The Filibuster Movement
n the 17th century, before the word 'filibuster' meant a legislatory delaying tactic, it referred to buccaneers who plundered the riches claimed by the Spaniards in the New World.
In the 1800s, the term took on new meaning, referring to a group of adventurers who, without the consent of the American government, tried to assume power in a number of Latin American and Caribbean countries. Filibusters were intent on overpowering the 'lesser peoples' despite neutrality laws that forbid Americans from privately engaging in warfare with other countries.
Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico were all victims of filibusters from 1830 to 1860.
Famous filibusters were larger than life characters such as Narciso Lopez, a Venezuelan-born soldier who, aided by sympathetic Southern money, liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule. He then attempted three times to free Cuba.
William Walker, a southerner from Tennessee, annexed parts of Mexico and named himself president. In his proclamation of control over Lower California (then part of Mexico), Walker explains why the territory was rightfully his, an explanation that neatly sums up the filibuster movement.
Thus abandoning the peninsula, and leaving it as it was "a waif on the waters," Mexico cannot complain if others take it and make it valuable. On such considerations have I and my companions-in-arms acted in the course we have pursued. And, for the success of our enterprise, we put our trust in Him who controls the destinies of nations, and guides them in the ways of improvement and progress.
Despite the vehement objections of the Mexican government and the anger of the U.S. authorities, many Americans thought this was a triumph for filibustering. However, Walker eventually gave up, finding it too difficult. He was tried by the U.S. and acquitted.
Walker then, along with 2,500 men, successfully took power in Nicaragua, legalized slavery there, and led the country for two years before an international team which included British and American troops removed him from power. Walker would attempt to reestablish himself as leader of Nicaragua twice leading to his death by court-martial.
Filibusters created enormous diplomatic rows for the U.S. government, taking them to the brink of war, especially with England. The U.S. authorities did what they could to discourage filibusters including threatening jail time, public denouncements, and seizing ships. But the small Army, thinly-spread over the burgeoning country, was hard pressed to patrol all of the ports.
The filibuster cause was successful largely thanks to a strong support base in the South. Parades were held in their honor, songs written and their adventures glorified. Walker and the other filibusters were seen as carrying out America's Manifest Destiny—the belief that America had an undeniable right to world expansion and domination.
The outbreak of the Civil War brought an end to the filibuster movement as everyone turned their attentions to defense of the North or South. Historians argue that the filibuster movement may have impacted the South's decision to secede from the Union. When Neutrality Laws were enforced by President Pierce during Lopez's invasion of Cuba, some southerners saw this as a plot against the South and slaveholding. One historian, Robert May, put it this way: "Had Americans never filibustered, the Union might have weathered the storm."