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Response to Review of Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics : Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America

Phillip W. Magness’s thoughtful review suggests that Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics informs scholarship primarily by challenging omissions in conventional narratives about how territorial disputes disrupted the Union in the pre-Civil War years and by internationalizing Abraham Lincoln’s biography (‘specifically the Lincoln of the 1850s’). As Magness notes, the book utilizes the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas rivalry to show that southerners’ schemes to spread their slave system into Latin America significantly influenced late antebellum politics of sectionalism and secession. Subsequently, during the Civil War, Lincoln’s program to colonize African Americans in Latin America, for all its racialist overtones, developed within a broader Republican effort to coopt slavery expansion southward and pave the way for a U.S-dominated canal across the Central American isthmus.

Readers might also detect a third theme wending its way through the narrative—a rethinking of the directional nature of U.S. territorial growth and the myth of U.S. westward expansion. It was only natural that Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party worried in the mid and late-1850s about real and imagined slaveowner projects, with Douglas’s connivance, to spread slavery into the tropics because from the earliest days of the American Republic the nation had been growing southward as well as westward. When President Thomas Jefferson initiated the diplomacy eventuating in the Louisiana Purchase from France, he was less obsessed with western lands than with gaining control of the southern port of New Orleans and the southern or lower reaches of the Mississippi river as a crucial outlet to the Gulf of Mexico for U.S. trade. Control over New Orleans, in turn, put the U.S. in position to covet Spain’s colony Cuba – a potential southerly acquisition with a flourishing slave labor system favored, urged, and/or actively pursued by U.S. leaders throughout the antebellum decades. It goes without saying that Florida lay to the south (or east!) of existing U.S. states and territories when it was acquired from Spain in 1819. Interpreting the annexation of Texas (1845) as western rather than southern is arbitrary, given the Lone Star Republic’s slave labor and increasing cotton production. Since many U.S. expansionists regarded the Mexican Cession (1848) as presaging the ultimate absorption of the nation’s southern neighbor, that acquisition too had southern expansion implications.

Yet despite a longstanding specialized literature about late antebellum southern designs on the tropics (e.g., recently, Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams), the profession as a whole – scholars and popular historians alike – reflexively perpetuates the stereotype that U.S. territorial growth was relentlessly westward and that the sectional crisis over the territories exclusively concerned western lands. Consider in this respect the titles of key works on the relationship between territorial growth and Civil War causation, such as Michael A. Morrison’s Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War and Steven E. Woodworth’s Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War. Even scholars whose works about the last antebellum decade acknowledge Caribbean issues, wind up perpetuating the myth, as is the case with Michael F. Holt’s The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War. Holt alludes to the Franklin Pierce administration’s designs on Cuba in the mid-1850s and notes that some ‘Southerners lusted after Central America or Cuba as sites of additional slave states’. Yet, he still observes regarding a proposed secession winter compromise allowing U.S. slavery’s spread into Latin America, that the legislation insufficiently pleased Southerners wishing slavery legalized in ‘all current and future western [my emphasis] territories south of the parallel line thirty-six degrees thirty minutes’. Similarly, Russell McClintock, whose excellent study of Lincoln during the 1860–1 secession crisis takes note of all the talk at the time about ‘haughty Southern planter-aristocrats’ intending to ‘spread their power throughout a Caribbean slave empire,’ invests in the western myth by arguing that ‘slavery’s expansion into the West was the chief point of contention between North and South in the 1850s and Northern Democrats and Republicans in 1860’. He should have said ‘West and Latin America’, because the two geographies were symbiotically related within the secessionist, anti-secession, and anti-slavery persuasions, as he clearly recognizes.(1)

In Slavery, Race, and Conquest, I posit that tropical prospects for slavery influenced U.S. public and private discussions over the territorial expansion of slavery westward from the late 1840s until the beginning of the Civil War, whether it was over the future of California, Kansas, or any other parts of the trans-Mississippi and trans-Rockies West. Most particularly, I argue that tropical prospects for slavery significantly insinuated themselves into Lincoln’s rivalry and debates with Douglas, and that the latter’s stance on slavery in the tropics hardly comported with the quasi-freesoil ideology John Burt has recently detected for Douglas in his masterful Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism.(2) When Lincoln and his Republican Party pilloried Douglas as the decade’s political turncoat over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery’s possible expansion into western lands where it had previously been banned, they reasonably did so from well-justified fears Douglas would apply his western creed of ‘popular sovereignty’ to slavery’s southward course in Cuba, Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and other tropical locales. Slavery, Race, and Conquest shows that such concerns surfaced, explicitly or implicitly, in six of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates and that Douglas’s candidacies for the 1852, 1856, and 1860 Democratic presidential nominations all hinged on his record of support for U.S. expansion into the tropics. In contrast, beginning with the U.S.-Mexican War, Abraham Lincoln consistently opposed U.S. territorial initiatives southward, fearing such growth would aid slavery’s long-term viability in the Union. When historians assess the antebellum territorial disputes, therefore, they should integrate slavery’s potential growth southward if they want to tell the whole story. Hopefully Slavery, Race, and Conquest nudges the academy in that direction.

In his penultimate paragraph, Magness suggests that my account might have been improved had I not framed it by my ‘Lincoln-Douglas dichotomy’. Stephen Douglas, after all, died around the beginning of the Civil War; yet Slavery, Race, and Conquest covers Lincoln’s entire presidency. As a result, Douglas necessarily exits from the narrative prematurely, leaving the final chapter to Lincoln. Without explicitly saying I should have replaced Lincoln-Douglas with a Lincoln-William H. Seward analysis, Magness suggests I might have better illuminated Lincoln’s vision for the tropics by adding his secretary of state to the mix. Then, I could have shown how the latter’s policies as Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state following the war derived from ‘Lincoln’s competing vision’ (to slavery’s expansion) for U.S. penetration of Latin America. That is, my analysis of Lincoln’s Latin American policies could have been more comprehensive had it taken into account how post-war U.S. diplomatic initiatives of the Andrew Johnson administration to purchase the Danish island of St. Croix and negotiate an isthmian canal treaty with Colombia originated in Lincoln-Seward discussions during the war.

Actually I gave serious thought to doing something rather similar to what Magness suggests when I first began working on the book. It struck me early on that I might write a composite Caribbean-centered biography involving three of the leading antebellum northern politicians and three of their most prominent southern counterparts: Lincoln, Douglas, and Seward for the North; Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Seward’s counterpart the Confederate secretary of state Judah P. Benjamin (like Seward, a former U.S. senator), and Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens for the South. I also thought of substituting (for Benjamin) Robert Toombs of Georgia, another antebellum U.S. senator who, like Benjamin, served as one of the Confederacy’s secretaries of state. Toombs, like the other three southern leaders, had many tropical projects on his mind. I considered using as my writing model Stephen V. Ash’s fascinating A Year in the South, 1865, which covers the lives of four ‘ordinary’ southerners (including a slave) in 1865, weaving their disparate stories in and out of the narrative to get at truths about southern transformations around the end of the Civil War.(3)

In the end, I opted for the ‘Lincoln-Douglas dichotomy’ for the very reason that the Illinoisans’ rivalry over slavery in Kansas is so well known yet so rarely related to Caribbean matters. How more starkly could I make my case about the Caribbean implications of sectionalism, secession, and Civil War diplomacy than by homing in on the careers of Honest Abe and the Little Giant? And for the very reason that I wanted to keep my study focused, I resisted the temptation to include a comprehensive treatment of the Lincoln administration’s Latin American diplomacy having little to do with the book’s themes. Thus, Slavery, Race, and Conquest, in addition to slighting the two matters Magness identifies, also bypasses other chapters in Union-Latin American relations, including Thomas Corwin’s 1861 loan treaty negotiations with Mexican officials and the Lincoln administration’s handling of claims disputes with South American countries like Peru.

That said, I thank Phillip Magness for his insightful analysius of Slavery, Race, and Conquest and encourage scholars to take up his wise challenge. We badly need a definitive treatment of the Lincoln administration’s Latin American diplomacy.


  1. W. Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA, 2013); M. Morrison, Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC, 1997); S. Woodworth, Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War (New York, NY,2010); M. Holt, The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, NY, 2004, quotation on p. 3); R. McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008, quotations on p. 25).Back to (1)
  2. J. Burt, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (Cambridge, MA, 2013).Back to (2)
  3. S. Ash, A Year in the South, 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History (New York, NY, 2002).Back to (3)