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Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America, by Robert E. May

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 296. Illus., maps, notes, index. $72.00. ISBN: 0521763835.

 European Influences on the Origins of the Civil War

Relatively little is written on international affairs in Civil War era studies, the focus of May’s book. Presumably this is because during the war, neither Britain nor France recognized the Confederacy, although both nations granted belligerent status to Confederate forces in light of the strong military organization the CSA fielded. Moreover, many in Europe could not conceive that the United States could defeat, occupy, and pacify the South. In Britain, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston stuck firmly to his policy that until the Confederates won statehood on the battlefield, recognition was out of the question. Emperor Louis Napoleon’s mantra was: he had to follow Britain’s lead.[1]

In contrast, Prof. Robert E. May decisively demonstrates in his work, Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics, that the Europeans had already intervened?before the war. For Southerners, this perceived threat became a cause of the conflict.

Especially Britain’s strong presence?in Canada and Oregon, the Caribbean, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the east coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras?threatened “Manifest Destiny” Democrats’ goals to annex Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. Within this context, Britain was trying to exchange abolition in Cuba for more commercial privileges and dominate trade routes across the Central American isthmus. Parliament had abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies and Bermuda in 1834, and thus, needed an even economic playing field in the region.

So to Southerners the threat was twofold: under the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Britain could continue its expansion into the tropics (along with its antislavery/abolition activities); and the South was increasingly being corralled by emancipated colonies and nations. In considering a free Cuba, Sen. James Westcott of Florida opined: “Why, sir, Florida would be surrounded by the cordon of foreign colonial governments, the population of which would be emancipated slaves. . . .”[1]

At the same time, California had been admitted to the Union as a free state, which ended Southern control of the U. S. Senate and, therefore, the whole Congress. The South had lost control of the House of Representatives years before due to Northern immigration.

For these reasons during the 1850s, Northern and Southern Democrats went on a decade-long campaign to acquire Cuba, out of which they conceived three slave states could be made. So in a weird way, the South was trying to stay in the Union, by getting back its traditional control of the national administration. As the tropical foreign threat increased and Southern attempts to expand slavery west and the Cuba agenda kept on failing, the prospect of secession looked better and better. Then after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, on a largely free soil basis, Southern leaders decided to move south. Although not noted by May, one of Jefferson Davis’s first objectives, after the Confederate States were stabilized, was to invade Cuba. 2

May’s work thoroughly covers the U. S. political battles over these issues, led by Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas did not think slavery could succeed in the more arid West and was willing to compromise on the issue in return for a northern transcontinental railroad route and to maintain his own annexation agenda. In a January 1859 Democratic caucus meeting that discussed Sen. John Slidell’s bill to acquire Cuba, Douglas declared that the only effective tactic was “‘to seize the island by way of reclamation, and negotiate afterward.’” Even Jefferson Davis was not willing to go that far at the time. (May:165-166)

Other political figures are also brought into the fray, mainly Lincoln, although Douglas gets the bulk of the print coverage. Lincoln was not adverse to U. S. expansion west, but he was not for annexing Canada or Mexico. Generally the Whig/Republican stand was to consolidate power and develop existing territory through Henry Clay’s “internal improvements” system. One reason Republicans stood firmly for Union was they feared the chaos of a weak, decentralized government like Mexico’s.

Every page in May’s book is dense with informed political commentary and pithy quotes, culled from Northern and Southern newspapers, speeches, papers, and more. May’s insights add to the opinion glow. The idea that European intervention fundamentally changed American politics before the war is a real sparkler.

Within May’s scope of work, however, he might have given more coverage to Lincoln’s and Douglas’s Illinois constituents. What was the background of the voters newspaper editors represented? For example, the state was divided partly between New England/Mid-Atlantic and Southern emigrants, but those geographic lines did not necessarily reveal political sentiment. Many former Border state families had fled north to escape slavery, which kept poor whites in poverty. Republican Richard Oglesby was one of these Kentuckians who remembered how, as a young laborer, he’d been force to rent himself out at $ 6 a month, because slaves were being rented out at $ 75 a year. Moreover, the last political straw for many was that the Democratic party refused to support a homestead bill that offered public land for settlement. (The Act was passed after Republicans came into office.) Antislavery German, British, and Scots-Irish immigrants were also flooding the region. 3

Unfortunately, for some years Civil War political research and commentary has been out of favor, in contrast to writings on Southern culture. Hopefully May’s book will help bring politics back into vogue. Overall May has assiduously researched an excellent work, which is a must-read for all who want to better understand the causes of the Civil War.



1. C. Kay Larson, Great Necessities: The Life, Times, and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894 (Phila.: Xlibris Corp. 2004), p. 230,.

2. For more on the Compromise of 1850 and secession, see Larson, Great Necessities, May’s previous works, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1973). Lincoln advisor and pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll voiced the same accusation in her widely circulated 1861 Reply [to the Hon. John C. Breckinridge (D-Ky.)] pamphlet, viz., that the Confederate goal was to establish a tropical empire, which likely would have left it the dominant political power in the Western Hemisphere. On a Confederate Cuban invasion, see (Larson’s Secession chapter, fn. 21) Philip Sheldon Foner, History of Cuba and Its Relations with the United States, Vol. 1 (1962-1964), 121-122.

3. C. Kay Larson, South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, U. S. Army Nurse & Scout, a work of fiction, (Phila. Xlibris Corp. 2006); Larson, “Mitchel Thompson’s War,” The New York Times “Disunion” blog, 28 March 2013. In this author’s “Nell” book, in which the home front is northwest Warren County, Illinois, Nell follows the 1860 campaign, based on contemporary newspaper accounts (that are cited by date). In the Underbook, immigration patterns in the upper Midwest are discussed. Cpl. Mitchel A. Thompson, 83rd Ill. Vol. Inf. Regt., was a farmer in Warren County and wrote of the pro-Union loyalties of his former Southern neighbors. It is the best political letter written by a Union soldier that this author has read. Warren and Henderson counties were my mother’s home counties; so considerable genealogical research also has been done on the area.

Note: Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics is also available in paperback, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-521-13252-7.

Our Reviewer: C. Kay Larson, is an independent scholar based in New York.  She is the author of Great Necessities: The Life, Times and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894, and the novel South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, US Army Nurse & Scout.  A member of the board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, she has contributed to MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, and is a reviewer for the H-CivWar List.  She has contributed essays on "Monitor's Brave Fellow," "Women at War," "The Count and the Gymnasts," "A Woman with Flare," and “How Trains Saved the Union,” to The New York Times “Disunion”, blogand is currently working on a revised and expanded edition of her 1995 book Til I Come Marching Home: A Brief History of American Women in World War II Her most recent contribution to CIC was “War Powers and Emancipation: Anna Ella Carroll vs. Charles Sumner.”  Her previous reviews for StrategyPage includeStarving the South and A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War

Reviewer: C. Kay Larson   

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