Slavery had both impelled and enticed the United States to engage the wider Atlantic world. The nation was forced to deal with Great Britain and Spain in order to avoid legitimation of slave escape. Washington, DC, could not avoid diplomacy, and eventually cooperation, with London in order to combat the slave trade effectively. The desire to export African Americans compelled the republic to engage itself with sub-Saharan Africa, and brought it into negotiations with London, The Hague, and Latin America. And Lincoln and Seward found themselves obliged to deal with France and Britain as they worked to keep the American Civil War a completely domestic matter. These were connections that were unavoidable if the nation were to pursue important goals. But there was also a positive desire on the part of the nation to reach out and make connections with the world, and slavery played an important role in this as well. Expansionists were well aware of the value of new slave territory—and not, incidentally, new proslavery Senators—to the institution of slavery. They thus pursued this policy—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Over the course of its entire early history, slavery had brought the United States into significantly greater contact with the Atlantic world than would have been the case absent the institution.
The international relations that emerged cannot be understood merely by looking at the prejudices, interests, and assumptions of a certain set of US policymakers. Rather, the international context significantly conditioned the American policies that emerged from a complex set of Atlantic interrelations. Slavery was one of a number of issues that shaped these relations and interactions, and it would be a mistake to attribute too much causative effect to the institution. Issues of security, commerce, and imperial rivalries all played a significant role in the development of Atlantic international relations in the period beginning with the age of Atlantic revolutions and lasting until the end of the American Civil War. Having acknowledged this, it is nevertheless crucial to recognize that slavery was one of the major determinants of these relations.
This was particularly true in the case of the United States. Slavery was defined by policymakers and laypeople alike as central to US interactions with four continents—whether for good or bad. America’s security, prosperity, and geographical and political reach were all connected, in one way or another, with bonded labor. It is no surprise, then, that Americans looked on, and conducted, their relations with the world with a conviction that slavery was central to the nation’s international role. For some Americans, this meant the active preservation of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, while for others it meant the final eradication of the evil of the trade in human beings. For some, seemingly paradoxically, it meant both.
This last point indicates what one might call the “messiness” of the connection between slavery and America’s foreign relations. Even slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proved willing, at one point, to aid the self-liberated Blacks of Haiti. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln’s complicated relationship with slavery played out in his policy of seeking to encourage emigration of freed slaves even after emancipation. And the redoubtable John Quincy Adams himself, though famous for his later opposition to slavery, used the power of the federal government to gain compensation for slaves carried away from American masters. In addition, though resolutely hostile to the slave trade, he refused to utilize that same government’s power in the only way that would have ended the international commerce in humans.1
This untidy relationship of American foreign relations and slavery does not mean that the “slaveholding republic” was not generally committed to advancing the cause of slavery in the nation and, indeed, the hemisphere. Rather, it is an indication of the extent to which Washington had—and still has—to make policy in a complicated international environment. Don E. Fehrenbacher notes that the proslavery thrust of America’s foreign relations benefited “from the inertial tendencies of government and more specifically from a good deal of incremental decision making that was perfunctory, unreflective, and more often than not in southern hands.”2 This is all true. Yet it is also the case that America’s external relations with regard to slavery were conditioned, influenced, and constrained by the actions of other actors in the Atlantic sphere. In this sense, even the southerners who ran American foreign policy were never in a position to fully control the issues that confronted American policymakers. The world itself was too messy for that.
Yet one significant issue had, in fact, been cleanly resolved. Slavery was ended in the United States. Thus, one of the most important determinants of US foreign relations since the founding of the nation vanished in the wake of the horrific Civil War. No longer would the matter of slavery push and pull the nation into international affairs. During the Gilded Age, Americans found themselves “absorbed in domestic problems and less concerned with external threats than at any time in their nation’s history.” Given the circumstances in which the United States now found itself, “world events naturally receded in the scale of national priorities.”3 The legend of a nation drawing into isolation after the Civil War is merely a legend, as the United States engaged the world in new and often active ways in the three decades prior to the Spanish-American War. America would certainly engage in foreign intervention, and economic and territorial expansion, in these years. But slavery had ceased to be a factor that helped to determine the perception of threats and opportunities for America abroad.
Rarely has a major, long-term element driving US foreign policy disappeared so quickly and completely. One thinks of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. There are few other examples. If Washington policymakers were indeed more focused on domestic than foreign issues after 1865—if they were required to give international affairs less of their time and attention—then one reason for this was that slavery was not continually, persistently, compelling them to deal with the wider Atlantic world. It had done so since the founding. For nine decades, slavery had been one of the primary driving forces in American external relations. American foreign policymakers in the post–Civil War years would be able to look to other long-term goals, like hemispheric security and commercial expansion, and newer aims, such as extracontinental expansion, without the ever-present need to secure chattel slavery. This change could not help but introduce a degree of flexibility of action that would otherwise have been absent. Up to this point, the perceived need to protect and expand a reprehensible institution had both driven and constrained America’s external policy. Nine decades of this particular messiness was long enough. A new era of American foreign relations could begin. The chains had finally fallen.
Yet the years of slavery’s influence on American foreign relations would cast a somber shadow over post–Civil War foreign relations. The long years of racism toward African Americans would not end with emancipation. And this proclivity of race to shape America’s external policy was to continue. As America took on territories abroad in the coming decades, the nonwhite peoples in those lands found that they were denied the rights that had been extended to, for instance, white Texans. The fact that American policies toward nonwhite insular peoples echoed those pursued toward nonwhites on the North American continent was not coincidental.4 Americans had a history that would not disappear with slavery.
After the abolition of slavery in the United States, race continued to be a significant factor in American foreign relations, although the issue became more diffuse. As Michael Hunt has perceptively argued, various nonwhite peoples were increasingly classified according to a “hierarchy of race.” Although the image of these peoples was neither static nor consistent, those of African descent, more than any other group, “served as the anvil on which Americans forged this notion of racial hierarchy and the attendant color-conscious view of the world.”5 The tendency to view the world in terms of distinct and stratified races easily permeated the barrier between centuries, and served to influence US foreign relations into the 1900s. Americans had “fixed race at the center of their world view.”6 This predisposition to think in terms of race would continue to shape significantly American policy toward what would eventually be termed the Third World. Definitions of race helped to justify, and thus facilitate, American intervention in Latin America, conquest of the Philippines, and exclusion of East Asian immigrants.7 It is inconceivable that race would have played this role in American exterior policy without the “anvil” of slavery shaping American thinking.
The persistence of racial biases in shaping US foreign relations was on full display in 1919, when world leaders met to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles which put a formal end to the war with Germany. Representing the United States was President Woodrow Wilson, as thoroughgoing a racist as ever occupied the Oval Office. He famously admitted at one point that “I have very little ease with coloured people or they with me. Why is it?”8 The answer comes easy to the student of his administration. That the president who would segregate the federal workforce should ask such a question is itself surprising. But this very ignorance speaks to the pervasiveness of such racism in American thinking. Wilson was like the proverbial fish that did not know that it swam in water.
Wilson’s racism was not confined to African Americans. Indeed, he distributed it widely. One of the most egregious examples of its impact on his foreign policy occurred in Paris. The issue concerned a proposal advanced by the Japanese delegation to add an amendment to the “religious liberty” clause of the Covenant of the League of Nations. This amendment bound signatories not to, as Margaret MacMillan summarizes it, “discriminate against anyone within their jurisdiction on the basis of creed, religion, or belief.”9 The Japanese proposed to add, “The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law of in fact, on the account of their race or nationality.”10 The amendment quickly gained the support of almost all delegations. But there were holdouts, including Britain and Poland. Joining this unlikely combination was the United States. Wilson simply could not imagine opening the borders of the United States or its possessions “to Japanese or other Asian immigrants.” As the leading historian of Wilson’s diplomacy has noted, Wilson had drawn “a global color line. His liberal ideals, although ostensibly universal, were exclusive in practice. The full benefits of Wilsonianism were available only for white nations of the West.”11 Thus, even after a vote was taken on the amendment, and it was passed, Wilson tabled the measure.12 He had refused “to let even the principle of racial equality stand.”13 Resentful of this development, the Japanese delegation nevertheless withdrew the amendment.14 But significant damage had been done to relations between Tokyo and Washington, and was one factor that, in the following two decades, led Japan to take an increasingly confrontational stance with the Western powers.15
As with American policies prior to abolition, race had been a significant determinant of American decisions in this episode. Granted, it was, in 1919—as in the pre-1865 period—one of a number of factors shaping foreign policy choices. At Paris, bald racism had been accompanied by the related issue of preservation of empire; after all, Britain and its imperial delegations had joined the United States in strenuously opposing a declaration of equality. What would such a proclamation have meant in, for example, Australia?16 Broader issues of race did not serve by themselves to determine American policymakers’ decisions. Rather, they became enmeshed with considerations of matters such as security, trade, and expansion.
Similarly, slavery had never been the only factor guiding any of Washington’s major foreign relations decisions prior to 1865. Instead, issues regarding slavery—its preservation, its expansion, and finally its eradication—had interacted with other interests to shape those decisions. It had, however, been as central a determinant as those other interests. Slavery was, at last, extirpated in 1865. Its legacy for American foreign relations, however, did not end with the Thirteenth Amendment. To understand America’s diplomatic history, one must understand the impact and legacy of slavery on America’s relations with the world.