Power  /  Q&A

The Southern Slaveholders Dreamed of a Slaveholding Empire

Antebellum slaveholders weren't content with an economic and social system based on trafficking in human flesh in the South alone.

Arvind Dilawar

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

Kevin Waite

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.


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


One of the more perplexing questions of my research was: If Southerners represented such a small slice of the total population in the West, how were they able to achieve a dominant position in the region? For instance, white Southerners never amounted to more than 30 percent of California’s voting population, and yet they triumphed in election after election. How can we explain that? In a lot of ways, West of Slavery is a study in minority rule.

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.