Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 120 / Number 4
Geography as Power: The Political Economy of Matthew Fontaine Maury
- John Majewski and Todd W. Wahlstrom, pp. 340–71
Before the Civil War, Mathew Fontaine Maury was one of America's best-known scientists. As a naval officer and oceanographer, he compiled detailed charts and navigation books that significantly decreased sailing times, earning him worldwide recognition. Maury was also a strong southern nationalists—he supported secession, worked as a Confederate emissary in Europe, and attempted to colonize former Confederates in Mexico. This article focuses on how Maury's geographical thinking bolstered his belief in a powerful and modern South. He argued that "geographic laws" ultimately governed the emergence of large-scale commercial centers. With a little enterprise and encouragement, he believed that the South (or a Mexico settled by southerners) would become a commercial crossroads connecting the Atlantic World, the Pacific Rim, and Latin America. Maury promoted railroads that would link southern cities, such as Memphis and Norfolk, to the Pacific Coast, allowing them to dominate Asian markets. His vision—based on precise calculations of mileage and distance—often overlooked how slavery and coercive labor institutions undermined long-term southern development. Maury's career thus demonstrated how the southern vision of a modern slaveholding economy would ultimately fail in real-world conditions.