Purdue historian takes international look at famous Lincoln-Douglas rivalry

October 22, 2013  


Robert E. May

Robert E. May, a Purdue professor of American history and author of  "Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics," says the many accounts of the rivalry between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas often neglect their differing opinions and arguments about expanding slavery outside of the United States. May's new book focuses on what Lincoln did to stop slavery's growth southward, while Douglas, the U.S. senator from Illinois, wanted the United States to own much or all of Latin America even if slavery went along with it. (Purdue University photo/Steven Yang)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The many accounts of the rivalry between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas often neglect their differing opinions and arguments about expanding slavery outside of the United States, says a Purdue University historian.

"Many historians writing about the causes of the Civil War do so without mentioning the contentious issue of new United States slave states in the tropics, including Cuba and Mexico," says Robert E. May, a professor of American history. "While forgotten today, the possibility helped ignite Lincoln's feud with Douglas and the southern outrage at Lincoln's election that led to the Civil War. The United States did not go to war because Lincoln and his Republican party intended to end slavery in the South, but rather because Republicans intended to stop slavery's growth in Latin America as well as in Kansas and the West. It's critical to understand what caused the war that still resonates with so many people today."

This is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which was fought from 1861-1865. May's new book, "Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics" was published this month by Cambridge University Press. The book focuses on Lincoln's doing everything he could to stop slavery's growth southward, while Douglas, the U.S. senator from Illinois, wanted the United States to own much or all of Latin America even if slavery went along with it. May's research also provides new findings on Lincoln's surprising and controversial attempt in the midst of the Civil War to colonize blacks in Haiti as a step toward ending U.S. slavery. Historians, May says, often misunderstand the relation between Lincoln's colony and the Emancipation Proclamation.

"Lincoln came to see Latin America as a variant of the West, and the western United States was where poor northern whites could go to seek their fortunes and a new life. Lincoln saw the same opportunities for free blacks in Latin America," May says. "But the attempt became an embarrassment. Many died, and the colonists had to be rescued by the Navy. Confederate propagandists had a field day making fun of Lincoln for claiming to care about black people yet sending them to Haiti to die."

May's book includes biographies of Douglas and Lincoln and their relationship, which began in the Illinois statehouse, and it shows how news of slave state plots to spread slavery to Latin America kept recycling through their careers and affecting their rivalry for the presidency.

"The Lincoln-Douglas rivalry is arguably the most famous political rivalry in America's history, and yet one of the most contentious things they argued about, including in six of the seven famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, is often entirely missing from the history books," May says. "There are many books about the rivalry that don't even mention the word Cuba in them or slavery's spread to Mexico and Central America. Most people don't know the full story because there has been so much preoccupation with the issue of slavery expansion into Kansas."

May says that while the Civil War is often studied through a domestic lens, more of an international perspective is starting to emerge. In the last 10 years, historians have written about the South's trade, diplomacy and cultural ties with Latin American countries leading up to the Civil War, as well as Southern aggressions to take them over.

"Lincoln was opposed to expansion and imperialistic policies, and his philosophy is something that we can learn from today," May says. "He gave a different model for the United States to follow: He believed America was the last great hope for democracy and it should be a model of democracy instead of a conquering democracy. When he died there was an outpouring of grief in Latin American countries with days of mourning. If America today followed his non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, we'd probably have better relations with countries like Venezuela."

The timeline in May's book begins in the 1840s as United States policies began to focus more internationally under presidents John Tyler and James Polk with Texas annexation and the Mexican War. Prior to this time, Lincoln and Douglas were focused on Illinois state politics, but their political careers ascended as America's international interests expanded.

May's research is based especially on Lincoln's and Douglas's correspondence, congressional documents, private papers of other politicians, contemporary newspapers and collections from the National Archives. His work is supported by Purdue's Department of History.

May also is author of "John A. Quitman: Old South Crusader," a biography of the so-called father of secession in Mississippi, and "The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861," and "Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America." He also has edited a Purdue University Press title on the diplomacy of the Civil War - "The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim" - explaining why the Confederacy failed to receive enough foreign aid to win the war.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 

Source: Robert E. May, mayr@purdue.edu  

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Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a review copy can contact Frances Bajet, associate publicity manager at Cambridge University Press, 212-337-5057, fbajet@cambridge.org

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