The geography of American slavery was continental, argues Dr. Kevin Waite, an assistant professor at Durham University, in West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (UNC Press, 2021). Rather than being confined to the South, the institution of slavery infected North America as the American empire expanded across the Mississippi River, including places often thought of as "free" states, such as California. Slaveholders saw territories in the far West as zones of political control, supportive of slavery in the South even when relatively small numbers of people were actually held in bondage in these places. Waite's history shifts how historians view the coming of the Civil War and the expansion of slavery - rather than quarantined, the "slave power" moved along railroads and roads, through networks of patronage and through alternate forms of unfreedom, such as peonage. The Civil War and Reconstruction are similarly continental events when viewed through this lens. Waite's book is a comprehensive examination of how southern elites saw their future, and in this way is an excellent example of historical contingency put into action.
Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.