Buchanan on Walker

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

The matter of Hiram Paulding’s December 8, 1857 arrest of William Walker came before the Congress on January 7, 1858, when James Buchanan forwarded an account of the events and copies of all relevant documents. The Old Public Functionary’s administration gave instructions, on the request of Central American ministers resident in New York, to foil Walker’s second Nicaragua expedition. Buchanan defended those instructions on the grounds of enforcing the Neutrality Act:

My opinion of the value and importance of these laws corresponds entirely with that expressed by Mr. Monroe, in his message to Congress of December 7, 1819. That wise, prudent, and patriotic statesman says: “It is of the highest importance to our national character and indispensable to the morality of our citizens that all violations of our neutrality should be prevented. No door should be left open for the evasion of our laws, no opportunity afforded to any who may be disposed to take advantage of it to compromit the interest or the honor of the nation.”

Not content to wrap himself in Monroe’s words, Buchanan added his own defense of the Neutrality Act:

The crime well deserves the severe punishment inflicted upon it by our laws. It violates the principles of Christianity, morality, and humanity, held sacred by all civilized nations, and by none more than by the people of the United States.

Except the people who formed the juries in New Orleans and San Francisco, Franklin Pierce’s administration, Pierre Soulé, James Buchanan, and the numerous financial backers and personal followers of filibusters like LópezQuitman, and other, less famous freebooters. But a politician must tell flattering lies, I suppose. Having told that whopper, Buchanan continued:

Disguise it as we may, such a military expedition is an invitation to reckless and lawless men to enlist under the banner of any adventurer to rob, plunder, and murder the unoffending citizens of neighboring States who have never done them harm. It is a usurpation of the war-making power, which belongs alone to Congress; and the Government itself, at least in the estimation of the world, becomes an accomplice in the commission of this crime, unless it adopts all the means necessary to prevent and punish it. It would be far better, and more in accordance with the bold and manly character of our countrymen, for the Government itself to get up such expeditions than to allow them to proceed under the command of irresponsible adventurers. We could then, at least, exercise some control over our own agents, and prevent them from burning down cities and committing other acts of enormity of which we have read.

Walker ordered his capital torched before he quit Nicaragua.

By tolerating such expeditions, we shall soon lose the high character which we have enjoyed ever since the days of Washington, for the faithful performance of our international obligations and duties, and inspire distrust against us among the members of the great family of civilized nations.

Lest one think Buchanan, chastened for his involvement in the Ostend Manifesto, repented his old ways, he goes on:

It is beyond question the destiny of our race to spread themselves over the continent of North America, and this at no distant day, should events be permitted to take their natural course. The tide of emigration will flow to the South, and nothing can eventually arrest its progress. If permitted to go there, peacefully, Central America will soon contain an American population, which will confer the blessings and benefits as well upon the natives as their respective Governments. Liberty, under the restraint of law, will preserve domestic peace; whilst the different transit routes across the isthmus, in which we are so deeply interested, will have assured protection.

Nothing has retarded this happy condition of affairs so much as the unlawful expeditions which have been fitted out in the United States to make war upon the Central American States. Had one half of the number of American citizens who have miserably perished in the first disastrous expedition of General Walker settled in Nicaragua as peaceful emigrants, the object which we all desire would ere this have been, in a great degree, accomplished.

In other words, infiltrate the country peacefully like the Texans did, then let us come and steal it at your invitation a few years down the road. It worked for Texas, after all. Given the weak local governments, they could probably take slaves with them and practice the institution freely until a local crackdown gave them pretense to call on Washington. Amateurs like Walker rightly aroused the distrust of Central Americans and so inclined them to learn from Mexico’s example rather than let the United States repeat it upon them.

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