Eric Foner interviews Matt Karp about his new book on slaveholders

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Matt Karp, This Vast Southern Empire



American slaveholders before the Civil War oversaw an incredibly brutal economic system that generated enormous wealth for a tiny elite while denying enslaved Africans the most basic rights. But they also presided over American foreign policy, overseeing US territorial and economic expansion. As historian Matt Karp explains in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, they didn’t just want an independent slaveholding South — they wanted to spread their empire of slavery to the entire United States and beyond.

In November 2016, Karp spoke at the New School in New York City with historian Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and author of many books on the Civil War including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Karp is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

This transcript of their talk has been edited. You can also listen to the discussion as a podcast here.

One of the cottage industries in the historical profession right now is studying the relationship between capitalism and American slavery. This is an old discussion; it goes way, way back. Karl Marx said things about it.

That’s not exactly the subject of your book, but I’m wondering how you think your study, which is a study of slaveowners and their vision of America as a great power in the world, fits into the ongoing debates about slavery and capitalism nowadays?

The book joins a whole series of works that explore the slave South in a transnational sense. That’s another fashionable aspect: reemphasizing the dynamism and brutality of antebellum slavery. A lot of previous scholars — for instance, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman — made the argument that slavery was capitalistic because slaves had the Protestant work ethic and were well-treated and so on.

The direction of modern scholarship also emphasizes slavery as a foundational element in global capitalism and American capitalism, but precisely in the opposite direction. Its brutality, for someone like Ed Baptist or Walter Johnson, is the source of its dynamism.

I think it’s right to put my book in conversation with those books. In a way, though, my arguments are more modest about the place of slavery in global capitalism. I’m not so interested in the deep historiographical terms — asking “was slavery capitalist?” — but how slaveholders understood this institution, and how their understanding shaped the political decisions that led to the Civil War, or in some sense shaped foreign policy.

To an extent much greater than a lot of scholars have realized, they really did see slavery not simply as the kind of paternal, organically constructed institution that provided security from the tumult of modern life or wage labor society — but also as an incredibly dynamic, world-making, productive institution that was very compatible with the modern world. ...




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