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Steven J. Brady

Mar 29, 2022

Chained to History

Slavery and US Foreign Relations to 1865

Cornell University Press 2022

In Chained to History: Slavery and US Foreign Relations to 1865 (Cornell University Press, 2022), Dr. Steven J. Brady places slavery at the centre of the story of America's place in the world in the years prior to the calamitous Civil War. Beginning with the immediate aftermath of the War of the American Revolution, Brady follows the military, economic, and moral lines of the diplomatic challenges of attempting to manage, on the global stage, the actuality of human servitude in a country dedicated to human freedom.

Dr. Brady argues that “slavery was defined by policymakers and laypeople alike as central to US interactions with four continents—whether for good or bad. America’s security, prosperity, and geographical and political reach were all connected, in one way or another, with bonded labour. It is no surprise, then, that Americans looked on, and conducted, their relations with the world with a conviction that slavery was central to the nation’s international role.” He argues that this mindset around the centrality of American slavery therefore “forced the United States to act in the international sphere in ways that it otherwise would not have, and to interact with the Atlantic world in a more dynamic way than its leaders might have preferred.”

Dr. Brady highlights the limitations placed on American policymakers who, working in an international context increasingly supportive of abolition, were severely constrained regarding the formulation and execution of preferred policy. Policymakers were bound to the slave interest based in the Democratic Party and the tortured state of domestic politics bore heavily on the conduct of foreign affairs. As international powers not only abolished the slave trade but banned human servitude as such, the American position became untenable.

The book argues that the “proclivity of slavery to enmesh the nation with the wider world in unwanted ways was manifested again and again throughout the time period up to 1865. From vainly seeking the return of escaped slaves under President George Washington to the failed attempts of President Abraham Lincoln to settle their freed brethren somewhere—anywhere—else, one sees the real limits placed on the nation’s ability to shape and implement a consistent foreign policy…. Slavery was not the only factor that contributed to this frustration of American aims to conduct a largely unilateralist foreign policy in its early years. Nor was it the only reason why America frequently found itself unable to achieve its foreign relations goals. But it was among the most significant reasons.”

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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