Monday, May 3, 2021

Booknotes: West of Slavery

New Arrival:
West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire by Kevin Waite (UNC Press, 2021).

Don Frazier's Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (TAMU Press, 1995) was the first scholarly book to popularly contextualize Confederate Civil War campaigns in the American Southwest as earnest attempts to realize decades-old grandiose dreams of a southern-oriented, coast to coast territorial "empire" favorable to proslavery interests, mineral wealth exploitation, and international trade through western ports. Since then (but mostly more recently), a new generation of scholarship has added a great deal more context, and fresh avenues of study within the general topic of western expansion and slavery's role in it have emerged. Much of this investigation also intersects with one of the hottest areas of emerging academic scholarship, borderlands studies. Indeed, Kevin Waite's West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire is part of UNC Press's The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History.

From the description: "When American slaveholders looked west in the mid-nineteenth century, they saw an empire unfolding before them. They pursued that vision through diplomacy, migration, and armed conquest. By the late 1850s, slaveholders and their allies had transformed the southwestern quarter of the nation - California, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Utah - into a political client of the plantation states." That last part ("client of the plantation states") strikes me as a bit of an exaggeration, especially for California (a state that decisively rejected the Southern Democratic candidate in 1860, with both Lincoln and Douglas alone beating Breckinridge, the former by four points). In the introductory passage borrowed for the description, Waite himself uses the term "appendage." Regardless, it was the case that "(s)laveholders' western ambitions culminated in a coast-to-coast crisis of the Union. By 1861, the rebellion in the South inspired a series of separatist movements in the Far West" (though none proved decisive or lasting). "How this transcontinental sphere of proslavery influence was created, how it was destroyed at the end of the Civil War, and how it reemerged from the ashes of the conflict—albeit in a modified and more modest form— is the subject of this book" (pg. 2).

The traditional view of slavery's possible reach into the Far West holds that all parties involved knew that establishment of plantation-style slavery was impossible. Instead, southern nationalists primarily sought proslavery western territories (and later states) as tools for maintaining the political balance of power in Washington and counterweights to increasing antislavery and abolitionist activism in the North. Using a base of modern scholarship that has studied the economic viability of slavery in other large-scale enterprises outside farm and plantation labor, Waite suggests at least the possibility, if proslavery goals were met, of a more deeply established institution in the Far West than previously considered.

Of the three main sections of the book, the first "explores how southern powerbrokers imagined the far end of the continent and how they schemed, through a series of transportation projects, to bring this distant region into their political and commercial orbit." According to Waite, many prominent southerners dreamed of a pan-Pacific trade network (primarily in southern cotton). The second section "explains how residents in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah embraced key parts of the proslavery agenda, triggering a wide-ranging crisis of the Union by 1861." The third and final section "examines how the logic of westward expansion shaped Confederate grand strategy during the war and ultimately sowed the seeds for slavery's destruction." Furthermore, Waite suggests that "(i)n the immediate postwar years, political ties between the South and West were reconstituted to fuel a national, rather than a purely sectional, revolt against federal Reconstruction." (pg. 3) The volume should have strong appeal among readers and scholars with a wide range of interests in today's slavery, Civil War, westward expansion, and borderlands studies.

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