Too Magnificent to Build

William Gwin (D-CA)

William Gwin (D-CA)

If a majority favored the transcontinental railroad, but differed over where to build it, then why not satisfy everyone? Tennessee-born California Senator William McKendree Gwin proposed just that. The main route could go across New Mexico and North Texas, which would make Southern promoters happy. To that he added spur lines reaching San Francisco and Puget Sound, terminals preferred by Stephen Douglas and Asa Whitney. For eastern terminals, Gwin proposed Council Bluffs, Iowa, Kansas City, and somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico.

Why not? The United States, a young nation full of ambition, had only a few years before waged one of the most successful wars of conquest in history. Surely it could build a railroad. How hard could it be? Gwin’s proposal required 5,115 miles of rail and 97,536,000 acres of land, but that proved too rich even for the heady optimism of the nineteenth century. Even committed railroad advocates balked at the price. Michigan’s Lewis Cass declared it “too magnificent” for his blood.

All of that meant that someone would have to lose and nobody in Congress wanted to go home and tell the voters that they ensured someone else got all the riches that a terminal on the great Pacific railroad would have brought. Texas Senator Thomas Rusk proposed that Congress pass the buck by passing a bill to have the president choose the route and terminals. The contract to build the railroad would go to the winner of a bidding competition. By February, 1853, the Rusk bill looked like a done deal.

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

But not everyone had Rusk’s confidence in signing the decision over to Franklin Pierce with his Southern politics and Southern cabinet. Rusk had always pressed for a southerly route himself. Had he accepted leaving the decision to someone else or did Rusk’s proposal really rest on the confidence that Pierce would decide to give him the route he wanted?

Whatever Rusks’ motives, voting the decision out of the hands of Congress also meant voting away the chance to take home a secure win. Those concerns aligned with Lewis Cass’ new objection that the Congress ought not fund the construction of a railroad within the bounds of a state. Cass had a point. The Constitution permitted the national government to buy land within a state, but only with that state’s consent. The demands of geography could put Congress into a serious bind as the states saw dollar signs and demanded high prices for surrendering land that a route could not do without.

James Shields of Illinois heard in Cass’ concern an opportunity. He put his head together with Douglas and Missouri’s Henry S. Geyer and the three offered an apparently innocent amendment prohibiting any appropriation for the railroad from going to buy land within any extant state. Any railroad from New Orleans, Memphis, Vicksburg, or any other Southern state east of the Mississippi would have to cross the length of Texas before it hit the territories where Congress could do as it pleased. Southern support for the Rusk bill promptly evaporated, leaving the Southern route proposals dead in the water.


United and Divided by Rail

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas’ railroad, like Asa Whitney’s, did not leap at once into existence. All the usual political considerations confounded matters. Why should Eastern states, which already had a perfectly good infrastructure, spend tremendous sums on a railroad to benefit the West and Far West? Such a public works project would enhance the power of the federal government and that new power would not expressly serve the interests of slavery and its expansion. That brought skeptics out in the Southeast. Old school agrarians of Jeffersonian bent deplored making the West safe for mechanics, manufactures, and iron instead of for small farmers. Only in the Mississippi valley and further west had a strong consensus that a railroad must join the nation together.

That western consensus had adherents in North and South, who saw the West as the future for slavery or for the yeoman farmer respectively. It joined expansion-minded farm interests, who looked to the opening of virgin lands on the cheap, to commercial magnates with minds tuned to the machinery of industrial capitalism. By uniting the sections, the railroad avoided entanglement with slavery. As a western issue instead of a Southern or Northern issue, it ought to entirely slip past the sectional deadlock. When he presented his compromise measures, Henry Clay advocated them as a man of the west speaking for the west as a section of its own. Seward called the West a third section when debating Calhoun. Room thus existed in the rhetorical universe of the mid-1800s for a third section. The rail could be the first great issue that brought it together. With its inherent connection to internal expansion, a western section would tie into deep currents in American thought that ensured it allies elsewhere.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Yet no West emerged to vie with North and South or serve as a broker between them. The same west that united behind the railroad immediately split on where it should go. Stephen Douglas wanted it to run from Chicago, where he and his constituents stood with pockets eagerly open, just waiting for the rain of money to arrive. While they waited, they pushed out lines from Chicago in the hopes of linking up later on. But in St. Louis other men stood with Senator Thomas Hart Benton, their pockets just as open and held large railroad conventions.

New Orleans, so often the center of commercial-minded expansionism, stood at first apart in the hope that the rail would never come and so commerce would flow down the Mississippi and through her port before crossing the Central American isthmus, whichever one proved convenient, on its way to and from California. Pierre Soulé and Judah Benjamin involved themselves with a railroad across the isthmus of Tehuantepec. But the Crescent City, if it could not have the old order continue forever, preferred to hitch itself to the future and eventually entered the lobbying itself.

Other cities quickly got on the bandwagon, with promoters convincing local leaders eager for convincing on the project and profit from it that their homes, not those other cities, had the ideal geography for the great Pacific railroad. If not Chicago, why not Quincy, Illinois? If not St. Louis, why not Memphis, Tennessee? The idea did not die with Congressman Douglas’ failed bill in the 1840s, but instead came up for every Congress thereafter. Each time advocates of the routes not chosen in a particular bill united to crush it.

The Little Giant’s Railroad

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Asa Whitney’s dreams of conquering the world with the commerce that flowed down the railroad he would build, with generous land grants, from Milwaukee to the Columbia river did not come to pass. Americans could not agree to a state-run railroad, even if they had long survived a state-run postal service that served many of the same goals of the transcontinental railroad by securing communications and providing ample opportunity for patronage.

The United States rarely suffered corporations in those days, distrusting their ability to concentrate wealth and limit risk. But the republic did endure joint stock companies to create and operate local infrastructure, often for a term of years. When those years ran out, the legislature that granted the charter would review it and if satisfied or adequately compensated vote to continue the contract. So it made good sense to nineteenth century Americans that the nation would hire out the work to private business, if not to Whitney’s sole proprietorship.

Young Stephen Douglas certainly thought so. All of thirty-two and serving his first term in the House, as the first representative of Illinois’ new 5th district, he advocated for a railroad like Whitney’s not a year after the New Yorker’s original 1844 proposal. The Little Giant, sixteen years Whitney’s junior, had no patience for such geriatric limping along as Whitney’s plan to build the railroad out of revenue from land sales along its route. Douglas would build the road first and build it fast, drawing settlement along instead of having it drawn along by settlement.

Whitney’s route would not suffice either. The transcontinental railroad should begin at Chicago, just coincidentally Douglas’ constituency, and proceed west. Instead of reaching the Columbia, Douglas would end his railroad in San Francisco. The City by the Bay presented the small impediment of a location hundreds upon hundreds of miles into Mexico, but Douglas allowed with a knowing wink that in time the United States might annex the necessary land. This Douglas wrote on October 15, 1845, before Texas’ annexation and more than six months before the outbreak of war, but just as Zachary Taylor marched his men into the disputed territory on Texas’ border.

Proceeding west from Chicago or Milwaukee alike involved surmounting another obstacle. The Nonintercourse Act of 1834 declared:

That all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi, and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas, and, also, that part of the United States east of the Mississippi river, and not within any state to which the Indian title has not been extinguished, for purposes of this act, be taken and deemed to be the Indian country.

Within Indian country, no one but Indians and authorized agents of the US government could go. You could not trade there without a special license. You could not buy from or sell to the Indians without that license. You could not hunt there or trap there. You could not use the land to graze your livestock. Violating any of the manifold provisions on non-Indian activity in Indian country meant at least a fine, often forfeiture of assets involved in the violation, and could result in your eviction by force. You could not buy land from the Indians in Indian country. You couldn’t even survey it.

Indian country ran right through the middle of both Douglas’ and Whitney’s planned routes to the Pacific. No railroad company could buy that land, survey it, develop it, or settle it. But the nineteenth century had a perfectly legal solution to that problem, used many times in the past: Congress could simply organize a new territory, specify its borders, and remove it from Indian country. Young Douglass proposed just that, drawing up a bill to organize the territory west of Iowa, itself previously separated from Indian country, and organize the new territory under the Indian name Nebraska.

Not yet even a Senator, let alone the floor manager of the Armistice or chair of the Committee on Territories, the Little Giant did not see his bill make it to the floor of the House.

Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly said Douglas’s bill made it to the floor of the House. It did not.

Laying Rail for World Domination

Asa Whitney, railroad promoter

Asa Whitney, railroad promoter

Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, saw the potential rewards of a transcontinental railroad early on and described them in an 1848 memorial to Congress:

our continent is placed in the centre of the world; Europe, with 250 millions of population, on one side, and all Asia on the other side of us, with 700 millions of souls. […] this proposed road will change the present route for all the vast commerce of all Europe with Asia, bring it across our continent, make it the world tributary to us, and, at the lowest tolls, give us 25 millions of dollars per annum for transit alone. It would bind Oregon and the Pacific coast to us, and forever prevent the otherwise inevitable catastrophe of a separate nation growing up west, to rise at our decline, and control us and the world. It would open the vast markets of Japan, China, Polynesia, and all Asia to our agricultural, manufacturing, and all other products. It would open the wilderness to the husbandman, and take the products of the soil to all the markets of the world. It would make available and bring into market lands now too remote from civilization, and all millions of wealth to the nation. The labor of the now destitute emigrant would grade the road, and purchase him a home, where comfort and plenty would surround all. Man’s labor would receive its proper reward, and elevate him from inducement to vice and crime. It would unite and bind us together as one family, and the whole world as one nation, giving us the control over all and making all tributary to us.

Whitney certainly got a bit carried away there, but the commercial and political benefits made sense to all sections even if they did not result in global domination. The new American West, the fruit of the South’s campaign against Mexico and gateway to hoped-for future expansions, required consolidation. California might have slipped into the Union free and undivided, curse it, but slavery could still have a future in the New Mexico and Utah territories and, with some luck, Baja California, Sonora, or other points south of the Rio Grande. For the North, the usual constellation of farming and industrial interests wanted the railroad to open the frontiers to further, speedier settlement. Both sections, naturally, teemed with people who wanted to ride the railroad to riches.

But how could a project of that magnitude, civil engineering on a scale unheard of in the mid-nineteenth century, come to pass? The cost of the railroad and the land it would run on, dwarfed all the previous canals and rails stretched across the nation. While railroads, canals, and riverboats added up to a kind of big business in the early 1800s, to span the continent would demand a bigger business than any before. Whitney had a plan for that too.

From Lake Michigan to the Columbia River, or to Puget Sound, Whitney would build the railroad with his own two hands. A classic self-starting free enterprise entrepreneur of the nineteenth century, Whitney would work these wonders with nothing but a massive government handout: A strip of land sixty miles wide from the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan to the Pacific. No need to survey; Whitney would do it himself. No need to sell the land to Whitney at the normal price either, since much of it had little real value and his personal project would double as a tremendous national asset. Sixteen cents an acre would do nicely, thank you. Whitney would resell the land he didn’t need for the railroad itself to fund its construction, moving forward as the money came in. The High Plains and Rocky Mountains, Whitney suspected, would not bring in great piles of money. But Whitney assured Congress that he could build the whole railroad on the profits from selling the eight hundred miles of good land out to the Missouri River.

At the end, fifteen or twenty-five years down the line, he would hand over to the United States a railroad all its own, run by the government at great profit without the nation having to spend a dime to build it. Whitney made a fortune, the nation got a railroad, and everybody went home happy. Congress needed only act swiftly, before the speculators snapped up all the good land on the route’s eastern end.

Why a railroad?

James Polk

James K. Polk

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers drained the American West. Even after James K. Polk painted the continent red, white, and blue all the way to the Pacific those vast, empty lands might as well rest across a great sea. Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin represented the far western frontier beyond which lions, dragons, or at the very least hostile Indians, stood against the white man’s destiny. That first band of states may, given the turmoil over the future of the Mexican Cession that nearly broke the Union and left both sections staring daggers at each other, have remained the final frontier of white America for years longer.

But California had gold and so many a young man seeking his fortune rushed to the land where free money lay on the ground, begging for an owner. That population boom made California a state geographically part of North America but almost an island to itself. One could take the dangerous, laborious overland journey from the Mississippi valley to the gold. But the gold could not last forever and delay meant someone else could come and take the gold Forty-Niners had in their dreams before it could reach their pockets. The smart pioneer did not hitch up a wagon and go West. He took passage on a ship from New York, New Orleans, or some other American port to the isthmus of Panama, to Nicaragua, or to the isthmus of Tehuantepec. That last took one less out of the way, but required a longer overland journey. Panama required the largest detour short of Cape Horn. Nicaragua, with Cornelius Vanderbilt’s service in place, gave a happy medium where the overland journey could come down to all of twelve miles.

Going the long, but fast way made good sense, but it also left the West Coast largely cut off from the rest of the nation and communication with it subject to the whims of a series of unstable, questionable, and simply foreign powers. A railroad on American soil would simultaneously open the floodgates to white settlement of the West by reducing the time and cost to get there, consolidate American control over those vast spaces, and bring them securely into communication with the rest of the country without requiring any concessions to a foreign power or any additional territorial expansion to further strain the already-ragged Union.

But how could the nation do that? Southern, most especially Southeastern, opposition had long foiled any hopes of an ambitious national infrastructure program. Individual states sold bonds to fund canals and subsidize railroads. Those networks, in the North, linked Chicago to the East Coast and reduced the importance of New Orleans to Midwestern commerce. But the national government barely got together a few short, by modern standards, trunk roads and the resources necessary to link the Mississippi and the Pacific exceed the means, reach, and power of any state.

Americans sometimes have a gift for ignoring such practical troubles, largely to our despair. The prospect of money, of course, helps ease those worries. For towns in the Midwest and out in the West, ending up on the railroad would mean a huge economic boom. The same prospects fueled rounds of fevered land speculation. The land one bought today one could sell to the railroad at a massive profit. If one didn’t want to sell, one could set up businesses along the way to service the assets which would flow over the rails or provide services to those who came with them. The transcontinental railroad would increase the value of any real estate nearby.

The railroad would in a single stroke consolidate the great American continental empire and make many of its citizens rich. It could even dampen the ardor of the filibusters, redirecting expansionist energies to internal campaigns against Indians and wilderness instead of foreign countries. It would bring government and manifest destiny boosters together instead of setting some of them at loggerheads. It offered something to everybody.

Provided, of course, the nation could find some way to make it happen and agree on how and where. Those practical troubles would destroy the final sectional settlement just four years after it came into force.

Other Southern Reasons not to Expand

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Motives aside political calculus played a role in inspiring Southerners to stand against expansion. The commercial interests of the planter class did not necessarily line up with any kind of sectional political imperatives. Despite the fears of the radicals, vast tracks of Texas and Arkansas remained almost untouched. In time, more of Florida might see clearing. Alabama still had arable land not turned into plantations. Only in South Carolina had cotton cultivation probably reached its natural limits. The South still had internal frontiers to expand, to say nothing of any expansion into the Great Plains or the Caribbean Basin.

But set aside for a moment the land hunger: what if the filibusters won and brought in new slave states in the tropics? Tropical crops, and of course slaves, formed the backbone of the Southern economy. But the balmy American South would then face competition from the balmier still Caribbean basin. Taking Cuba could destroy Louisiana and Texas sugar profits, which already depended on a tariff that could not protect those states against a suddenly domestic product. Those planters might have to convert to cotton, which could drive prices down elsewhere.  If the Caribbean ended up more focused on cotton, the same problem presented itself.

Cuba, annexed full of slaves, could crash the prices of slaves in the South and so wreck the Upper South’s lucrative export and the chief asset most planters, who often saw land more as an expense akin to seed than an asset in itself. The slaves cost more to acquire, after all. Even in the Lower South’s great economic boom, planters found themselves constrained less by available land than by available labor to work it. The Upper South could not supply enough slaves fast enough, which in turn played into racial fears about the future of whites in a South where it did.

That combination of economic need and racial fear gave impetus to the movement to reopen the African slave trade and to the dissenters from the same. But in the field of expansion, the fears also placed stronger limits on dreams for a Caribbean empire. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Seccessionists Triumphant has Calhoun expressing them:

John C. Calhoun a decade previously, when opposing the annexation of all of Mexico, had anticipated this foreboding about spreading slavery into polyglot areas, “More than half of the Mexicans are Indians,” he had winced, “and the other half is composed chiefly of mixed tribves. I protest against such a union as that!”

To that Freehling adds Calhoun’s fellow Carolinian, James Gadsden, of Gadsden Purchase fame:

You could not place a more irritating [cancer] on the Body Politic of our Federation than the annexation of Mexico-we have trouble enough with 3 millions of Africans.”

Worse still, what about all of Cuba’s free blacks? Or the Afro-Caribbean blacks who settled on the Nicaragua coast under British protection? Any free black could frighten a committed slavery booster, but thousands upon thousands? Would William Walker and his fellow filibusters have it in them to re-enslave those men and women in the name of white security? The racially hierarchical worldview that helped sustain slavery in the minds of the white South depended on status remaining static and exceptions to the rule that blacks labored and whites enjoyed the fruits of that labor kept to the margins where one could pretend they simply did not exist.

The racially mixed Caribbean, like beating heart of the expansionist movement in racially deviant New Orleans, could bring down that whole order. Nineteenth century America, North and South alike, belonged to whites. So many mixed-race people would invite both further racial amalgamation and admit the racially impure into the halls of power. White Charleston already couldn’t tell mixed-race people on sight and so demanded they wear veils. What would the balmy, sensual (many appeals to recruit filibusters mentioned women both beautiful and willing), Catholic, Latin, Creole, Indian, and Black Caribbean offer? Whites forced to share power and not even confident that everyone who appeared white actually had the proper racial credentials for admission to proper society.

With a far different outlook on race, we can neglect those concerns as irrelevant or marginal but to many nineteenth century Americans they struck to the very heart of their identities, to say nothing of their personal safety.

Opposing Expansion in the South

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

With foreknowledge of the war to come, our attention naturally focuses on figures and ideas prominent in that later struggle. They did, after all, carry off a civil war that killed upwards of six hundred thousand people barely a decade after the Armistice. Naturally one tends to think of the ringleaders and prominent figures in the Confederacy as representatives of the South in the years prior. Likewise, one tends to think of the politics of the antebellum Southern radicals as the politics of the leading confederates as well. Political calculation, if nothing else, seems predestined to put filibusters, nullifiers, expansionists, and secession conspirators all together in the same bed. Whatever one’s personal opinions, one should not lightly frustrate the interests of a significant number of one’s constituents. One might pay that cost in elections lost.

But people in the past had all the complexities of people today. They did not owe fealty to some historian’s model of a Southern politician. Jefferson Davis would defend William Walker against Hiram Paulding, but William W. Freehling quotes his anti-filibustering bona fides in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant:

Jefferson Davis, for example, expected the United States to control the entire hemisphere “in the remote future.” Yet he noted that we had always “obtained territory … fairly, honorably, and peaceably.” We must be able to “invite the world to scrutinize our example of representative liberty.” Likewise, the Aberdeen (Mississippi) Sunny South demanded “annexation” be consistent “with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

Little separates either of those positions, however tolerant of Walker, from Buchanan’s condemnation of filibustering. Davis might not have turned up his nose at a failed Walker, but the goal of filibustering always amounted to handing over a new land and then daring the mother country to refuse it. Would the United States really give back Cuba, Nicaragua, or another piece of Mexico when a filibuster handed it over? John Tyler and James Polk hardly did so.

Freehling goes on to note that Southern congressmen voted 52-20 to condemn Paulding’s arrest. New Orleans juries could look at the majority and imagine the section behind them when they acquitted the Quitmans and Walkers of the world, but those twenty votes in favor of the arrest amounted to 27.78% of their caucus. Some of the South stood with the filibusters and some did not.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Why? Some certainly had scruples about international law. Some had to fret over how uncontrolled filibusters could embroil the nation in dangerous conflicts, circumventing domestic politics just as they did foreign. But what if Walker kept Nicaragua and no one came? If no Southerners relocated, bringing slaves with them, how long would an American Nicaragua remain a slave state? Every state that had slavery and abolished it first had rather few slaves. A Nicaragua with only a tiny slave presence could come into the Union as another Delaware and soon abandon the South by transforming itself into another New Jersey. The Lower South worried endlessly that Delaware, Maryland, and even Kentucky and Missouri would jump ship for those reasons.

Adding an enslaved Nicaragua might give a temporary respite that foreshadowed greater calamities. The Border States and Upper South already sent a tide of slave exports down into the Lower South. Opening up a vast new land for slavery could mean a great acceleration of those exports, bringing those old slave states on the Chesapeake and Ohio past the tipping point where they emancipated. The outcome of a successful filibuster might not mean simply gaining one new slave state, it might mean instead gaining one new free state, or gaining one new slave state at the expense of losing as many as three or four.

William Walker’s Politics

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

I have tagged posts about Walker as proslavery, but that puts my thumb on the scale a bit. My sources, both older and more recent, do not treat him as a consistently proslavery figure. In The Impending CrisisDavid Potter writes:

Walker’s experience also offers an insight into the relationship between filibustering and slavery. The Man of Destiny was, of course, from a slave state, and he accepted slavery as a matter of course, but there is no evidence that he was dedicated to the expansion of slavery, and the impulse of some historians to picture him as a minion of the “slave power” reflects a failure to recognize that Walker may have been exploiting the proslavery elements, instead of their exploiting him. In September 1856, with defeat staring him in the face, Walker revoked the decrees of the former Federation of Central American states which had abolished slavery in Nicaragua, and in 1860, in his book The War in Nicaragua, he pictured his republic as a potential field for the expansion of slavery. But in both cases, it is clear, he was trying to win desperately needed support for his own personal rule in Nicaragua. Until this need arose, his history had been simply an adventure story, a drama of daring and conquest to fulfill the glorious destiny of a superman rather than to serve the interests of a section.

William W. Freehling agrees in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant:

This latest casualty not of Yankee presidents but of Latin executioners was only occasionally more proslavery than López. William walker preferred free soil California, his most common American residence in the 1950s, to enslaved New Orleans, where he restively spent the late 1840s. The “Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” never held slaves, never farmed, never married, never owned land, never settled in any profession, never stayed in any community.


The shy dreamer, always wrapped (even on the battlefield) in an enormous preacher’s frock coat, never preached a proslavery syllable in his conquered land or legalized Nicaraguan slavery until his hold on the country had slipped, a year after he seized power. His speeches down south on proslavery Caribbean adventuring came only after his support in New York and San Francisco capitalistic circles had dried up.  […] His first soldiers were failed gold dusters, not enterprising slaveholders. His Nicaraguan army ultimately enrolled as many foreign-born was southern-born troops and more northern-born soldiers. His men were scarcely ever slaveholders, rarely farmers, usually the poor young sports in the cities where capitalistic merchants financed his flings in Nicaragua.

Faced with those facts, I don’t see Walker himself as a proslavery diehard. He comes off more as a restless glory hound and opportunist, with most of his men falling under the same category. But I hold that his expeditions amounted to proslavery efforts, even if they did not begin with that specific goal. Certainly many of Walker’s financiers and admirers saw them as a way to expand slavery. As a Southerner quite comfortable with slavery, would Walker stand in its way if Nicaragua remained his and Southern settlers rushed in and demanded slavery come with them? Possibly yes, as some Southerners did oppose slavery and seek its end, but his lack of past commitments on the matter hardly argues for that outcome. The same pragmatism that led him to wrap himself in slavery when he came to dire straits would almost certainly prompt Walker to do the same to consolidate a more successful regime. Walker would get a proslavery result from political calculation, since his own apparent disinterest in the subject would hardly motivate him to swim against the current.

One can also read the timing of Walker’s repeal of Nicaragua’s abolition differently. When Walker first seized power, of necessity he had a coalition with the Nicaraguans he joined with on arrival. He had to share power with them and, to some degree, the Nicaraguans he defeated as well. That may have limited his ability to act on any proslavery impulses he had at the time. When they deserted him, Walker finally had a free hand on top of his desperation. I can only speculate on that and must defer to his biographers, but it at least seems reasonable that as Walker took slavery for granted, he could take its introduction equally for granted. He certainly did when he seized Lower California and adopted Louisiana’s laws for his new Republic.

I emphasize, however, that I only speculate in the previous. As I wrote a while back, when I disagree with the experts readers should probably trust them instead of me.

Brown on Walker, Part Two

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Not content to dispute William Walker’s arrest on the grounds that he broke no law, Mississippi’s Albert Gallatin Brown continued on to blast Paulding for violating Nicaraguan sovereignty, acknowledging and dismissing the fact that he did so at the request of that country, which saw his actions as no violation at all:

It is no excuse, to me, to say that Nicaragua does not complain. That suggestion opens up a wide field for investigation. I might reply that Walker has been invited to that country to take part in a civil war, that the party with whom he acted had triumphed, that he was lawfully elected President of the Republic of Nicaragua, that his Government de facto had been recognized by the United States; and that, by the interference of another naval officer, he had been brought out of the country. True, it was said then that it was a matter of grace to him. How that was, I am not now going to inquire. But he was claiming to be the rightful President of the Republic of Nicaragua. Patriotic men -not lawless and piratical, as is now charged, but patriotic men- in the southern and southwestern States, in the western and northern states, said: “We will join you, and go and help you snatch back again the rights which have been lawlessly taken from you.” I might go into all that, and show that Walker, the recognized de facto President of Nicaragua, was but pursuing, as he had a legal right to do, the recovery of that which had been lawlessly taken from him when he was thus arrested.

Brown dismissed the entire case against filibustering. Filibustering did not break the law, so long as the filibusters took even the slightest precautions. Filibustering did not count as piracy, and so Paulding could not claim the customary universal jurisdiction over Walker and his men. The Nicaraguans could not forgive Paulding’s transgression of their territory, as Walker constituted the only authority capable of that. Furthermore, Walker’s expedition only sought to restore the power wrongly taken from him by force. That Walker gained the same power by force hardly mattered.

To finish off, Brown inverted the case against filibustering on the grounds of keeping the peace:

If it is right to invade Nicaragua, which is a weak state, it is right to invade New Granada. How shall we appear before the world, on the one side, in bringing New Granada only one year ago down into the very dust to indemnify us for an assault made by a lawless mob against American citizens passing over that isthmus, and on the other, excusing or justifying the invasion of Nicaragua committed by this armed force? If it is right to invade New Granada, it is right to invade Brazil. There is hardly a nation or State south of the United States that is self-sustaining, much less one that can resist a serious invasion by the people of the United States, or by such emigrants as might arm themselves and go abroad for that purpose.

If it is right for us to invade these States, or suffer our citizens to do so, then it is right for the States which join us to invade us also.

To stop a filibuster amounted to the same as permitting him. Tolerating a filibuster boiled down to endorsing it. Making the Caribbean safe from filibusters meant filibustering the lot and we should expect invasions in return. Those lines must have strained even a veteran politician’s capacity for mental gymnastics. But ultimately, whatever road he took to reach it, Brown came to the conclusion that filibusters ought to operate with every feature of impunity save the name and a few empty fig leaves.

Brown for Walker, Part One

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

I began with Jefferson Davis for the obvious reasons, but Davis, like Buchanan, did not throw in whole hog with the filibusters. He opposed Paulding’s arrest of Walker, but like Buchanan and Stephen Douglas preferred to legally buy new territory or seize it in a proper war rather than trusting to highwaymen on a geographic scale. Davis’s fellow Mississippian, Albert Gallatin Brown, did not have quite the same set of scruples. He rose after Davis to stake out a more extreme position:

If Walker has fitted out an expedition against Nicaragua, or any other country at peace with the United States, he has violated the law; but if he has girt his arms about him and voluntarily gone aboard a ship going to the coast of Nicaragua, avowing to all the world that he was going there to wage war against the Government, I hold he had the right to do so. In that there is no fitting out of an expedition. I hold it to be my right under the law, to-day, to take my musket upon my shoulder, go and tell the President and his Secretary of War, his district attorneys and his marshals, everywhere, that I mean, thus accoutered, to go and take part against Nicaragua, and they have no power to arrest me. If one has the right to go, two, three, four, five, or even five hundred have the right in the same manner, each going upon his individual account.


if you had a law to punish the intention to fit out an expedition beyond the limits of the Union, you might get hold of Walker -for that is all that he has done. He has gathered his material in New York, New Orleans, and Mobile, and perhaps other points; he has taken them man by man beyond the limits of the Union, and there fitted out his expedition, and gone to Nicaragua. In that, there has been no violation of law, because there is nothing in the law to punish the intention to fit out an expedition, if the expedition was fitted out beyond the Union.

With that formulation, one would have to work fairly hard to violate the Neutrality Act. Senator Brown couldn’t find it in himself to say where the line lay. Where did emigration end and fitting out an expedition begin? Davis at least hinted that a sufficiently large number of men might trip the law, even if that number had exceed that of most Army commands of the time. Brown countenanced at least as many as five hundred declaring that they would go abroad to filibuster and leaving together. Davis at least feigned ignorance; Brown embraced their purpose as their sacred right as American citizens.

Brown had a point too. While he and Davis certainly argued from political expediency, in the nineteenth century virtually no nation had any kind of permanent border controls to keep its populace in. Those largely developed during the First World War. If an American wanted to leave, gun in hand, he or she could do just that. The Texans had, after all. So had the Mormons. Once one crossed the border, one slipped the yoke of the nation’s laws. If nothing else, the filibusters sat comfortably within the American tradition of cavalier attitudes about the sovereignty of other countries and other people. The Cherokee could tell us that just as well as the Mexicans could and requiring Americans to abide by the same neutrality as their government certainly smells a bit like conscripting them, something which the nation had never done except in the Fugitive Slave Act.