Matthew Pratt Guterl. American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. 237 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-02868-5.
Reviewed by Ryan Swanson (George Mason University)
Published on H-CivWar (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Hugh F. Dubrulle
An International Community of Slaveholders
American Mediterranean is Matthew Pratt Guterl’s second monograph. It is an ambitious and impressive study. The work, covering much of the nineteenth century, situates the American South and its slave owners within a broad international context. America’s “master class,” as Guterl calls them, were connected through “institutions, cultures, and ‘structures of feeling’” to other slaveholders (p. 1). These connections transcended national boundaries. The work’s subtitle, “Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation,” is accurate: Guterl deals episodically with antebellum fears of emancipation, reaction to the enactment of emancipation during the Civil War, and then the results of emancipation after the conflict. In dealing with each time period, the author takes pains to step back again and again to bring international context to the story. With precise but lively prose, Guterl also aggressively situates his work in the vast historiographical canon covering the American South. From nearly the first page, he chides heavyweights, such as (the recently deceased) Kenneth Stampp and Eugene Genovese, as well as historians in general, for comparing the South exclusively to the North. Such limited comparisons produce limited portraits Guterl argues. In presenting the American South as part of the slavery diaspora, Guterl raises several important questions. Perhaps the most fundamental of these questions is one that American historians have long considered: just how “exceptional” is the United States--or in this case the American South--and how does its history fit with that of the rest of the world?
The study crosses both geographic and disciplinary boundaries. Guterl uses literature throughout his analysis, beginning with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and ending with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Guterl deftly uses these interludes of classic fiction to provide color for his descriptions of pan-American slavery and abolition movements. While Guterl can rightly say that his is a history of the South “pushed offshore,” he wisely focuses on comparisons with Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica (p. 10).
Guterl provides his readers with a purposefully complex image of the American South. He demonstrates that Southerners were keenly aware of their counterparts in other countries. The revolution in Haiti stood out as a possible Armageddon that might spread internationally. American slave owners did not look at Brazil or Cuba or Jamaica as civilizations on par with their own, but they did see opportunities for annexation and for cooperation in the fight against emancipation. According to American Mediterranean, the American South was like Rome in the midst of a slave empire. The other communities might be part of the empire, but only Rome was, well, Rome. Southerners saw themselves as the most civilized members of an economic and cultural network based on slavery. Plans for this community ranged from specific proposals, such as giving Cuba statehood, to more general conceptions of the Caribbean functioning as a “safety valve” for the United States’ burgeoning slave population (p. 57). Guterl balances these discussions of affinity by pointing out that Southerners were also worried about being grouped too closely with the “Latins,” race-mixers, and Catholics of the Caribbean and South America. Trumpeting the purity of white Southern womanhood became a means of distinguishing the South from other slave locales.
Military defeat knocked the American South from its position of leadership in the American Mediterranean. Before the Civil War started, many Southern leaders envisioned Cuba becoming an American slave state and New Orleans serving as the hub for an increasingly cohesive economy. Ideas of conquests and territorial expansion had been a part of Southern thinking from the time of American independence. While such measures as the Missouri Compromise made adding new slave states to the Union more difficult, Southerners thought transnationally when it came to expansion. The Mexican-American War bore witness to this reality. After the Civil War had been lost, however, the slave world’s balance shifted. The regions that had been eyed greedily by Southerners became havens for Americans who were unwilling to live in a slave-less United States. A relatively small number of Southerners (Guterl does not give many details about how many) left the United States to try slavery elsewhere. In relating these stories in his third chapter, “The Promise of Exile,” Guterl is at his best. Most history texts dealing with the Civil War and Reconstruction era mention that a handful of Southerners left the country after the war, but somehow the story usually stops there.
A very capable storyteller throughout, Guterl masterfully uses the tales of Eliza McHattan and other ordinary men and women to demonstrate how Southerners experienced exile. While the legality of slavery was, it seemed, enough to entice some Confederates to migrate to Cuba, there was no escaping the fact that one had entered another country. Everything was “just a bit off the mark,” many Southerners found (p. 82). As for McHatton, she left her Louisiana home for Mexico and then Cuba midway through the war. She tried to bring the family’s slaves along, but all but one had escaped by the time she made it onto foreign soil. Eventually she joined her husband on a sugar plantation in Cuba. There she contemplated new slave labor questions, complicated by the increasing numbers of Chinese coolies arriving on the island and the relative scarcity of African slaves. When Cuba experienced its own civil war in 1868 and her husband died, McHatton returned to the United States. Her hopes of preserving a way of life had been dashed: “Cuba was no longer the lost world of the Old South--it was, instead, the New South gone mad” (p. 108).
Guterl declares at the outset of his work that he has not written a comparative history--at least not in the strictest sense of the genre. Comparative histories involve emphasizing boundaries, a tactic this author wants to transcend. Thus, rather than pitting the American South “against” Brazil or Cuba or Jamaica, Guterl looks across borders and examines the “master class in Diaspora, in exile, and in empire” (p. 11). Still, to readers not accustomed to such geographic freedom, it is the juxtapositions that stand out. To prove his points, Guterl plays matchmaker throughout the text: New Orleans and Havana, Mississippi and Jamaica, Toussaint L’Ouverture and George Washington, and Haiti’s successful revolution and Nat Turner’s rebellion, to name a few. In the case of Mississippi and Jamaica especially, Guterl points out the different circumstances surrounding emancipation. But for the most part, stories are intertwined and the reader is left focused far more on common slave culture and experiences than on exactly what happened where.
Because of his scope, Guterl touches only briefly on Reconstruction legislation. He offers rather perfunctory histories of the typical Civil War era characters, such as Jefferson Davis and Carl Schurz, and a very cursory description of the war itself. He also offers very little in the way of economic data to support his discussion of the international economy and labor issues. But in fairness, one can read about Davis and Schurz in any number of textbooks. Economic data can be googled. Guterl is after something different. He captures the common hopes, fears, and experiences of the master class--regardless of nationality. And so in his chapter on “The Labor Problem,” Guterl cuts to the heart of slavery and shows why transitioning to wage labor proved so difficult for the master class. There was a lack of understanding, Guterl points out, regarding the “relationship between physical coercion, or forced labor, and ‘moral’ or ‘rational’ compulsion” (p. 130). Fears of rebellion, miscegenation, and then labor-less destitution racked the former plantation owners. Attempts to control former slaves through apprenticeships and black codes might seem futile with emancipation having come, but they make sense in the context Guterl provides.
In sum, Guterl offers a unique, transnational look at slavery and emancipation. As he reminds his readers near the end of the text, “The imagination of Southern slaveholders was not constrained by the borders of the Old South” (p. 185). He demonstrates this truth repeatedly. The text is well documented and superbly written. It should be required reading for those interested in understanding the peculiarities of American South--even though, as Guterl makes evident, the American South was not so different after all.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-civwar.
Ryan Swanson. Review of Guterl, Matthew Pratt, American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation.
H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews.
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