino theory” (p. 70). In a similar vein, Karp shows that Polk’s decision to push for war with Mexico, while pursuing peace with Great Britain over the Oregon question, was at least partially due to the fact that war with Mexico would not put the institution of slavery at risk. Insights from Karp’s global perspective do not end with the antebellum period, but extend into the policies of the Confederate government. As Karp explains, the immediate Confederate abandonment of the states’ rights platform was presaged by the Southern embrace of Federal power during their antebellum reign over American foreign policy. Through his argument, Karp provides yet another nail in the coffin which so securely holds the myth that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights rather than slavery.
In the epilogue, Karp closes by considering the imperialism of the 1890s as merely a continuation of the Southern elite’s original vision. Karp’s assessment, one deserving of far greater treatment, provides a steady timeline of white supremacy, framed originally as pro-slavery, and its position as the driver of American foreign policy. Previous views of the antebellum South as outmoded and inflexible, Karp makes astoundingly clear, dangerously underestimate a sectionalist dream of modernity with global reach. Along with a new understanding of the South, Karp also reframes the antebellum period, providing a transtemporal reassessment of the period typically considered “the coming of the Civil War.” Karp reimagines the early nineteenth century South as a growing slave empire from 1833 onward, an empire which required Republican success in politics and Union victory in war to overthrow, an assessment that is as imaginative as it is successful.
In the field of Civil War studies, which can at times view national borders as opaque and impassable, Karp’s work may be seen as so concerned with looking outward that it obscures the internal, but such criticism would be short sighted. Karp is adding to a historiography which is more than adequately saturated with examinations of the domestic struggles that eventually brought about war. David M. Potter’s 1977 The Impending Crisis, for example, is widely considered a masterwork on the coming of the Civil War, and it was certainly not the first or last published on the subject. Karp’s voice is a welcome addition, and his arguments should help convince many in the field to look beyond the black box in which we occasionally place ourselves while studying the Civil War.
Kevin Caprice – Purdue University.