The bizarre back story of the filibuster
As Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) dance around whether or not the Senate should end the filibuster’s stranglehold over legislation, it is instructive to recall the term’s linguistic roots and original meaning.
Derived from a Dutch word for freebooter (vrijbuiter), the word first appeared in English before the Civil War. In those days, when Americans spoke of filibusters, they meant private armed groups mounting criminal military expeditions against foreign countries from U.S. territory.
Not only were such invasions of other sovereignties illegal under the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1818; like piracy, they violated international law. Such assaults alarmed governments and legal theorists because they risked triggering unwanted wars. To grasp the danger, one only need ponder what might happen today if groups of Americans with AK-47s attacked Hong Kong on China’s coast or Russian positions in the Crimea. On Jan. 6, far-right extremists attacking the U.S. Capitol revealed in a domestic context the peril of escalation when random groups of armed private citizens assume the right to determine national policy by armed force. Filibusters before the Civil War put nations on both sides of the Atlantic in jeopardy of fighting unsought wars.
Throughout the nation’s history, starting long before the term was even coined, filibustering intruded into U.S. politics. Few Americans today are aware, despite all the focus on impeachment in the last year, that America’s first impeachment trial (during the John Adams administration) concerned an accused filibuster — U.S. Senator William Blount. That Tennessean was tried for organizing an invasion of Spanish North American territory beyond U.S. borders. Before the Civil War, almost all of America’s best remembered politicians — Clay, Calhoun, Lincoln, Douglas, Webster, Davis, Jackson, Polk, Seward among them — were compelled to stake out positions on filibustering, because the expeditions were simply so salient politically, diplomatically, and sectionally.
It is shocking to discover how many times in the 1840s and 1850s private American filibustering groups attacked foreign countries. These headline-grabbing aggressions were mostly aimed at Cuba (then a Spanish colony), Mexico, and Central American countries (where Britain still had colonial holdings). But rumors abounded that filibusters also planned invasions against other parts of the world, such as Ireland, then still part of the United Kingdom, and the independent kingdom of Hawaii. During the 1850s, any well-read American would have known who the filibusters were. Not only were they constantly in the news, but they turned up in novels, short stories, and theatrical productions, even sheet music.
Of all the filibusters, the one who conquered Nicaragua gained the greatest fame. William Walker, a well-educated Tennessean who wound up in California during the Gold Rush, launched several filibuster expeditions against Mexico and Central America before dying at the hands of a Honduran firing squad in 1860, a couple of months before Abraham Lincoln’s election as president.
Known as the “Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny” and the only American filibuster to take over a foreign land in the 1850s, Walker manipulated his own rise to Nicaragua’s presidency in a June 1856 election that might be instructive to modern congressional Republicans needing guidance in what “stolen elections” really look like. Prior to being booted out of Nicaragua in 1857 by an alliance of Central American countries, Walker legalized slavery there. A year after Walker’s expulsion, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln alluded to Walker indirectly when he indicted “filibustering” as the process of seeking “wider slave fields.”
Walker was not nationally known before turning filibuster. But John A. Quitman and a number of other filibusters did have national profiles. Today, one can find places named for Quitman throughout the South. A two-time governor of Mississippi, Quitman gained his greatest fame as a leading American general in the war with Mexico. Quitman led the U.S. Army into Mexico City in the war’s climactic battle, becoming the capital’s military governor during the U.S. occupation. Twice after the war he was a serious contender for the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nomination. On another occasion he ran for vice president on a third-party ticket. Between 1850 and 1855, Quitman help organize filibuster expeditions to wrest Cuba from Spain’s grasp, and — once it was independent — get the island annexed to the U.S. as one or more new states, following Texas’s precedent. For part of that time, he intended to personally command the filibuster army.
Later in the century, filibustering diminished, except for a brief revival in the Fenian movement to Canada during the Johnson and Grant administrations and a few plots against Cuba and Mexico, especially some expeditions to Cuba in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War. The term, though, by then was so embedded in the English language that rather than disappear it emigrated to new linguistic and very political terrain.
We should not be surprised that after the Civil War, when Americans had mostly had their fill of war, the term “filibustering” was increasingly attached to a different form of aggression — the idea of obstructing legislation by talking it to death.
As filibustering faded away as a word for military aggression, it naturally morphed into political applications for aggressively stalling laws. In fact, even before the Civil War, it was occasionally applied to obstruction in Congress by lengthy speechmaking.
Today, congressional filibustering doesn’t require interminable speechmaking — but it is still aggression.
That the term “filibustering” originated in criminal aggression, of course, hardly justifies its automatic disqualification in a political context. Throughout our history since the late 1800s, large numbers of lawmakers of diverse ideologies have embraced filibustering as a legitimate option in their legislative toolboxes.
But if we really believe, as the Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states, that Congress can legislate for the “general Welfare of the United States,” it is wrong to allow an undemocratic minority to perpetually cripple that power. Just as 19th century filibustering faded from public concern, so should its 21st century iteration.
Robert E. May, professor emeritus of history at Purdue University, is the author of “Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America” and other books and essays about filibusters. His most recent book is “Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory.”