The president had a vision. He had support from some of the most significant political leaders of the nation. He certainly had skill. Indeed, he was one of the most gifted diplomats that the young American republic had yet produced—and that was saying something. The one significant thing he did not have, however, was success. Try as he might to take a singular opportunity to advance his policies for America’s role in its hemisphere, the president found only frustration. His failure to achieve one of his important foreign relations objectives came as the result of a number of causes. One of the key factors was slavery.
John Quincy Adams’s vision was that the United States would take on the role of leader in the constellation of independent nations of the Western Hemisphere—which, like Adams’s own country, had emerged from the age of Atlantic revolutions. So when the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar called for a congress of nations in the hemisphere, Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay pricked up their ears. Despite Bolívar’s reluctance to propose US participation in the Congress of Panama, an invitation was extended to Washington, DC, in April 1825. Adams and Clay responded with alacrity. Such a meeting of American neighbors would present “a perhaps unique opportunity to spread the American diplomatic, political, and commercial model throughout the New World.”1 Additionally, unity among the republics in the hemisphere would go a long way toward precluding renewed European intervention in the Americas. In fact, in the words of Adams biographer James Traub, “the Pan-American Congress was shaping up to be the most popular initiative of Adams’ young presidency.”2 The upcoming congress held forth the prospect of strengthening the Monroe Doctrine without requiring a “police role” for the United States and of forestalling “Latin American commercial exclusivity.” US participation in the meeting would also, in Adams’s words, serve as a “token of respect to the southern Republics.”3 Panama appeared to hold out nothing but promise—so much so that Clay ranked the diplomatic mission to the congress behind only those to Paris in 1783 and Ghent in 1814—which brought an end, respectively, to the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—in its significance for the nation.4 Who could oppose an opportunity such as that?
The answer, in the atmosphere of mid-1820s America, was that a great many could do so. The Congress of Panama in fact “became a political lightening rod, drawing increasingly bitter attacks from the followers of presidential aspirants” like Vice President John C. Calhoun, Treasury Secretary William Crawford, and, most notably, Adams’s nemesis, Senator Andrew Jackson. Opponents of US participation raised red flags concerning the hallowed policy of freedom from entangling alliances, as well as the threat of economic competition from Latin nations.5 Perhaps domestic politics and foreign policy concerns alone would have been enough to scuttle Adams and Clay’s visionary policy.
But there was another—and to southerners more ominous—threat posed by US involvement in a move toward such hemispheric cooperation. This was none other than the possibility that this early attempt at Pan-Americanism could undermine slavery. Southerners, including Adams’s own vice president, emerged as some of the most virulent opponents of Adams’s hemispheric plan. For these foes of the president’s policy, the “underlying issue” was slavery.6 The danger seemed to loom that the Congress of Panama would “seek to abolish slavery.” In addition, southerners expressed horror that diplomats from the United States might find themselves working alongside those from Haiti, a nation that was founded by revolutionary slaves who had liberated themselves and, in the process, killed large numbers of their former masters. The prospect that Washington might even recognize the government of Haiti was especially galling.7 Then, too, there was the certainty that the upcoming congress would take up the issue of the slave trade, and “who knew where this could lead?” Although the dispatch of American representatives to Panama was finally approved by the US Congress, the delay, along with the death of one of the emissaries on the way to Panama, had prevented serious US participation in the conference.8
Most likely, American recalcitrance—or even “unjust and deliberate sabotage”—was not the primary reason that the so-called Amphictyonic Congress of 1826 failed to achieve Bolívar’s objectives; that result was primarily a consequence of divisions among the Latin American nations themselves.9 The fact nevertheless remains that the Adams-Clay Latin American policy—which Samuel Flagg Bemis has called “a noble experiment”—had brought no concrete results.10 The administration found itself hamstrung in its attempt to participate in an international assembly that had seemed to offer significant prospects for advancing its “noble” agenda. This had happened due to domestic opposition to the initiative, and a major motivation for that obstructionism was fear for the security of the institution of slavery. Thus slavery, and more precisely the desire to preserve and protect it, had exerted a significant impact upon an issue that, at first blush, would appear to be unconnected to the subject of bonded labor in the United States. Even such skillful statesmen as Adams and Clay found themselves thwarted when they ran afoul of slavery’s American advocates.
Nor was slavery’s impact on US foreign relations manifested only in the frustration of policies that did not redound to the institution’s benefit. The fact was that the new republic found itself drawn into the wider Atlantic world in significant—sometimes distressing, frequently unwanted—ways as a result of what would come to be called the South’s peculiar institution. Despite, for instance, a strong desire to limit entanglements with the empires of Europe, Washington found itself pulled deeply into diplomacy, even conflict, with just these powers. Nor was the nation able to consistently assert its unilateralist proclivities in policy toward the world outside the Western Hemisphere. Slavery drew the nation into relations with the broader Atlantic world in ways that prevented this unilateralism. And, as in the case of the Congress of Panama, slavery sometimes prevented the consummation of Washington’s preferred policies. In time, even the sacrosanct proscription against British search of American-flagged vessels in peacetime fell victim to the demands of conducting foreign relations for a nation riven by slavery.
Additionally, an international history approach to these matters also helps to explain the motivations of the slaveholders who played an outsize role in shaping American foreign policy. Matthew Karp has impressively demonstrated their confidence.11 An international history, showing the limits of their ability to shape international relations in the Atlantic world, also demonstrates another element: fear. Fear for the preservation of slavery in the United States itself served to influence American policy during a period of profound developments in the Atlantic world.
The inconsistencies—the sheer messiness—in policymaking present yet another highly significant leitmotif of American foreign relations in this book. Because, try as they might, US policymakers could not impose their will regarding the foreign policy of slavery on a recalcitrant world. American policy would have to accommodate itself, and thus its priorities and goals, to the policies, priorities, and power of other nations, as well as the realities of the environment—figurative and literal—in which these polices were implemented. The decision to seek to colonize freed Blacks abroad provides one of the clearest illustrations of this problem. The realities of the international system—and indeed of the physical world—prevented the United States from developing anything like a consistent and effective policy toward one of the issues that policymakers deemed vital for the well-being of the nation as a white-ruled republic.
An international history of these events thus serves significantly to illustrate the reasons for the inability of the slaveholders who so frequently directed America’s foreign relations to implement some of their cherished policies, and to impose their will on the world beyond America’s borders. It helps as well to explain why a nation that would have preferred to keep its relations with the eastern littoral of the Atlantic world largely limited to commerce found and felt itself compelled to conduct an active diplomacy with the Old World, even to the point of establishing—albeit with great reluctance—transatlantic connections with sub-Saharan Africa. Oddly enough, the foreign relations of slavery even brought Washington into contact with the Eurasian world, as Russia was lured on two occasions into intervention in US relations with European nations far to the west of St. Petersburg.
This proclivity of slavery to enmesh the nation with the wider world in unwanted ways was manifested again and again throughout the time period up to 1865. From vainly seeking the return of escaped slaves under President George Washington to the failed attempts of President Abraham Lincoln to settle their freed brethren somewhere—anywhere—else, one sees the real limits placed on the nation’s ability to shape and implement a consistent foreign policy. One sees as well that the foreign relations of slavery exerted an impact not only on the policies of slaveholders and their northern allies but on the Lincoln administration itself, an administration whose central foreign policy goal was precisely to limit the extent in which foreign relations were even relevant to the most important issue at hand—namely, the American Civil War. Slavery was not the only factor that contributed to this frustration of American aims to conduct a largely unilateralist foreign policy in its early years. Nor was it the only reason why America frequently found itself unable to achieve its foreign relations goals. But it was among the most significant reasons, and one that has not yet been thoroughly explored by scholars of US foreign relations. Chained to History seeks, then, to address the substantial impact of slavery in early American foreign relations to the critical extent that it warrants; to demonstrate slavery’s central role in the history of America’s early relations with the world.
“No one likes to speak about slavery.” So observes the German historian Michael Zeuske.12 Yet one cannot speak about early American foreign relations without assessing the role played by slavery. Bonded labor was, in fact, a significant factor in every one of America’s foreign policy priorities in the period leading up to 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment finally abolished slavery throughout the reunified republic. The example of the Congress of Panama illustrates this well in the case of Adams and Clay’s desire that America assume the role of leader of the newly declared republics of the Western Hemisphere. Advocates of slavery had frustrated the Adams-Clay attempt to take a significant step in this direction. The president and his secretary of state considered participation in Pan-Americanism to be very much in the national interest. But the national interest is never static; it has to be negotiated among various sectors of the nation, and they have different priorities. For many slaveholders and their allies, a threat to the institution of slavery was not merely a threat to their own economic interests; it was, in fact, a threat to the nation itself. They thus acted according to this definition of the national interest.
Thus, slavery significantly influenced American policies for assuring US security in what had become a rather dangerous neighborhood for the new nation. When, for instance, slavery appeared to be in danger in neighboring Spanish-ruled Cuba, policymakers and opinion leaders in the United States concluded that the very security of their nation was at stake. In the minds of these men, a threat to slavery in America’s neighborhood was an existential threat to America. Only by understanding this point can one begin to understand the deep desire, and extensive efforts, to acquire the island colony.
The promotion of commerce was closely tied by Americans to the issue of national security from the days of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. For this reason, the United States from the beginning insisted on the right of neutrals to trade with all nations in a time of war. Britain, for its part, declined to accept this principle.13 The result was a protracted dispute between the Anglo-American nations over the issue. This conflict significantly affected efforts at slave trade suppression: both nations proclaimed a strong desire to eradicate the trade yet could not overcome the hostility left by past British actions. This interaction of slavery with American foreign policy priorities complicated the matter until the Lincoln administration finally settled the issue.
Additionally, American responses to the Haitian Revolution were complicated by the countervailing desires to oppose slave rebellion and to maintain a profitable trade with Haiti. Here one sees a fundamental element running through the story of slavery and US foreign relations: issues related to slavery rarely determined American actions. Rather, they interacted with other goals, issues, and priorities, thus brining about policy that could not have been easily foreseen. The decision of slaveholding American statesmen to aid Black revolutionaries in Haiti was just the most striking example of this complex process of negotiating among conflicting policy priorities in order to arrive at decision that worked in favor of American interests.
Territorial expansion on the North American continent provides another example of slavery’s impact on a primary US foreign policy priority. Jefferson sought to acquire Louisiana in part due to fears of an antislavery contagion emanating from the French colony. Texas proved irresistibly attractive to many slaveholders for its rich cotton lands and its ability to contribute slave-state members to the Senate. Florida ceased being a threat to slaveholders in the Southeast only after it joined the United States. In all of these cases, the institution of bonded labor was a positive pull in the direction of greater territorial expansion.
Perhaps the most sacred of precepts in early US foreign relations was freedom from European entanglements and its corollary, American unilateralism.14 Important variations on this theme were composed by Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James K. Polk. The message to Europe was consistent; the execution, however, was not. Nor could it be, as long as the United States remained a slaveholding republic. Slavery was a transatlantic concern, and its existence forcefully drew the United States into transatlantic relations. From the carrying off of slaves by Britain during the American Revolution to the role of slavery in the diplomacy of the American Civil War, Americans could not retain anything like a “splendid isolation” from Europe. America’s status as a slaveholding society was enough to prevent that.
Slavery thus shaped early American foreign relations from the beginning of the nation until the eradication of the institution itself. Future scholarship of the diplomacy of that period can thus benefit significantly from integrating the discussion of slavery into the narrative of US external relations. Indeed, in fact, the institution’s impact was so pervasive that it is difficult to see how it could be left out.
What has thus far been missing from the scholarly literature is a single, synthetic volume that addresses the full sweep of the interconnection of slavery and US foreign relations from the American Revolution until emancipation in the 1860s. This book seeks to fill that lacuna. Its goal is to integrate previous scholarship that has appeared on the issue, while simultaneously breaking new ground through research in the primary source documentation that sheds light on a still-neglected topic. In doing so, it seeks to situate its topic in the broad international framework in which United States foreign relations with regard to slavery was both conceived and conducted.
At a book launch in 2008, the eminent intellectual historian James Turner made an insightful observation. Turner remarked that he hoped that no work of history was ever “definitive.” By this he meant that no scholar should have the last word on any important subject of investigation; that any significant book would enhance a conversation rather than end it. In that spirit, Chained to History makes no claim to being the proverbial “last word” on its subject. Indeed, I hope that it will arouse interest in further scholarship on a highly significant aspect of America’s early international relations. A torrent of works would be welcome. But if it serves in some degree to re-center slavery as a key element in American foreign relations up through the American Civil War, Chained to History will have made a worthwhile contribution.