(London: Verso, 2015), 256 pp., $26.95.
Stephen Chambers’ No God but Gain tackles the three major questions spelled out in the subtitle, clarifying the interdependence of Cuban slavery, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and American development. These associations are all the more interesting because, for a variety of reasons, historians have usually been predisposed to treat them more as discrete categories of experience. That is, scholars usually discussed the Monroe Doctrine as articulating foreign policy goals that the US essentially had little power to enforce.
American politicians and journalists who promoted the national self-image as a free society paradoxically spoke also in terms of a “Manifest Destiny,” a course of US development pre-ordained by God or Nature. Later writers—less rooted in the assumptions of Calvinist predestination—tended to see that history as turning on particularly pivotal decisions that linked the US to slavery, civil war, and the course of empire. Chambers’ No God but Gain revisits the older assumptions in an exhaustively researched and devastating presentation of the extent to which the US set its course very early – though he emphasizes that this was a matter of choices.
Americans have always tended to see African slavery in Cuba—or the Caribbean generally—as a more vicious and exploitative institution than that practiced on the mainland, which they viewed as tempered by paternalism. One need not buy into such delusions to acknowledge the differences. The higher proportion of slaves in Caribbean countries led their owners to resort regularly to the most draconian measures to keep them in subjection, and left virtually no room for anyone in the tiny white minority not to be directly involved in the process. No accident, then, that the study of the hard and fast Caribbean conditions inspired scholarly ascription of a hard and fast category “whiteness.”
In contrast, the US mainland provided somewhat different conditions. Unlike the native peoples in the rather constrained terrain of an island, those on the mainland, despite undergoing an unprecedented collapse of their populations, nonetheless survived. The more diversified economy and complex society of the US required a large white underclass, and the dynamic and flexible character of slavery created a large caste of free blacks. Unlike on an island, there was thus room for real differences.
But, as Chambers argues, the contrast between the US and the Caribbean has been exaggerated. Although the US formally banned the slave trade in 1808, it actually continued illegally. Fueled by the transformative, explosive demand for cotton, slaveholders ignored their own laws to bring more than 3.2 million owned black workers into the US. (Note that the 1860 US Census showed less than 4 million slaves in the entire country.) Vital to this was the brisk trade with Cuba and the Caribbean. Scholars have focused increasingly on the link between the later course of slavery within the US and its relations with the rest of the world, but Chambers offers us a very good look at the beginnings of the process.
The Monroe Doctrine pledging the US to oppose European interference in the western hemisphere aimed conversely to protect American commerce of all sorts. This also coincided with efforts by political representatives of the slaveholders to ensure the US acquisition and assimilation of Cuba. This debate raged for decades, continuing through several filibustering expeditions, contributing to the sectional tensions that erupted in the Civil War and ultimately drew the US into the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its subsequently global imperial role. On one level, these impulses shape US-Cuban relations into our own times.
Because Chambers is focusing on international relations in a particularly early period in the sectional conflict within the US, he remains essentially unconcerned with the distinctions between the non-slaveholding Northern states and the slaveholding South on which most scholars tend to fix. As a result, his short work can provide several surprises. Yankees pioneered US involvement with and investment in Cuba. And, while opposed to annexation, that dear old icon of the antislavery movement, John Quincy Adams, did what he could to ensure US prospects in the region.
Not just Southern slave-owners but also Northern capitalists invested their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the lucrative slave trade, both before and after 1808. From the onset, American capitalism remained rooted in slavery and the repression of antislavery sentiment. When Southern apologists for slavery made comparisons between their enslavement of Africans and what their Northern colleagues had done in America’s own dark, Satanic mills, the factory owners persisted in their constitutional commitment to securing “domestic tranquility” in labor relations on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. And while a massive insistence on the importance of “free labor” eventually emerged in the North, it should be remembered that there were many ways to understand “free labor.”
Nor did the adoration of No God but Gain end with the destruction of that peculiar institution of African slavery. Those wishing to understand the roots of modern US foreign policy or the relatively recent bipartisan consensus around an essentially racialized policy of mass incarceration will find Chambers’ study very informative and useful.
Reviewed by Mark A. Lause
Department of History
University of Cincinnati