There was nothing inevitable about the end of slavery in the United States. Enslaved people fueled this country’s economy, generated great amounts of wealth for their owners, and helped to define American Exceptionalism for many, who envisioned a greater role on the world stage for this slave holding nation.
One of them was Matthew Fontaine Maury. Born in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, Maury went on to become an accomplished oceanographer and explorer, but his fascination with the world beyond this country’s shores was wrapped up in a vision of slavery’s expansion. He was one of the architects of a foreign policy that sought to strengthen slavery’s place in the United States and the western hemisphere.
I have seen the African slave population of America clustered in and around the border of the [Caribbean] Sea. I have seen this Sea, by Ship canal and Isthmus highways placed midway between Europe and Asia. It is between two Continents, it receives the drainage of the two greatest river basins in the world, it is natural for the produce of two hemispheres and I have therefore seen in it the Cornu Copia of the world. [Quoted in M. Karp This Vast Southern Empire, (p. 144)]
Maury hoped to utilize the power of the federal government and the military to strengthen slavery in the United States and throughout the western hemisphere at a time when it was being challenged on multiple fronts.
“And then the war came.”
Maury’s vision came to fruition with the establishment of the Confederate States of America in 1861. As its first and only president, Jefferson Davis led the attempt to establish an independent slave holding nation.
Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart strung together impressive military victories to help make this dream a reality. Every victory, every advance into the United States brought the Confederacy closer to realizing its vision and strengthening slavery.
By 1865 that dream had crumbled. The attempt to protect slavery through secession and war ultimately undermined it. The Union army and legislation in D.C. all played a role, but arguably the most important factor proved to be the slaves themselves, who understood early on that they could steer events and the war toward freedom.
What few people could have anticipated in 1861 had come to fruition just four short years later. The end of slavery in 1865 is the most important event in Virginia history in the nineteenth century.