Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Just Finished Reading

During my college years, I, like many undergraduate history students, read James McPherson's Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. In that excellent book McPherson set the scene for the coming of the conflict by driving home slavery's importance as the root issue of the conflict. In doing so he used as part of his evidence the filibuster expeditions that occurred in the late 1840s and through the 1850s that slavery's proponents attempted to extend the institution, not only to the western territories of the United States, but also to foreign countries such as Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua; with leading filibuster William Walker taking center stage in his narrative.

This expansion-fever phenomenon has since fascinated me, so I was pleased to locate and read Purdue University professor Robert E. May's book, Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. May takes an intimate look at these extralegal expansion expeditions that garnered much attention in period popular culture, significant popular support for their efforts and some political promotion.

Of course the term filibuster has a much different meaning to us today, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was a modification of French and Spanish words that were basically derivatives of a Dutch word for "freebooter." And, while the term 'filibuster" was coined with the rise of the expansion impulse, Americans' attempts to gain territory by private military conquests certainly predates the word by decades.

In Manifest Destiny's Underworld May looks at several of these private military expedition land-grabs and examines the motivations of the leader-organizers, their loyal followers and those who attempted to stop them, both foreign and domestic. Interestingly, May explains that not all of the filibuster supporters were from the South. The North too, especially in areas such as port cities such as New York City and Philadelphia had a fever for the potential of expanding America's principles and style of government to foreign countries. However, the majority of the targets were in the tropics and the best known leaders were native Southerners. Tennessean William Walker, Mississippian John A. Quitman and a host of followers from Southern states sought to establish American rule in places such as Nicaragua and Cuba.

None of the filibuster expeditions ultimately proved successful for long, but Walker did hold power as president of Nicaragua  for a time. May emphasizes that these private military efforts led to long-term strained relations in foreign relations with Latin American nations.  Many difficulties between the U.S. and a number of Central American and Caribbean nations dates back to this era of filibustering.

Of special interest to me was May's conclusion at end of the final chapter of the book. He states: "Filibustering, to be sure, hardly caused the Civil War. But during the late antebellum period, some Southerners became increasingly discouraged about slavery's future in the Union because of filibusters' constant setbacks; and on the eve of the war, northern memories of filibustering helped to stymie a compromise that might have averted the conflict. Had Americans never filibustered, the Union might have weathered the storm."

I highly recommend this fascinating study. One can hardly understand mid-nineteenth century American history without examining the filibuster expeditions. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Manifest Destiny's Underworld a 4.5.

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