Fear-mongering about Southern expansion in the Tropics

One of the favorite talking points of anti-Southern politicians in the North in the several decades leading up to secession in 1860-61 was that if permitted Southerners would spread slavery across North America and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. This was a misleading charge, especially with regards to Caribbean and Latin American lands, most of which had initially been settled as plantation colonies. But it was an effective meme to incite anti-Southern sentiment.

Dr. Robert E. May of Purdue University writes in chapter three of his work Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America that on June 20, 1854 “free-soil northern congressmen convened a bipartisan gathering in Washington chaired by Whig U.S. senator Solomon Foot” to fear-monger about Southern expansion. May writes that:

Painting an alarming picture, the document [the group adopted] anticipated that President Pierce would seek Cuba and half a dozen Mexican states for slavery…. Further, the slave states and their lackey president wanted the Dominican Republic and Haiti ‘for the dominion of slavery.’ Once those objectives were secured, the congressmen predicted, the government would seek a Brazilian alliance giving U.S. slavery entrée into the Amazon River valley.

There are a few points to note here:

  • Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Haiti (known as Saint-Domingue under French rule) were all founded as plantation societies with classical social structures that included slavery.
  • At the time Northern radicals were speaking of Southerners “expanding slavery” Brazil still had slavery (abolished in 1888), Cuba still had slavery (abolished in 1886) and Mexico had only recently abolished slavery but still largely kept the plantation structure.
  • The post-plantation societies suffered revolution, and economic decline (and in the case of Saint-Domingue genocide and total socio-economic destruction) following liberal-republican-inspired chaos.
  • Northern radicals saw the potential for a Dixie-Cuba-Brazil alliance which would empower the plantation societies, protect them from bourgeois interference and negate the financial influence of New England.

Even a quick analysis of the rhetoric of anti-Southern radicals demonstrates that the “spread of slavery” into lands which already had slavery or had been destroyed by liberal revolution was a convenient mask. They feared a stronger South which could not be pushed around in the Union. This is why they opposed Southern expansion into the Tropics while themselves working to gain control of a huge Western frontier.

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  1. The Society of Independent Southern Historians has just published a booklet called Understanding The WBTS. It’s aimed at Middle and High Students and laypersons. It explains this anti Southern hysteria in simple detail. It’s intended for classroom work, but anybody can follow the discussion points and the suggested reading list at the end of each chapter.

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