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Shadow Imperialism: American Filibusters in Latin America

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign Policy


Over the past several weeks of Historical Controversies, I’ve discussed the role of American filibustering expeditions as they related to the antebellum conflicts preceding the American Civil War. Because the current series is exploring the conflicts that led to disunion, the focus of the recent episodes was on the two major filibusters of the 1850s and the relationship between their expeditions and the slavery controversy.

But slavery was never the primary motivation behind filibustering in the nineteenth century. Although the filibusters of the 1850s couldn’t divorce their activities from the most prominent issue of the day, slavery was an ancillary motive, rather than a driving one. Narciso López and William Walker’s exploits are thus helpful in understanding the antebellum conflicts, but it would be misleading to characterize filibustering according to any position on slavery. There were many filibusters prior to the 1850s, when slavery was a less contentious issue.

The real political force behind filibustering was imperialism.

In the early days of the new republic, there were already people who dreamed of expanding the country by liberating territories ruled by colonial powers. Although such motivation was far less widespread than the modern devotion to “making the world safe for democracy,” as the interventionist president Woodrow Wilson put it, the basic premise was similar. The primary difference between early republic filibustering expeditions and late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism is the role the government had in such expansionist dreams.

Prior to the great centralization of federal power and the increased acceptance of the proper scope of government that grew out of the Civil War and the Lincoln administration, it was widely agreed that the role of the federal government was specifically limited. Although there was dispute over the particularities of such limitations as early as the George Washington administration, the limitation of federal power and jurisdiction was taken for granted. Thus, the early imperialists had a great obstacle in gaining government support.

It is for this reason that the concept of “filibustering” came up at all. Filibusters, historically defined, were “private military expeditions who invaded the domain of countries at peace with the United States."1 That they were “private” is important, but it can also easily be misinterpreted. Filibustering militaries formed privately precisely because the supporters of expansion could not use the government to impose these ambitions on the unwilling taxpayers, conscripts, or foreign territories. The anti-libertarian naysayer might look at the “private” aspect of the filibusters as an indictment against privatization of security, but for the self-proclaimed “anti-imperialist left,” it’s worth noting that the historical precedent suggests that successful imperialism depends on a robust and expansive government.

The first federal impeachment trial, in fact, was the result of revelations that Tennessee Senator William Blount was planning to participate in a filibuster in 1797. The Senate eventually resolved that it had no authority to decide the case, so Blount was not convicted, but the tension between private and public expansionist goals was clearly already established in the late eighteenth century. In 1818, the passage of the Neutrality Act made the tension even more acute because it declared filibustering activities to be indisputably illegal. However, because many politicians still privately supported such expansionist endeavors, enforcement of the Neutrality Act fluctuated with changes in administration.

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Spanish colonies were revolting against Spain, creating an environment that some filibusters thought provided an opportunity for expansion, or even the establishment of their own small independent country. Augustus Magee, a US Army officer, led an 1812 invasion of Texas. A similar expedition was carried into Florida in 1817. The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 put Florida into the hands of the US government, but outrage over the terms of the treaty led some southerners to attempt another invasion of Texas.

Federal complicity in filibustering escapades was a precedent established before the 1818 Neutrality Act, and George Mathews was the greatest beneficiary of such collusion. He was a primary character in the Patriot War of East Florida, and his Patriots enjoyed cooperation from the US Army and Navy when James Madison was president. At one point, US troops even took occupation of a Spanish settlement in Florida, and the Navy aided the siege of St. Augustine. George Mathews and his filibusters gave the federal government an avenue for circumventing the requirement to get a declaration of war from Congress — which never would have passed at this time — so that the military could be used under the auspice of aiding American citizens.

After the Neutrality Act, such cooperation with the federal government was more difficult to obtain, but filibuster-friendly administrations were able to selectively enforce the Neutrality Act. The second major wave of filibustering attempts came during the 1830s, the most significant of which was the successful Texas Revolution that paved the way for Texas’s eventual annexation by the United States. The filibuster began as an uprising against the Mexican government by Anglo-Americans, but as word spread in the United States, sympathetic expansionists flocked to participate.

Less successful filibustering attempts came in the late 1830s when a handful of expeditions were launched in Canada. The southern expeditions enjoy more historical attention because of their success, but the Canadian expeditions are important in refuting the common filibustering stereotype that such expansionist attempts were a peculiarly southern phenomenon. Although the Canadian filibusters failed, their hope was to establish an Independent Republic of Lower Canada.

Slavery and filibustering were related only in circumstantial cases. The motivation for a Texas uprising against Mexica was driven at least in part by the opposition to Mexico’s law against slavery, but it was certainly not the sole motivation. Other filibustering expeditions were not even remotely influenced by the issue of slavery.

As I point out in the Historical Controversies episodes on the topic, even the filibustering exploits of Narciso López and William Walker were not driven by slavery. But because the controversy over slavery had emerged as the single most significant issue of the 1850s, no other political movement could be completely divorced from it. If López and Walker wanted support from southerners — which was the more militaristic section of the country at the time — they had to at least tolerate the expansion of slavery as an outcome of their expeditions.

The desire to annex Cuba provides a strong case for the fact that the only reason that filibustering died out was because the federal government — enjoying an expansion of power —– was able to take up the mantle of territorial expansion following the Civil War. Narciso López led a band of filibusters into Cuba to liberate it from Spain, but the American volunteers who joined him clearly wanted the annexation of Cuba, and so did many US politicians. The annexation of Cuba was even placed in both the northern and southern Democratic Party platforms for the election of 1860. After the Civil War, the desire for Cuba would remain, but it would be achieved not by filibusters, but instead by the newly imperialistic federal government.

  • 1. Robert E. May, Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. xv.

Chris Calton

Chris Calton is an economic historian and a former Mises Research Fellow. He was the writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

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