This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy

Some years ago, I wrote a book titled Special Providence, which identified the four schools of thought that, in my view, have shaped debates about U.S. foreign policy: the Hamiltonian, the Wilsonian, the Jeffersonian, and the Jacksonian. The book mentioned but did little to describe a fifth major school that vanished after the Civil War: the Davisonian school, named for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, and promoted by southern slaveholders who saw the defense of slavery as the most important goal of U.S. foreign policy. Karp has written a comprehensive history of the Davisonians that shows how a pro-slavery foreign policy dominated the executive branch from the presidency of John Tyler (1841–45) through the Buchanan administration, which ended in 1861. Once the United Kingdom abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833 and set about opposing the slave trade and promoting abolition globally, southern slaveholders sought to protect other outposts of slavery (including Brazil, Cuba, the Republic of Texas, and French colonial possessions in the Caribbean) from British pressure and orient U.S. diplomacy around the needs of the South’s “peculiar institution.” Combining immense erudition with an engaging style, Karp sheds light on an important but poorly understood era in American foreign policy and provides much food for thought about the ways in which the Davisonian legacy continued to influence the United States long after slavery died.

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