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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Frontier Folklore and Colonial Continuity

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The proslavery and antislavery movements to take Kansas naturally invite comparison. They contended for the future of the same land. Their struggles look to us like foreshadowing of the war that broke out less than a decade later. They too considered themselves engaged in a critical struggle for the nation’s future. It conjured powerful emotions and occasioned extreme rhetoric. But if we can set aside for the moment our natural desire to cast ourselves as latter-day antislavery partisans and try to view the issue from a more thoroughgoing popular sovereignty position, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society and its clones and successors look a bit like cheating.

Settling the frontier, one would imagine, should go along a fairly orderly process where thousands of small farmers get in their wagons, hitch up their team, and take all their worldly possessions out on the gamble of their lives. We imagine them as disinterested in great political causes. They move for their own advancement, which comes at great peril and through arduous labor. They somehow wrestle from the land their new fortunes. Who would begrudge them? We call them settlers and pioneers, not businessmen taking on risky ventures. We certainly don’t call them agents of a political movement, except in the broadest patriotic American sense.

The Emigrant Aid Societies going around raising money to send people with the explicit goal of making Kansas free, who will come in groups together for that end don’t have a comfortable place in that story. The expectation of the investors to make a profit off this for themselves fits still worse. This frontier looks nothing like the frontier we remember. Nor might it look much like the one that nineteenth century Americans imagined.

However much we dislike their cause, maybe those Missouri filibusters and border ruffians had a point. The New Englanders did come from afar. They did it not with the sweat of their own brows, but with the subsidy of a wealthy corporation. They came bent on tipping the scales in Kansas to exclude from the territory and future state men like them: decent, hardworking sorts who had every reasonable expectation that when they could legally come to Kansas, they would have it to themselves. The men from Missouri, after all, needed no corporation to fund their trip.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

But our folk memory lets us down here. The Emigrant Aid Societies imagined a colonization scheme and we’ve fallen out of talking about colonization too much as in recent decades it draws uncomfortable attention to the people who got to the hemisphere before our national ancestors and deprived them of it by force. It makes us uncomfortable like slavery does. Corporations made Jamestown, Plymouth, and most of the other colonies we recognize. They began with royal land grants, which the companies used as license to go out and claim the land to develop and sell at a profit. Often that profit did not come but from the very first generation of Englishmen on the East Coast, colonization had taken place under corporate auspices and with an eye toward profit for the company as much and sometimes more than profit for the stockholders.

The Virginia Company and the Emigrant Aid Societies had centuries of time between them, but not much daylight. Nor had company-subsidized colonization fallen off with independence. The utopian communities that flourished briefly and then generally collapsed in the early part of the nineteenth century had a bit of the same vision about them, if usually on a smaller scale. James Gadsden tried to organize a slaveholding colony in southern California as late as 1851. William Walker and other filibusters used colonization schemes as cover for their activities. However much Americans of the time told themselves the story of the individual pioneer, they still lived in a world where said individuals often came to their new lands with plenty of outside help on top of the aid that the United States provided in clearing the land of Indian inhabitants.

If all of this made the antislavery men coming to Kansas into Hessians reborn, then they had plenty of company. Political and religious dissenters founded corporate colonies with an eye to making a buck. Dissenters from the Kansas-Nebraska Act carried on just the latest act of that tradition. They had as much right to the land as anybody from Missouri.

The Bombardment of Greytown, Part One

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

I’ve decided that I wish to delve into the bombardment of Greytown in greater detail and this seems an ideal time to do so. The matter will eventually work back into the connection with Cuban filibustering, but the change of topic calls for a change of title as well.

Commander George N. Hollins, United States Navy, gave the free port of Greytown within Nicaragua’s or the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast (depending on who one asked) twenty-four hours notice and then bombarded the place with his ship’s guns in retaliation for the wounding of American minister to Nicaragua Solon Borland. Borland put himself in a position to catch the bottle to his face by intervening to protect a captain of the Accessory Transit Company who had murdered a black pilot. The Greytown authorities, answerable to neither Nicaragua nor the United Kingdom, came to arrest the captain and Borland got in the way with gun in hand.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

That offense could not go unpunished and thence came Hollins to Greytown. He came, however, with orders to avoid loss of life or destruction of property. Getting it half right did not please William L. Marcy, who sent him down with those orders. Marcy wanted some financial reparations and an apology, nothing more. Nor did displeasure over the shelling and burning of Greytown confine itself to the rarefied circles of the American diplomatic establishment or Washington society. In New York, Horace Greeley laid into the Pierce administration in the pages of his New York Daily Tribune beginning on July 26, 1854.

The more this memorable act, ordered by President Pierce and executed by Commodore Hollins, is examined, the more unaccountable, unjustifiable and base does it appear. And apart from the fact that the town had no means of resistance, and that its overthrow could yield no other glory than may be reaped by any big bully who will beset and beat a defenseless woman or little child, the origin of the whole difficulty is one which gives to the final event a disreputable and monstrous character. 

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Borland had, after all, intervened to protect a man accused of murder. While a diplomat might protect citizens of the mother country in times of civil unrest, this did go beyond that. Greeley goes on to comment on Borland’s character:

It is true that Mr. Solon Borland, an Arkansas man of notorious pugilistic propensities, clothed by the American Government with the character of an Envoy Extraordinary was accidentally present and undertook to use his diplomatic prerogatives to protect the alleged murderer from arrest; it is also true that when Borland went ashore at San Juan and made foolish and abusive speeches concerning the town, some natural indignation was felt by the people at so gross and outrageous an interruption of the regular course of justice, and that they gathered around the house where he was, using disrespectful language in turn perhaps and that some person unknown event went so far as to fling a bottle at his head which did him no injury. And even this assemblage around the house took place as respectable citizens of the town aver from the impression that the alleged murderer was there, under Borland’s protection, and might still be arrested for trial. But these things, we say, are of comparatively little moment; the bitter, the blasting fact is that San Juan has been burned, and hundreds of innocent persons stripped and ruined in consequence of her endeavor the execute a necessary law and bring an accused murderer to justice!

His denial of Borland’s injury aside, Greeley takes the side of sanity and proportion. Borland behaved at least very questionably and that alone makes the bombardment and burning of Greytown a dubious act of retaliation. But Greeley presses on:

But we shall perhaps be told that the insult to Mr. Embassador Borland was ground enough for this terrible stretch of vengeance. As if such a blackguard as Borland, a man whose only other official acts the Government has disclaimed and consigned to merited oblivion could by any possibility be insulted up to that point? We apprehend that the common sense of the American people will not be deluded into the idea that the acts of seeming incivility offered to this traveling embassador, who with rifle in hand stands up to protect homicides against lawful arrest, were of a stature to require even an apology.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

In other words, Borland got what he had coming. What, Greeley argued, would Americans say if the British ambassador went out in New York with a big knife and pistol and stopped the police from arresting a murderer or burglar? Would New Yorkers really take that laying down, or would they form a mob and protest at the very least? And would Washington compose apologies and offer reparations?

By no means. They would not only refuse all apologies, but would give him his passports and pack him out of the country the very next day.This City of San Juan could not do in the case of Borland; but if the officer whose warrant he nullified had shot him down on the spot nothing improper would have been done, and there is not a journal in the country, save perhaps The Union, which would not have said he had got his deserts. Certainly he got a great deal less than his deserts when only an empty bottle was hurled at him, but did not hit him even on the nose.

The Washington Union served as the Pierce administration’s mouthpiece, essentially the same role that Greeley cast himself in for the Republicans.

Greeley might have oversold his point in implying that the American papers would take the killing of one of an American diplomat as entirely proper under any circumstances, but Borland very far exceeded his authority and essentially created the incident that led to his catching a bottle to the face.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Four

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 1, 2, 3

Solon Borland, Southern radical and American minister to Central America, took a bottle to the face from an angry mob for his trouble intervening to prevent the arrest of a murderous American captain working for the Accessory Transit Company in Nicaragua. The attack happened in Greytown, a town that the British founded but had operated for some years as a free port answerable only to itself. Now some people there had attacked and injured an American diplomat, who rushed off to Washington to tell his story.

Though never much of an enthusiast for the theatrical, reckless side of diplomacy, Secretary of State William L. Marcy saw far too much in Borland’s story to just let it blow over. Pierre Soulé brought a duel upon himself and won no sympathy for it. Borland acted, at least in principle, entirely within his normal capacity as an American diplomat. Someone had to answer for this, and Marcy knew very well that Nicaragua did not hold any blame for an attack within the Mosquito Coast that it did not control. Nor could he quite pin the blame on the United Kingdom, which had only a sketchy protectorate over the area in question. However much that might have appealed given the friction over its violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty by expanding into the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Who could the American government hold responsible? The people of Greytown attacked Solon Borland, so the people of Greytown could pay. The USS Cyane made her way to the free port. Commander George N. Hollins, a Marylander who went South in 1861, had orders to teach Greytown a lesson but that he should avoid destruction of property or loss of life in so doing. He should also consult with a commercial agent on the ground, Joseph W. Fabens. Fabens had close ties to the Accessory Transit Company, which almost surely flowed from their payroll to his pocket. Fabens encouraged Hollins to demand $24,000, a sum completely out of proportion to the offense, and an apology.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Greytown did not oblige. Hollins, under orders to avoid death and destruction, hewed to the former and ignored the latter. He gave twenty-four hours’ notice and provided help for the evacuation of the town in that time. Hollins aimed to bombard the place. The British naval officer on the scene protested that Hollins would destroy the property and homes of innocents. The Greytowners pled and then fled. Unmoved, Hollins opened fire on July 13, 1854. The New York Times carried the report of a Greytown resident on July 26th:

on the morning of the 13th inst., at 9 A. M., he opened his battery on the town, and after discharging one hundred and thirty shot and shell into the town, landed a party of marines and sailors and set fire to the town.

[…]

I think now that the nest of land pirates, which were located at San Juan, is now broken up, and they will also learn that American citizens must and will be protected.

No one died, but the United States had destroyed a free port with reckless disregard for the property of both the locals and foreign citizens alike for the actions, at most, of a mob under the control of neither foreign agents nor the local authorities.

A Detour Through Mexico, Part Three

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

South Carolina railroad executive James Gadsden offered Antonio López de Santa Anna $50,000,000 ($1,359,509,422.48 in 2012 money) to buy Lower California and portions of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. The purchase would resolve the dispute over the Mesilla Valley, prime railroad land, open a route including that valley to stretch a railroad from New Orleans by way of El Paso to the Gulf of California. He presented his offer on September 25, 1853.

The purchase would give the South its preferred avenue to connect the West Coast to the rest of the nation and almost certainly additional slave states. The new railroad might even spur movement of slaveholders and their human property into California, strengthening the movement to divide the free state in two. The additional land might not just reverse the South’s 1850 loss of the Senate, but return a brief Southern majority. At the very least, the nation could for a time return to the old practice of admitting states in pairs, one slave and one free.

Santa Anna needed the money. The area suffered Indian raids from over the border that he could not do much about. The sparse population and lack of local Mexican authority made northwestern Mexico prime real estate for filibustering, which both William Walker and the French consul in San Francisco noted with intense interest. But Santa Anna already signed one treaty giving over large sections of his country to the United States. Mexicans, like most other people, did not welcome the dismembering of their nation. To a battlefield humiliation in the recent past, Gadsden asked Santa Anna to add a second defeat at the diplomat’s pen. Santa Anna refused to sell.

Seeing that Santa Anna needed the money, but would not surrender so much territory, Gadsden made a second offer. For $15,000,000, the United States would purchase just land south of the Gila River, between the Rio Grande and Colorado, including a port on the Gulf of California. Gadsden told Santa Anna that they lived in an age of adventure when bold men would surely stage secession movements in the Mexican north. A smart man would sell. And by the way, the United States does not support or condone the activities of William Walker or others…but these things do happen. Santa Anna reached out to the British to intervene. The Court of St. James demurred.

The Gadsden Purchase (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Gadsden Purchase (via Wikimedia Commons)

Very well, the United States could have land south of the Gila, up very close to but not including the shore of the Gulf of California. If the Americans wanted a railroad to end there, they could have their commerce run through a Mexican port. Santa Anna signed on December 30, 1853 and the treaty went to the White House, where the Cabinet debated it in January. They wanted considerably more land than Santa Anna would give, and the lack of a port must have especially stung, but finally sent it to the Senate.

The Constitution requires the Senate to ratify treaties by a 2/3 majority, thirty votes in 1854. The treaty got twenty-seven. For the first time in the body’s history, it refused to take land offered to it. Divisions that only hinted in 1848 when Trist overstayed his instructions and delivered less land than the expansionists wanted came to the fore. Antislavery senators wanted no land, seeing it as virgin frontiers for slavery. Intense lobbying by railroad interests further tainted the treaty.

Quite aside from refusing the land, the treaty marked a new blossoming of sectionalism. Though the railroad might touch on slavery indirectly, it previously stood apart as an issue in its own right. It did no longer. The Senate finally ratified a treaty that gave the United States nine thousand square miles less for five million less on April 25.

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.