Sins of Our Fathers: Matthew Karp’s “This Vast Southern Empire”


The subtitle of Matthew Karp’s important new book neatly summarizes the book’s thesis: “Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy” during the period from the nation’s founding to the start of the Civil War. Slavery was not just a domestic issue but a global one, and the foreign policy decisions of the men who were in charge of the federal government for most of the antebellum period, slave owning Southern plantation elites, were well aware that the future of slavery, i.e., their future, would be determined as much by what happened abroad, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America, as by what happened within the borders of the United States itself—in fact, the expansion of those borders that occurred during the antebellum period was largely determined by the desire of the Southern elite to protect and expand slavery at a time when it was being seriously challenged by both British and Northern abolitionists, as well as by slave rebellions in Haiti and elsewhere.

Karp lays out in ample detail, and in often elegant and occasionally sardonic prose, the policies and motivations of the major political and intellectual figures of the time, including Calhoun, the successive presidents, journalists and writers such as Louisa McCord (who could be called the Phyllis Schlafly of her time) and James De Bow. Since Karp does such a good job of narrating the history, it is not necessary for me to summarize it here—just take my word for it and read the book.

What really struck me as I read was the extent to which the ideologies of the slave-owning elites have persisted in the political DNA of the United States, down to the present day. Virtually every one of the political excuses for slavery and for the domestic and foreign policy positions they adopted have survived to today, though for most of us their original forms are obscured by subsequent layers of circumstance and party politics.

Let us begin with a prime example: Today we are all familiar with the phrase “states’ rights,” and probably have at least an inkling of what it means, and are aware of how it occasionally crops up in current political controversies, such as when the federal government overrides state laws on immigration or gender discrimination.

But what most of us probably don’t realize is that the notion of states’ rights emerged in the very early days of the nation and was taken up by Southern slave owners as a rationale for preventing the federal government (and thus the increasingly abolitionist North) from interfering in the South’s peculiar institution as well as to support the expansion of slavery into new territories. Today states’ rights are usually invoked in support of conservative causes, most notably in the persistent calls for reducing federal spending on domestic issues, whether it be on infrastructure or health care; while at the same time pressing for increased spending on the military in order to ensure America’s rightful place on the world scene and to guarantee national security (in those days against the British)—to achieve peace through strength, as it is often said. Both antebellum Southern elites and our contemporary conservatives want a decentralized government when it comes to domestic issues and a strong central government when it comes to foreign policy. They are strict constructionists domestically and liberal constructionists globally.

Intertwined with this view was Manifest Destiny, the notion that America is a special nation in the history of mankind, with a special mission not only to expand westward across the entire North American continent but to redeem the world. Manifest Destiny was widely popular throughout the United States, North as well as South, but it was especially appealing to the Southern elites as they looked to the southern hemisphere as a new source of commodities which, they believed, could only be exploited by bound labor, preferably African slave labor (which they hoped to supply from their own slave breeding programs). It is worth mentioning here that the four most important commodities for international trade of that day were cotton, tobacco, sugar, and coffee, all of which at that time were “tropical” products largely grown under deeply exploitative labor conditions. Those four commodities continue to be important in trade today, though their predominant role has been superseded by oil, wheat, and corn; sugar and cotton continue to benefit from federal subsidies (as did tobacco until quite recently).

The special mission of the United States led to the Mexican-American war and the acquisition of what is today the American southwest and California, as well as the Indian wars that cleared the West for white settlement. It led to the Spanish-American War and the colonialization of the Philippines; and in the twentieth century to our interventions in too numerous to mention other countries, ostensibly to extend democracy and peace but all too often in fact to protect and expand our economic and geopolitical clout. This has led to our situation today, in which we find ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance between our fine rhetoric and our actions. American hegemonic ambitions have always been encircled by a decorative hedge of beautiful rhetoric–call it the aesthetic of imperialism.

Much of that dissonance originates in that dark shadow cast by American history, race. Although racial prejudice had existed in American thought since the colonial period and was present even in the Northern states (and even, it must be said, among abolitionists), it was Southern writers who articulated the most sophisticated and virulent racial theories of the pre-Civil War era. Just one writer of the many that Karp cites will serve as an example: Louisa McCord wrote that “God’s will formed the weaker race so that they dwindle and die out by contact with the stronger . . . Slavery, then, or extermination seems to be the fate of the dark races” (qtd. on pages 159-160). As Conrad’s Kurtz would later say, “Exterminate all the brutes!” And this slavery-or-extermination racism was not limited to Africans but applied equally as much to Native Americans and other “colored” races (and note that the very term “colored” makes a classificatory distinction between them and “whites”).

This so-called scientific racism, this notion that the strong must inevitably exterminate the weak, predated the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Spencer’s coining of the phrase “survival of the fittest” (1864), yet it eerily anticipates the uses to which evolution would be put, in the form of Social Darwinism and eugenics, at least up to the Nazi racial theorists of the mid-twentieth century (I am not confident that it has disappeared even today). In the minds of McCord and others of her ilk, civilization itself depended on racial discrimination, particularly on bound labor—slavery was not only good for true civilization (the high arts and all that) but it was good for the slaves (slavery or extermination). Even “liberty,” of all things, depended on slavery (see page 67). Which raises the interesting question: What did the Founders mean, exactly, when they wrote so eloquently about “liberty”? What Southern theorists of race clearly did not mean was the freedom of the individual laborer to be worthy of his hire; indeed, they argued that “free labor” was less efficient and less orderly than slave labor, and they pointed to the declining Haitian exports of sugar after the Haitian revolution as proof—neglecting to note that sugar production for export may have been good for the bourgeoisie of Europe but not good for the Haitians themselves nor for the natural environment of the island.

The end of slavery after the Civil War did not mean the end of exploited labor and racial theory. The sharecropper system was part and parcel of Jim Crow racism, as were separate but equal, which indeed kept the races separate but by no means equal, and although significant and necessary changes came with the civil rights movement, race theory continues to infect social and political discourse today, however superficially camouflaged it may be. Likewise, the ideology of states’ rights continues to impact political thought and rhetoric, even within certain states whose political classes are reluctant to tax and budget for policies that would enhance the well-being of their citizens even as they provide tax breaks and sweetheart deals for corporations and sports teams. Meanwhile, federal military and surveillance budgets continue to climb, and a candidate for president from one of the major parties brags about bombing ISIS into oblivion.

The persistence of Manifest Destiny is best illustrated by the last sixteen years of federal foreign policy. President George W. Bush said of the invasion of Iraq that it was the “latest front in the global democratic revolution led by the United States,” though others saw that war as being more about oil than democracy. President Obama also wanted to promote democracy and advance our values in the Middle East and thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the so-called “Arab Spring” heralded the beginning of a new era in that region. Since Obama ran his first campaign as the not-Bush, it is ironic that both presidents spoke idealistically while pursuing less than ideal policies, as if they (and their advisors, and perhaps also the American citizenry in general) were unable to disentangle their idealism from the realities of the American imperial project. Perhaps that is because from the very beginning, American imperial ambitions have been couched in the rhetoric of liberty, civilization, and wealth—which makes us not so different from our antebellum Southern elite politicians, after all.

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