Book Review: No God But Gain

No God But Gain:  The Untold Story Of Cuban Slavery, The Monroe Doctrine & The Making Of The United States, by Stephen Chambers

I found this to be a compelling and rather frightening book.  The author has clearly done a good job as a student of Atlantic history [1] in sleuthing the importance of Cuba as a borderland zone between the rising American republic and the Spanish Empire where a great deal of corruption could be found that Americans could profit from and where close to Florida there was a place where a certain amount of lawlessness and room to operate provided a ready market for American exports and a source of sugar for Americans to trade to Europe, especially the Baltic states for massive profits during the first part of the 19th century.  This is a dark story and the author does not even try to exaggerate how dark the story is.  In fact, I found the story to be even darker than the author portrayed it, not least because the book provides some of the earliest evidence of a problem that has long troubled the American republic (referred to in this book as the North American union, frighteningly enough) concerning the disconnect between elites and ordinary Americans concerning foreign policy.

In about 170 pages or so the author makes a pretty convincing case for the importance of Cuba for the early United States as a way that free trade and the expansion of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean went hand in hand.  The author shows with a vivid attention to detail how the slaveowning habits of New England merchants were tied to their overall business as well as to their role as consuls abroad, and that those considered to be sober merchants at home were cruel plantation owners abroad, passing themselves off as Catholics to claim lands and titles in Spanish Cuba while being a part of the elite of Protestant New England simultaneously.  The author also demonstrates the important role of a generation of 1815, in which a few people were prominent, from the familiar (John Quincy Adams) to the largely obscure (James D’Wolf), in ensuring that the United States diplomatic corps and navy acted in concert with the aims of American merchant princes looking to increase their profits while simultaneously engaging in massive smuggling operations all over the Atlantic world.  The book does a good job at showing this corruption and this power in a variety of places, from Africa to Cuba to the United States to Europe, making the provocative argument that the Monroe Doctrine was written in order to protect and defend the illegal slave trade that was connived at by Spanish, Cuban, and American elites.

It has long fascinated me that the United States has had an elite that has been insistent on political involvement of a dodgy and illegitimate kind in the affairs of other nations as well as in supranational institutions that have lacked legitimacy and support at home while the American people as a whole have largely wished to focus on their own affairs.  This book demonstrates pretty clearly that this phenomenon of a corrupt internationalist elite and a quiescent American public has been present from the very beginnings of the United States as a nation, and that those who sought power in American diplomatic circles have often been acting to support illegal and illegitimate trade interests and that the commercial and military elements of the United States have often been intertwined together, with international law and treaty being something that was winked at by those who knew how the rules were played.  The violence inflicted against black slaves as a matter of course was connected with the violence these brutal men inflicted against each other in conflicts over money and property and political spoils and reputation, demonstrating the relationship between corrupt business and corrupt personal morality, a chilling connection that this book lays bare.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: No God But Gain

  1. Pingback: Book Review: John Quincy Adams | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Battle For The Soul Of Capitalism | Edge Induced Cohesion

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