Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America

Article excerpt

Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America. By Robert E. May. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 296, illustrations, index. Paper, $26.99).

Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics makes a compelling case that the possibility of slavery in the tropics profoundly shaped the origins of the Civil War. Central to the books narrative and argument are the intersecting careers of Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, whose rivalry shaped northern and national politics in the antebellum era. Douglas, who perceived the Caribbean islands and Central America as a natural extension of the United States, was the North's greatest spokesman for expansion southward, whereas Lincoln feared that slavery's expansion into the tropics would indefinitely perpetuate slavery. These perspectives deeply influenced their politics. Douglas supported southern proslavery politicians who wanted to acquire territories in the tropics, while Lincoln pitted the Republican Party against slavery's expansion in both the tropics and the West.

Douglas and Lincoln's differences on the tropics dated to the 1840s. In late 1844, as a Democratic congressman, Douglas played a leading legislative role in Texas' admission to the Union, which Lincoln opposed. The war with Mexico, which Texas' annexation quickly precipitated, further divided them. Douglas was eager to join the military and had to be dissuaded from leaving Congress by President Polk, whereas Lincoln, in his first and only term in the House of Representatives, became a noted congressional critic of the war. Moreover, while Lincoln joined many northern congressmen in support of the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to prevent slavery's spread into territories acquired from Mexico, Douglas opposed the Proviso's passage. He instead attempted to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, possibly opening to slavery any land acquired from Mexico south of 36o 30', a potentially huge land mass considering that he wanted the United States to annex all of Mexico.

Douglas' desire for expansion into the tropics was not dulled by the dangerous sectional strife over slavery's expansion between 1846 and 1850. Beginning in 1852, he publicly urged the acquisition of Cuba, Spain's slaveholding sugar colony, and condemned the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between Great Britain and United States, which established collaborative ground rules for building a Central American canal. Douglas had no objection to a canal, but the treaty effectively recognized Britain's pre-existing Central American settlements while precluding the United States from developing its own spheres of influence. …

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