The Southern Slaveholders Dreamed of a Slaveholding Empire

I came across this interview with Professor Kevin Waite of Durham University. It’s based on Professor Waite’s new book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. We learn, “In 1851, Jefferson Davis presented to his Senate colleagues a plan facilitating travel throughout the newly colonized southwestern United States. Three years earlier, the end of the Mexican-American War had brought a stretch of land from Texas to California under US control. But without a railroad or mail route tying the Atlantic to the Pacific, it remained difficult for the now transcontinental nation to connect across its vast expanses. Davis proposed what he saw as an ingenious solution: camels. Although Davis was nearly laughed out of the Senate, his proposal was realized in 1855. Serving as secretary of war under president Franklin Pierce, Davis oversaw the import of roughly two hundred camels from North Africa and the Middle East for use in expeditions by the US Army and, he hoped, for both labor and trade. Despite some success, the camel corps was abandoned by 1860 after Congress refused further funding, due in part to escalating tensions that would be unleashed by the Civil War the following year. More than a historical oddity, the camel corps is a testament to the imperial designs of Southern slaveholders. Far from being cloistered regional elites, Southern slaveholders like Davis — later the president of the Confederate States of America — looked outward, beyond the South, and worked to enlist the federal government (and Northern accomplices, such as Pierce) in their brazen effort to build a transcontinental slave empire.”

Here are some selected excerpts from the interview:

[begin quote]

AD Why did California, nominally a free state, become the aim of Southerners’ imperialist desires?

KW Slaveholding Southerners first began moving to California en masse in 1849, at the start of the gold rush. Over the next several years, they’d bring an estimated 500 to 1,500 enslaved African Americans into California, mostly to labor in the gold diggings. This sparked the fantasies of proslavery expansionists like Henry Wise in Virginia, who predicted that his state alone would make $1 billion from the sale of enslaved people into California’s gold country. The prediction was obviously ludicrous, but it pointed to a very real proslavery ambition for the West.

Other slaveholders came to realize that the real prize in California wasn’t necessarily its gold but rather its newly opened congressional seats. California came into the Union as a free state in 1850, and this stirred something of an existential crisis for slaveholding radicals like John C. Calhoun, who predicted a slow and painful political death for the South, now that it had seemingly lost the West to free labor. And yet nothing of the sort came to pass. Almost immediately, William Gwin seized the reins of power in California. Gwin continued to own and operate a Mississippi plantation with about two hundred enslaved black people at the same time he represented California in the US Senate.

And there’s the rub: sure, California’s constitution technically outlawed slavery, but so long as slaveholders and their friends controlled the political apparatus there, California could never really be counted among the other free states. In fact, through the 1850s, California’s lawmakers sided with the South on most of the major issues of the day, including several measures to expand slavery across the American West. This was a major political and ideological victory for slaveholders. It basically proved that the politics of slavery could survive on nominally free soil.

AD How did Southerners alternate between supporting an imperialist federal government and glorifying states’ rights when it suited their interests?

KW We hear a lot about the Southern fixation on states’ rights. But what we should remember is that even the most dogmatic, small-government, not-in-my-backyard, strict constructionists — guys like John C. Calhoun — were perfectly comfortable accepting favors from the federal government when it suited their interests. Southerners, who touted their states’ rights bona fides, routinely embraced federal power in the name of slaveholding expansion. I like to think of their position on the matter as “states’ rights with benefits.”

This was especially true when it came to projects in the American West. Slaveholders knew that they needed federal financing to construct the transcontinental railroad of their fantasies, and they welcomed a large congressional appropriation for their Overland Mail Road. Even their more quixotic side projects, like Jefferson Davis’s importation of camels for use in military transport in the Southwest, required outlays of cash from the federal government. Slaveholders required an activist and powerful central state to achieve their expansionist aims in the West.

AD Why were many non-slaveholders, in the North, South, and West, committed to slavey and its expansion?

KW The short answer is that they were often able to convince non-slaveholders to support their proslavery agenda. Generally, the most effective way to do that was through pure, simple, dirty race-baiting. California Democrats were constantly branding their political opponents “abolitionists” (and much worse names). In the process, they effectively convinced a majority of voters that they were the only political party capable of sustaining the rights and privileges of white men.

It didn’t matter that their political opponents, whether Northern Democrats or Republicans, weren’t actually in favor of abolishing slavery. The mere suggestion of antislavery fervor in a California politician was enough to doom his career. Antislavery politics were so unpopular, in fact, that in 1857 the California Republican Party — elsewhere an explicitly antislavery political party — nominated a slaveholder for governor, and he still lost in a landslide because his political party was already tainted in the eyes of California’s white voters. That was the power of anti-black racism in antebellum American politics.

[end quote]


  1. My knowledge of these subjects concerning that period of American history is minimal compared to those of you who have studied, received degrees in history, and spent a significant part of your life investigating that period. I applaud and respect your scholarship.
    Because of that scholarship and expertise shared, I have learned so much from visiting this blog. One of the things I have picked up is the importance of objectivity while leaving history in the context of its time and place.

    In my simple way, I had to unlearn many things I was misinformed about concerning my limited education on certain parts of history in America that Al’s blog has enlightened me on.
    I had to face the fact many of the opinions taught me in school and my culture about American history were nothing more than fabrications and misinformation.
    My knowledge about the reasons for secession and the American Civil War was based on misinformation. Therefore I had to come to the conclusion my opinions about that history were also misinformed.

    This blog has helped me see that facts are not liberal or conservative, left or right, they are just facts. We can use a partisan lens to look at those facts distorting our ability to be objective or distorting the facts to shape them into what we want to believe.
    That is manufacturing misinformation based not on the facts but a distortion of the facts.
    However, when we read the actual words of Southern leaders in that period, stating clearly what they believed about slavery or why their states were seceding from the Union, it is their words.
    We create our own historical misinformation if we allow bias or partisanship to deny what our lying eyes tell us when we see and read their words.
    We are fabricating our own verison of history to validate what we want to believe in direct denial of the actual record of what has been stated by leaders of the Southern states.

    Thanks again, Al, for sharing your expertise and scholarship with all of us who come here for various reasons.

    Keep up the great work,

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rob. It’s unfortunate that earlier the lost cause lie had taken hold in many schools. Thankfully we’re getting beyond that now.

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