American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1155-1188
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Reconsidering Antebellum U.S. Women's History:
Gender, Filibustering, and America's Quest for Empire
Robert E. May
Around midnight on an early October evening in 1858, Congressman John H. Reagan of Texas battled off his fatigue and penned an antifilibustering letter to James W. Latimer, a copublisher of the Dallas Herald. A day earlier, the Herald had printed Latimer's column supporting the pretensions of the American filibuster William Walker to the presidency of Nicaragua. Walker, who had conquered much of the Central American state in 1855–56 before being defeated militarily in 1857 and forced to return to the United States, was just then making arrangements for what in December would become his second attempt to conquer Nicaragua for the second time. Latimer had endorsed Walker's operations, arguing that they would help spread slavery; and he had validated Walker's claims to head a peaceful emigration to Central America rather than what he really was doing—commanding a military force intending aggression against a foreign people. But Reagan categorically rejected Latimer's logic that the adventurer's efforts had anything to offer the South, much less the rest of the United States, and mocked the reasoning that Walker's movement was peaceful. After all, Walker's operation lacked the "women and children," not to mention the horses and plows, that would indicate a peaceful emigration.1
Reagan's gendered typecasting of William Walker and his comrades is suggestive. Only men, one surmises, filibustered. Filibustering was an endeavor that had little to do with today's meaning of the word. Rather, it connoted private military expeditions against countries at peace with the United States. The term gained currency in the 1850s, when several thousands of U.S. citizens and recent immigrants joined irregular assaults not only on Nicaragua, but also against Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, and the Spanish colony of Cuba. In 1850 and then again in 1851, for example, hundreds of Americans participated in native Venezuelan Narciso López's landings on Cuba's northern coast. So many similar attacks occurred that people living elsewhere, even in the distant Hawaiian kingdom, feared that they would be the Americans' next victims. [End Page 1155]
Though it is tempting to interpret filibustering either as an expression of mid-nineteenth-century American territorial expansionism or as a harbinger of late-nineteenth-century U.S. imperialism, it was both of these things and something else. Many filibusters internalized contemporary racialist thought that posited Anglo-American superiority over the darker-skinned, supposedly benighted inhabitants of the Caribbean tropics. Manipulating such maxims, the proto-imperialist Walker justified his quest to create a personal empire for himself including not merely Nicaragua, but also the other Central American states. Other filibusters, however, sought to annex tropical lands into the U.S. polity. After all, as popular discourses of "manifest destiny" had it, Americans derived from Providence the mission of sharing their progressive ways and blessed republican governmental forms with other peoples by absorbing new territory. To southern filibusters like Walker and former Mississippi governor (and Mexican War hero) John A. Quitman, such progressive institutions included slavery. Walker, a native Tennessean, legalized slavery during his Nicaraguan tenure; and Quitman hoped that the expedition against Cuba that he tried to assemble between 1853 and 1855 would thwart Spain's rumored intent to emancipate the island's slaves. Quitman hoped that eventually Cuba might enter the Union as one or more new slave states.
However, making all filibusters into imperialists or southern extremists would be misleading reductionism. Large numbers of filibusters, especially those in the enlisted ranks, answered impulses of romantic adventurism, sought escape abroad from personal problems at home, or soldiered mostly for monetary incentives such as military pay and land bonuses. A good number hailed from northern states. Because filibusters conducted their attacks for diverse reasons, including but not confined to conquest and national aggrandizement, they are most accurately defined as practitioners of what Janice E. Thomson labels "nonstate violence"—that is, transnational aggression...