Here at Muster, we are fostering more opportunities for readers of The Journal of the Civil War Era to engage with our talented authors. Thus, in 2017 we will begin providing short author interviews to jump-start some stimulating discussions. Our first interview is with Kevin Waite, whose article “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West” appeared in the December 2016 special issue on the Civil War West. Kevin earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2016 and currently teaches at Durham University in the U.K. His research focuses on Southern visions of empire in the Pacific world and the extension of a proslavery political order across the Far Southwest during the Civil War era. He has also published on violence and masculinity in Napoleonic-era English public schools. His short-form writing can be found in the Huffington Post, the History News Network, We’re History, Slate, Raw Story, and TIME.
Thanks for participating in this, Kevin. How did you get interested in the history of the Civil War West?
I was born in what you could call the far western outpost of the slave South: Pasadena, California. As a kid, I knew nothing about the slaveholding southerners who owned the land that would become my hometown. And I had no clue that they had transformed Los Angeles County into a bastion of proslavery politics before and during the Civil War. But when I began my PhD at Penn in 2011, under the mentorship of Steve Hahn, I gradually began to connect the dots. After learning more about California’s (largely overlooked) proslavery past, I started searching for the slave South in other, unexpected places. In the end, I came to argue that we should understand the antebellum South in more capacious terms. In fact, there’s a compelling reason to view the entire Far Southwest – New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, and to a certain extent Utah – as an appendage of the slave South.
Much of this article comes from research I did as a first-year in graduate school, when I was trying to trace the scope of this proslavery sphere of influence in the antebellum West.
Can you give us a brief description of what your recent JCWE article discusses, and why you think this story matters?
It’s about how slaveholders – and Jefferson Davis in particular – used their influence at the federal level to dictate the course of development in the antebellum Far Southwest. We know, of course, that the controversy over slavery in the West was a driving – perhaps the driving – force in the road to disunion. But somewhat surprisingly, antebellum political historians tend to lose interest in the Far West after 1850. I suppose the assumption is that slaveholders surrendered their claims on the region once California became a free state. My article is, in part, an attempt to show otherwise – that southerners retained a keen interest in the fate of the Far West, and they were largely successful in imposing their policies on the region.
Central to this whole southern campaign were plans for a transcontinental railroad through slave country and into California. Of course, no Pacific railroad was constructed during the antebellum period. But through their efforts, southerners scored some important corollary victories – the Gadsden Purchase and the construction of an overland mail road across the southern corridor of the continent – that helped transform the Southwest into a political satellite of the plantation South.
Why do you think that proslavery expansionism has been such an understudied topic?
I actually think there’s quite a bit of excellent work on the subject. And I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering scholarship of Robert May, who really kicked off this growing interest in slaveholding imperialism. But much of the scholarly focus has been on the dramatic (and often bloody) attempts to carve out additional slave territory for the South. These were undoubtedly important episodes in the grand scheme of antebellum politics. But I think they may distract from the more enduring, if subtler, victories that slaveholders achieved across the Far West. Unlike rogue filibusters in the Caribbean, commercial expansionists like Jefferson Davis controlled the levers of power in Washington, and his vision for slavery’s future was grander and ultimately more attainable than those of would-be conquistadors like William Walker.
So the argument here is, in part, that slaveholding expansion took several forms. And the seizure of more territory for plantation agriculture may not have been the primary aim of all southern expansionists. Slaveholders like Davis sought to extend the commercial and political reach of the slave South through infrastructural development. And to a large extent, he achieved this expansion of proslavery interests.
Whether or not this sort of expansion should be understood as properly imperial, I’m still trying to work out. Matt Karp’s excellent new book, This Vast Southern Empire, has been particularly helpful as my thoughts on the subject develop.
What do you see as the next iteration of regional history? In other words, where do we go from here?
In short, we go bigger. The transnational turn in history is helping us reframe familiar narratives by expanding our geographic optic. I see the forthcoming work on the Civil War in the West as part of a larger historiographic development that seeks to understand how transregional and globally integrated forces gave shape to key historical moments. Of course, the war itself was ultimately won and lost in the major military theaters of the East. But the political transformations of the Civil War era reached far beyond the free North and slave South.
Can you recommend for readers some useful texts on the Civil War in the West?
There’s so much good stuff coming out these days, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I suppose I should begin with where I, myself, really began: the amazing work of Stacey Smith. Her book, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction is, in my opinion, one of the most important works on the Civil War-era West. And of course, everything Elliott West writes helps reframe the way we think about the West during this period. Another good place to start would be the articles by Megan Kate Nelson and Pekka Hamalainen that appear in this issue. And everyone should read the work of this issue’s guest editor, Ari Kelman, especially A Misplaced Massacre. Far more than a sense of personal loyalty leads me to recommend Steve Hahn’s recent A Nation Without Borders. Then, for new books that challenge our understanding of slaveholding expansion more generally, I’d point to Andrew Torget’s Seeds of Empire and, again, Matt Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire.
It’s an embarrassment of riches, to be sure, but there’s still plenty of room for new perspectives.
Many thanks to Kevin Waite for participating in this interview. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and we can continue the conversation!