The State of the Union in 1855: Filibustering

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce


Franklin Pierce’s third annual message progressed from bland assurances that all went well to a set of real grievances against the United Kingdom. Relations with the world’s great superpower, with whom the United States had twice fought wars, understandably take pride of place. Only after updating Congress on them did Pierce address tension with other powers. He didn’t care for Denmark’s insistence that the United States pay a toll to pass through Danish waters and trade in the Baltic. Some matter with the French consul at San Francisco had come to a satisfactory resolution, as had a dispute with Greece over seizure of American property.

Then Pierce turned south of the border once again:

With Spain peaceful relations are still maintained, and some progress has been made in securing the redress of wrongs complained of by this Government. Spain has not only disavowed and disapproved the conduct of the officers who illegally seized and detained the steamer Black Warrior at Havan, but has also paid the sum claimed as indemnity for the loss thereby inflicted on citizens of the United States.

That did made for good news on both sides of the Atlantic. The Black Warrior controversy threatened briefly to spark a war, with Pierce making dire threats. That the whole thing came out of the Spanish governor’s desire to warn off American filibusters, most notably Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, gave the situation an ironic twist. In other Cuban news, Pierce happily related that the Spanish would pay an indemnity for prematurely cutting off duty free access to the island’s ports back in the 1840s. He expected Madrid would soon gave satisfaction on the matter of another steamer, the El Dorado, as well. All in all, Pierce saw the Cuban situation as one of improvement. That must have frustrated the filibusters to no end.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Speaking of filibusters, 1855 brought with it William Walker’s Nicaraguan expedition. Pierce didn’t mention the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny by name, but anybody who followed the news could figure out who he meant. After a homily about respecting the sanctity of neighboring republics, the sort of thing that General Pierce observed most studiously during the Mexican War, President Pierce took aim at their instability:

obstacles have arisen in some of them from their own insufficient power to check lawless irruptions, which in effect throws most of the task on the United States. Thus it is that the distracted internal condition of the State of Nicaragua has made it incumbent on me to appeal to the good faith of our citizens to abstain from unlawful intervention in its affairs and to adopt preventative measures to the same end, which on a similar occasion had the best results in reassuring the peace of the Mexican States of Sonora and Lower California.

William Walker and a few hundred men marched into Baja California and claimed it as the Republic of Lower California in 1853. Shortly thereafter, without setting foot within it, Walker annexed Sonora to his republic and renamed the country after it. The Mexican army objected and chased Walker back over the border. A San Fransico jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of levying an illegal war against Mexico. He had, after all, only levied an illegal war against Mexico. Walker had gone to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the parties to its civil war, back in May of 1855. By the end of the year he had effective control of the country. Prominent filibusters who had operated in Baja California and Sonora, then moved on to Nicaragua made for a fairly small demographic.

Reading Pierce one likewise sees that, while he avowed American responsibility for keeping order and friendly relations, his “best results” ended with an acquitted filibuster happy to have another go and justified filibustering in general on the grounds of foreign lawlessness. He cast the United States as a good neighbor of the sort that might just see you overwhelmed by your real estate portfolio and help out by relieving you of vast swaths of land. Don’t we all want friends who see us in need and don’t wait around until we collapse in desperation before pitching in to help?

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