Ritter on Waite, 'West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire'

Kevin Waite
Luke Ritter

Kevin Waite. West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Illustrations. xv + 372 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6319-7; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6318-0. 

Reviewed by Luke Ritter (New Mexico Highlands University) Published on H-CivWar (September, 2021) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56533

Over the past few decades, numerous scholars of the Civil War era have called attention to the role of westward expansion in fomenting national strife. The strength of Kevin Waite’s new book lies in its detailed account of how exactly southern slaveholders extended their vision of empire to the American Southwest, including Texas, California, and the New Mexico and Utah territories. Offering an abundance of evidence in accessible prose, West of Slavery compels readers to reconsider southern slaveholders as visionary capitalists and imperialists who spent the antebellum era machinating to export coercive labor to the Far West before antislavery northerners could stop them. Waite’s account unfolds in three parts: the first describes southern aspirations for westward expansion, the second traces the adoption of southern schemes by inhabitants of the West, and the third explains how southern expansionism contributed to disunion and later fueled resistance to federal reconstruction in the Far West.

The transplanting of proslavery designs to the Far West was not the result of some elite cabal pulling the strings, nor was it entirely coincidental. Although they hailed from different southern states, a coterie of proslavery surveyors, military and territorial agents, newspapermen, and politicians converged on a set of shared goals, especially that of opening a Pacific trade route to connect the South and its cotton to Asian markets. Waite focuses on the “transcontinental complex” of proslavery legal systems and loosely allied partisans stretching from Virginia to California, or what he calls the “Continental South” (pp. 2, 4). Despite being in the minority, southern-born slaveholders proactively lobbied for federal support for western projects and received a disproportionate number of executive appointments. Indeed, proslavery Democrats Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan occupied the White House between 1853 and 1861 and handed out key appointments to the allies of slaveholders.

Although to modern eyes it appears a far stretch, antebellum southerners were deadly serious about selling cotton to China. Their designs had little to do with extending plantation agriculture to the arid soils of the Southwest; rather, southerners hoped to benefit from trade routes connecting the South to the West and to employ enslaved laborers in sundry business operations, from rail construction to gold pandering and mining. Waite features a slew of influential slaveholders who spent their careers pursuing the Pacific trade, including President John Tyler from Virginia, who ratified the Treaty of Wangxia in 1845 opening five Chinese ports to American traders under relatively favorable conditions; President James K. Polk, the architect of the Mexican-American War; expansionist senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; and lesser-known figures who trekked out West, such as Thomas Green of Texas, William Gwin of Mississippi, James Gadsden of South Carolina, geographer Matthew Maury of Virginia, Thomas King of Georgia, and Postmaster Aaron Brown of Tennessee, to name a few. A transcontinental railroad connecting the South to the Pacific emerged as the most promising prospect, and towns located along a Pacific railroad stood to receive the lion’s share of the profit. The debate between the North and the South over the expansion of slavery to the West, Waite convincingly shows, belied a deeper national tension about which way of life would prosper in the near future.

Even after the so-called Compromise of 1850, which forced slaveholding Texas to surrender its claim to New Mexico and admitted California as a free state, proslavery partisans made huge strides at the federal and state levels toward solidifying a favorable transcontinental trade route. Gwin, an ardent proslavery Democrat from Mississippi, was elected as one of California’s first pair of US senators; thereafter, he actively campaigned for a southern Pacific railroad. In 1853, President Pierce appointed Gadsden of South Carolina to purchase a strip of land from northern Mexico for nothing other than the construction of a southern railroad to San Diego. After the US Congress commissioned four surveys of potential transcontinental routes, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, let his bias shine when he recommended the southern route as the most “practicable” (pp. 54-55). Davis argued that a southern rail would be more cost effective because Congress could employ slave laborers. While the route for a federally sponsored transcontinental railroad remained undecided, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company completed a southern road in 1857, a precursor to the much more famous Pony Express. Southerners hoped that federally sponsored iron tracks would follow wagon ruts. Davis increased the size of the federal army, mostly to guard western routes; raised tens of thousands of dollars per year to placate the Apaches along the Overland; and commissioned several hundred camels to facilitate transportation across the desert terrain of the Southwest. “State rights was a banner to be unfurled whenever politically and economically expedient,” Waite writes of the belabored history of proslavery politics, “then quietly stashed when the full force of the federal government was needed” (p. 71).

In what Waite refers to as the “Southernization” of the Far West, various slaveholders exploited legal loopholes to permit coerced labor while proslavery leaders sought high-ranking political positions (p. 92). Slaveholders adopted new strategies, such as bringing black laborers to California as indentured servants. California senator Gwin built a network of proslavery Democrats pejoratively referred to as the “Chivalry” (p. 107). A California bill passed in 1852 allowed masters to keep slaves who had arrived before statehood, as long as they intended to take them back to the South. Chief Justice Hugh Murray, a native of Missouri, ruled prior to Dred Scott that in California a slaveholder could not lose his human property simply by passing on free soil. Roughly 52 percent of Anglo-Americans in Los Angeles prior to the Civil War hailed from southern states, and they wielded a surprising amount of control over local politics. For example, Joseph Lancaster Brent, a native of Maryland and a future Confederate general, allied with the Hispano elite and became a party boss in Los Angeles.

In addition to passing robust slave codes during the 1850s, proslavery appointees in the Utah and Mexico territories allowed other forms of coerced labor, such as bartering Indian captives, “adopting” Indian wards for domestic servitude, and ensnaring peons in lifelong debt peonage (p. 141). An 1851 New Mexico peonage statute obligated local prefects to assist in recapturing escaped servants (similar to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850); another law that passed that year gave masters full discretion in how to punish their subjects. Approximately twenty thousand Indians labored in various forms of servitude in California between 1850 and 1863. When Senator Isaac Walker of Wisconsin introduced a bill to abolish debt peonage in New Mexico, leading southern statesmen defended the Hispano elite who ruled over their Indian and mestizo peons.

Waite’s transcontinental account ably explains the cause of political sectionalism. What southerners heard in Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign pitch was that his administration would shut down the networks connecting the Continental South. “At stake,” Waite reminds us, “was the balance of power in Congress, the future direction of American commerce, and, some would say, the very soul of the United States” (p. 10). West of Slavery also explains the Confederate army’s western strategy, especially Texas’s invasion of New Mexico. When southerners chose to secede from the Union, they believed the Continental South would remain fully intact. The Confederate Constitution announced the South’s intention to bring slavery to the West. Southern migrants cheered on the Confederacy from Los Angeles, Arizona’s separatists joined the Confederate secession movement, and the Latter-Day Saints in Utah “embraced what one might call wait-and-see separatism,” according to Waite (p. 174). Rebel president Davis authorized 2,500 Confederate soldiers under Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley to fortify Confederate holdings in New Mexico, and Sibley’s invasion was understood as a step toward conquering southern California for the Confederacy.

In the final chapter, Waite shows that a proslavery ethos lingered in the Far West after the war. Resistance to federal reconstruction was especially evident in California, the only state that did not ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. The Democratic Party made a comeback in California on a white supremacist, anti-Chinese platform. In 1882, the citizens of Los Angeles actually elected as mayor a former captain in the Confederate army, Cameron Thom. Gwin returned to California after a brief prison sentence for attempting to recruit France as an ally to the Confederacy. He helped his son, Willie, get elected to the state senate. The institution of bonded servitude persisted in New Mexico. Until their removal just a few years ago, several prominent Confederate memorials in the Far West testified to westerners’ enduring embrace of the “Lost Cause.”

Historian Kevin Waite’s transcontinental account of southern expansionism provokes readers to reconsider prevailing interpretations of the Civil War. Waite’s findings support the Republican Party’s claim that without intervention southerners were likely to extend enslaved labor to the American Southwest. Through railroad projects, land purchases, labor laws, patronage networks, and politics, southern slaveholders purposefully exported their way of life to the West with increasing aggression in the years leading up to the Civil War. West of Slavery is insightful, well researched, and a pleasure to read, making it accessible to scholars, students, and Civil War buffs alike.

Citation: Luke Ritter. Review of Waite, Kevin, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56533

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