Looking West at the OAH: New Views on Southern Expansion, Slavery, and Imperialism

Looking West at the OAH: New Views on Southern Expansion, Slavery, and Imperialism

This week, we are publishing reports on the recent meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Sacramento. We are highlighting panels and roundtables that intersect with the Civil War era and that we believe will be of great interest to our readers. Our first comes from Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, who attended a fascinating roundtable about the Civil War in the West. The other two reports are available here and here.


Looking backwards from secession in 1860, historians often focus on a trajectory of slavery and anti-slavery that frames western expansion as instrumental to the rising regional tension that led to war. A current movement within scholarship looks at the Civil War era in continental or international terms and reexamines the role of the West in both the antebellum and wartime periods. The opportunities present in the expansion of our geographical focus westward was highlighted by a roundtable session, “The Old South in the New West: Southern Expansionism and Empire Building in the American Borderlands.” William Deverell (University of Southern California) served as chair alongside panelists Stacey Smith (Oregon State University), Andrew J. Torget (University of North Texas), Maria Angela Diaz (Utah State University), and Kevin Waite (Durham University). Since this followed a roundtable format, each panelist gave a brief presentation of their research and questions for the field before the chair opened the conversation to the room.

Andrew J. Torget’s research examines southern expansion into Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century as part of the western expansion of slavery and the international expansion of the cotton economy. As southern slaveholders moved into Mexican territory they had to explain the system of cotton and slavery to a new regime and their presence sparked a debate over the place of slavery in the newly independent nation. This debate helped cause the Texas Revolution and the creation of the Texas Republic, which Torget argued was everything the Confederacy wanted to be a couple decades later. The cotton and slave society set up in Texas ultimately failed, however, due to low international support and the collapse of the cotton economy during the Panic of 1837, leading to its necessary annexation into the United States.

While Torget framed his research as more of an economic opportunity rather than a chance at imperialism, Angela Diaz situated her scholarship more squarely in the discussion of empire. She argued that communities such as Pensacola, Florida, saw themselves as staging grounds for further colonization and questioned what happened to these southern communities when they reached out to conquer the west and Latin America. She also questioned the place of race in this southern expansion. While the American South had a binary white-black system where race was part of socio-economic status, that binary breaks down in more diverse areas such as territory taken from Mexico, cities like New Orleans, or countries in Latin and South America. When expanding west and south, Southerners had to put their structure against places that were racially and culturally very different than their own.

In his presentation, Kevin Waite posed questions about what southerners saw and expected when they looked west. There is a tendency to interpret this western expansion as an attempt to simply create space for plantation agriculture, but that type of system was not feasible in areas of the west and Latin America. He argued that even where plantation agriculture and chattel slavery could not take root, slaveholders expanded their political structure and preserved systems of unfree labor. Southerners had to recalibrate their ideas as they moved into the west, but they still upheld paternalism, unfree labor, and what they considered the natural order of society to preserve their political power and support their southern system of slavery.

Stacey Smith raised similar questions with her research on Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont who credited herself with saving California from slavery during her search for good domestic help. A slaveholder offered her an enslaved woman, which she refused due to her free soil stance, and this action, she claimed, encouraged others to vote anti-slavery in California. Like Waite, Smith argued that even where the cotton economy could not flourish the institution of slavery could have still expanded to perform other labor in the west. In locations such as California, slavery would have been part of a patchwork of coercive labor and Smith raised questions about the racial and regional diversity of slavery as well as the opportunity to research the role of white women in these debates.

As a conclusion to the panel presentations, William Deverell asked what opportunities were missed in studying the west or Latin America in scholarship that looks only at the expansion of slavery in the South and abolition in the North. One common thread in the panelists’ answers was that they did not see a single slave conspiracy of expansion, a fear that northerners held in the lead up to secession. Instead, they saw smaller schemes or actions to spread slavery that add up to make it appear like a larger conspiracy to expand the slave power.

The ensuing discussion began with one audience member pointing out that reframing expansion also offers a different interpretation to post-war expansion and imperialism, both in the West and abroad. Torget added that southerners had broader horizons for slavery than usually studied and Waite asked at what point the expansion of slavery became sectionalized. It is easy for historians to read history backwards from the Civil War, but these questions invite historians to project forward from the events and reevaluate our narrative of history.

This discussion was followed by two audience questions about empire and imperialism. The first asked each panelist what empire looked like to them, since many had not brought up the term in their remarks. Diaz explained that her subjects saw themselves as at the center of a pro-slavery imperialist ideal and that slavery was at the heart of American imperialism during this period. Torget remarked that American expansion into Mexico and the Texas Revolution caused the creation of a new country (Texas) and an imperialistic war with Mexico. Waite and Smith took a different approach to the question; Waite remarked on the difference between expansion and imperialism and Smith pointed out the importance of timing—expansion could be imperialism before the Mexican-American War or simply expansion of southern ideas into United States territory once that land was annexed.

The second question about empire asked what happened to southern imperialism once slavery was gone, pointing out southern anti-imperialistic views around the turn of the century. While Waite did not see much of a change in the ideas about conquering non-white peoples, Torget remarked that the expansion of slavery as a form of political power was no longer relevant which changed the dynamic of expansion in the South. Diaz also reminded us that we could not underestimate the damage to the south (both physical damage and the blow to confidence and southern interests) brought about by the Civil War.

Another audience member asked if there was something about American slavery that made it inherently expansionist and whether southerners wanted to expand only due to slavery. Diaz responded that expansion was a combination of racial, economic, and geo-political factors. Southerners saw geo-political opportunities in this expansion, for example in commercial connections with sugar planters in the Caribbean and Latin America. Torget added that expansion was not inherent to the south or the institution of slavery, but was the experience of America. Southern interest in this expansion lay in political power because they felt vulnerable during the antebellum period in ways that northerners did not.

In addition, the audience posed questions about the defense of peonage in the west as pro-slavery language, the transfer of ideas west about Native Americans from removal policies, and connections between chattel slavery and interactions with other forms of unfree labor in the west. These questions and the panelists’ discussions revealed plenty of opportunity for new scholarship on the institution of American slavery, the trajectory of westward expansion, and placing American history into continental and international context. As these scholars demonstrated, looking west and south asks historians to rethink the narrative of expansion, secession, and slavery. This reanalysis of southern expansionism adds new complexity to the narrative of American history and will hopefully lead to rich new scholarship.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse, a blog on the long Civil War.

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