Daniel R. Miller
Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America
by Robert E. May
Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2002
426 pp.; $45
As I write this, an article in The New York Times describes how relatives of Americans who lost their lives in the September 11 terrorist attacks are suing the government of Saudi Arabia and members of the Saudi royal family for $100 trillion for aiding and abetting the attackers. Their aim, according to the article, is not primarily to obtain damages but to financially cripple the people and organizations that funded the terrorists. The Saudi government vigorously denies any links to the September 11 terrorists and points to its expulsion of Osama bin Laden from Saudi Arabia some years ago as proof of its innocence. The plaintiffs are not persuaded; they note that the terrorists openly channeled money through Saudi-based businesses and charities, making the Saudi government at least criminally negligent if not actually complicit in the events of September 11. Their lawsuit is certain to complicate relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Absent the lawsuit, these events bear an uncanny resemblance to an earlier campaign of international violence in which the U.S. government appeared to be complicit, or at least criminally negligent. The episode is thoroughly dissected in Robert E. May's new book, Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. In 1850s America, a "filibuster" was someone who invaded a neighboring country to overthrow its government and place himself in charge, often with the intention of having the territory annexed to the United States. The decade prior to the Civil War witnessed dozens of such schemes—and, preposterous as it seems now, at least one came close to success. In fact, if one includes events that occurred prior to and after the term "filibuster" was in vogue, several such endeavors were successful: newly arrived U.S. citizens proclaimed "republics" in Florida, Texas, California, and Hawaii and secured their admission into the Union, sometimes with and sometimes without the knowledge and encouragement of the U.S. government. Leaders of these successful movements often made out handsomely as real estate speculators, bond holders, and plantation owners, and some succeeded as state and even national politicians.
The filibusters of the 1850s, by contrast, all failed, but that does not mean that their actions were inconsequential. May notes that on two occasions efforts by filibusters to promote the independence of Cuba brought the U.S. close to war with Spain. Moreover, because they aroused suspicion of America's intentions among its Caribbean neighbors and European rivals, the filibusters probably impeded rather than advanced efforts by the U.S. government to buy Cuba from Spain or additional territory from Mexico. Filibustering also exacerbated the debate over slavery as it changed from a nationally popular crusade to promote republican revolutions throughout the world to a largely Southern effort to acquire new slave states in Latin America. May notes that President-elect Lincoln refused even to consider the "Crittenden Compromise" that would have extended the line between free and slave territories westward to the Pacific Ocean because he feared that it would tempt Southern expansionists to launch an endless series of filibustering expeditions.
May makes it clear that while filibustering was often treated as a farce in contemporary American popular culture, it was anything but comical for people living in areas chosen by the filibusters for their grandiose schemes. Mexico and Cuba were plagued with incursions that ended in bloody skirmishes. Nicaragua suffered the worst depredations. After the leader of one faction in a local civil war recruited a Tennessean named William Walker to help him defeat his rivals, Walker staged his own election as President and enticed more than 2,000 adventurers from the United States to join his effort to turn the country into a white slaveowners' republic. Hundreds of Central Americans fell in battle before the interlopers were forced out, and on Walker's orders the old colonial city of Granada was put to the torch by the retreating North Americans.
Nor was the experience all it was cracked up to be for the filibusters. The luckiest among them endured weeks or months of profitless boredom, waiting for the start of expeditions that never made it out of U.S. territory. Those who did make it to the field of operations generally found that they had been lied to about the pay, the healthfulness of the country, and the receptivity of the local citizenry to the filibusters' presence. Scores were captured and executed. Hundreds fell in battle or died of sickness. The survivors were often deposited unceremoniously in North American ports, famished and in rags, many badly injured or displaying the symptoms of tropical diseases. The execution of Walker himself by a Honduran firing squad in 1860 provided a singularly appropriate coda to this decade of military adventurism.
This is a fascinating story, but May's analytical approach makes for a rather jumbled presentation of events.1 What May does do well is to explore certain aspects of the topic, such as what motivated the rank and file among the filibuster armies.
As May describes them, most were young men who lacked attractive economic opportunities or were simply too impatient or too adventurous to pursue success in more conventional ways. In method and motivation they look less like the terrorists of the late 20th century than the conquistadors of the early 16th century, who fought for "God, gold, and glory." Like the conquistadors, they hoped to profit personally from their undertaking—the pay they were promised compared favorably with a laborer's wages and there was often the additional blandishment of free land.
Moreover the filibusters believed that that they were embarking on a glorious crusade to bring enlightened republican rule to places oppressed by distant colonial masters or venal local despots. Many filibusters displayed a deep strain of Anglo-Protestant contempt for the Hispano-Catholic people they encountered. Most viewed them as cowardly, lazy, ignorant, and racially inferior. It must have come as something of a shock to discover that the local people were quite capable of resisting the takeover of their lands by the dreaded North Americans, though for most filibusters it was an insight that came far too late and at too high a price to produce any good results.
As to the involvement of the U.S. government in the filibustering expeditions, May is once again a bit difficult to follow. He seems to believe that the government made a fairly serious effort to prevent filibustering but lacked the capacity to stamp out such a popular movement. His own evidence points to a more complex relationship between filibusters and officialdom. State and municipal governments, especially in the South, often winked at what filibusters were up to. A Mississippi governor was the official leader of one of the largest filibustering expeditions ever planned (it never quite got off the ground); he and other public officials allowed weapons stored in state facilities to "fall into the hands of" filibusters. By comparison, federal officials such as circuit court judges and military officers generally tried to stop the filibusters.
May could have drawn a sharper distinction between Whig and Democratic politicians. Democrats, particularly when they were out of office, tended to defend the filibusters' actions. More broadly, by their own actions in the recent war with Mexico and their ongoing efforts to buy territory along the southern border of the U.S., the Democratic administrations of Polk, Pierce, and Buchanan appeared to endorse the ends, if not the methods, of the filibusters. Whig politicians were much more likely to condemn the filibusters' actions, and much less likely to endorse the acquisition of new territory by any method. Of course, observers in Latin America and Europe found such distinctions rather trifling. Much like the plaintiffs in the current suit against Saudi Arabia, they viewed the filibusters' actions as an expression of the will of the American people and government.
Owing to its failures and excesses, filibustering was already losing its glamour by the eve of the Civil War. In 1861, most surviving filibusters joined the Confederate Army, where their martial inclinations were directed against their once and future fellow-countrymen. There's something fitting about such an end: in seeking to extend the slave empire by violence, filibusters helped to bring about its destruction by violence.
While history never truly repeats itself, one cannot but wonder if a similar fate awaits our generation's Islamic terrorists. More than a few commentators have argued that they represent a more direct threat to Middle Eastern governments than they do to the United States. Moreover, a growing number of voices in the Islamic world have begun to condemn the self-destructive culture of violence that the extremist groups promote.
That is not to say that the U.S. government should not be vigilant to avert future hostile acts. But it does suggest that in the "war against terrroism," the United States would be well advised to exercise a degree of patience and restraint. Lacking the pretext that U.S. military activity in their region affords them, the terrorists seem certain to lose influence as the sordid reality of their methods and the sterile unreality of their goals become evident to all but their most fervid supporters. At the very least, the story of the filibusters should humble Americans with the reminder that conspiracies to launch unprovoked attacks against neighboring states are not entirely foreign to us.
Daniel R. Miller is professor of history at Calvin College.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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1. Those wanting a narrative overview should consult Charles H. Brown's Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1980).
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