Saba on Wolnisty, 'A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America'

Claire M. Wolnisty
Roberto Saba

Claire M. Wolnisty. A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. 180 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0790-6

Reviewed by Roberto Saba (Wesleyan University) Published on H-CivWar (May, 2021) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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Claire M. Wolnisty’s A Different Manifest Destiny integrates a growing scholarship on proslavery southerners’ economic and political power in the antebellum era. It raises important new questions by pointing out that “multiple southern expansionistic ideologies coexisted in the nineteenth-century United States” (p. xiv). Adapting themselves to shifting hemispheric contexts, southerners came up with different plans to exert influence abroad. For decades, they engaged with Latin American societies as filibusters, merchants, and settlers. Together, these enterprises gave life to a different sort of Manifest Destiny—one that moved southward into Central and South America instead of westward. According to Wolnisty, this southbound expansionism relied on family and business networks, sought to improve Latin American social systems, and openly defied the influence of European powers in the Western Hemisphere.

The first chapter of A Different Manifest Destiny delves into filibustering. Wolnisty argues that, far from being reckless adventurers, the filibusters had a clearly designed plan to oust European powers from Central America and establish Anglo-American colonies based on slave labor. Convinced that the slave South had established a superior form of civilization, the filibusters and their supporters believed that their projected colony in Nicaragua would be a major step in the direction of reverting the antislavery tendency of the nineteenth century. As Wolnisty puts it, “‘Regenerated’ Nicaraguan society would supposedly eclipse the free-labor societies prevalent in Europe, which U.S. proslavery advocates maintained were in inevitable decay” (p. 17). Filibusters like William Walker believed that martial manhood, a rigid racial hierarchy, plantation agriculture, and the revival of the slave trade would transform Nicaragua into a new economic center in the Western Hemisphere. Ultimately, the filibusters’ reign in Central America was a resounding failure, and Walker ended up being executed by Honduran authorities.

Chapter 2 deals with southerners’ commercial ties to Brazil. Wolnisty contends that while some influential southerners endorsed territorial expansion, many others favored peaceful means, especially when it came to the other major slave society of the Americas. Slaveholding Brazil was not the target of southern landgrabbers, according to Wolnisty. Rather, it came to integrate the networks of southern merchants and investors. The chapter maps the social activities of southerners in Rio de Janeiro, emphasizing their model behavior, expertise, and modernizing views. These commercial expansionists promoted steamship lines, railroads, agricultural machinery, and other technologies. In Wolnisty’s words, “Such a far-flung economic vision rooted in industrial innovations such as ‘monster locomotives’ highlights conscious attempts to incorporate the South into modern, expansive, and hemispheric economies during the mid-nineteenth century” (p. 53). Southerners who resided in Brazil believed that southern technology and expertise would guarantee the maintenance (and possibly encourage the expansion) of slavery in South America. However, their efforts were cut short by the secession crisis in the United States.

Wolnisty’s third and final chapter takes an interesting turn by arguing that Confederate migration to Brazil in the 1860s was not simply the consequence of defeat in the Civil War but relied on previously established networks and worldviews. Their settlements formed the final (and perhaps most enduring) attempt to secure southern influence in Latin America. Wolnisty tells the story of ingenious southerners who used their expertise—as agriculturalists or medical doctors—to find a place for themselves and their kin in slaveholding Brazil. Mostly upper-class southerners, they went to great lengths to present themselves as an honorable group of people: “They demonstrated southern identities as loyal, hardworking workers and reformers once in Brazil” (p. 90). Although they were willing to cultivate relations with aristocratic Brazilians, the southern settlers sought to carve out an existence far away from the government in their adopted country. Traumatized by recent events in North America, they placed family first, rejected military service, and embraced patriarchal autonomy. At the end of the day, however, southern settlements in Brazil had a dismal ending. “They lacked sufficient funds to move in the first place,” Wolnisty explains, “procured insufficient income in Brazil, and at times failed to adapt to helpful but foreign languages and customs” (p. 97). Most émigrés eventually returned to the United States.

Wolnisty’s work points to fascinating new directions in the study of nineteenth-century southern expansionism. First, it shifts the focus from the west of the continent to the south of the hemisphere. Scholars of the antebellum South may take inspiration from this approach to look beyond the North American hinterlands: there is much to be written, for example, on proslavery interest in Asia and Africa. The possibilities are numerous and exciting. Second, Wolnisty successfully makes the argument that expansionism cannot be reduced to territorial conquest. If historians want to fully map American power abroad in the nineteenth century, they must look beyond land grabbing and, like Wolnisty, decipher subtler ways to influence foreign societies.

The three chapters of A Different Manifest Destiny portray proslavery southerners as creative expansionists who employed an array of strategies to exert power in Latin America before and immediately after the Civil War. Yet it seems that the most fruitful lesson that readers will take from this book is that, in the aftermath of the Mexican War, southerners’ international endeavors were embarrassing fiascos. From filibustering to commercial expansion and immigrant settlements, southerners failed time and again to elaborate effective projects to promote their interests abroad. Try as they might, despite all their varied strategies, southerners were unable to exert influence in Latin American countries. And their isolation had costly consequences: when the Civil War broke out the Confederacy had to fight it alone, not even gaining the support of slaveholding Brazil.

Although the book discusses some of the reasons for southern failures, Wolnisty does not address an essential aspect of the question: proslavery southerners remained alone in the hemisphere because Latin Americans, aware of what had happened to northern Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s, chose to stay away from the slave South. The scarcity of sources produced by Latin American historical actors in this work prevents Wolnisty from fully exploring the unravelling of southern enterprises abroad. Southern hemispheric isolation had as much to do with the choices of proslavery southerners and the context in North America as with Latin American perceptions and actions. The failure of proslavery expansionism was certainly determined by how Central and South American societies understood southern plans and weighed them against other expansionist projects of the era—for example, those of the British Empire and the American North.

Citation: Roberto Saba. Review of Wolnisty, Claire M., A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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