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  • Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire
  • Nancy Isenberg
Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. By Amy S. Greenberg. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 323. Cloth, $75.00; paper, $25.99.)

Amy Greenberg has written a cultural history of filibustering, explaining why "manifest destiny" was not only about Western expansion but also was about empire building. From the Mexican War until the eve of the Civil War, many Americans saw filibustering (the invasion and conquest of countries by private armies) as a facet of the nation's destiny. Numerous adventurers planned various failed expeditions into Latin America, while many citizens relished reading both journalistic and fictional accounts of filibustering exploits.

Those who undertook or championed these militaristic fantasies were a curious collection of men and women. William Walker, the "grey-eyed man," succeeded in ruling Nicaragua for almost two years, from 1855 to 1857, and became a cultural icon despite his unprepossessing physique and effeminate physiognomy. Commodore Matthew Perry set sail for Japan in 1852, arriving with four well-armed ships and forcing the Japanese to open trade relations with the United States. Jane McManus, known to her readers as Cora Montgomery, coined the term "manifest destiny" while writing for the Democratic Review. It was not John O'Sullivan, as widely believed. She promoted the annexation of Texas, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic and was called a "plenipotentiary in petticoats," owing to a mission she carried out in Mexico on behalf of the United States (225).

The expansionists were fueled by a common ideology that celebrated America's superior will to style other countries as junior Americas. Filibusters cast themselves as gallant knights saving oppressed populations, harnessing unused natural resources, and rescuing inferior races from their own evolutionary defects. [End Page 94]

George W. Bush's campaign against terrorism may claim to be a response to new conditions, but its roots lie in the mid-nineteenth century. At the heart of filibustering, and at the core of America's newest ideology, lies a preoccupation with gender and a desire to reshape the world to accord with an American sense of progress. Just as the invasion of Afghanistan was framed as the liberation of Muslim women, earlier Americans saw Latin America, Cuba, Hawaii, and Japan as places marked by backward gender relations. Hispanic men were weak, pusillanimous, lazy, and unworthy of their Spanish maids, who secretly wished for Yankee soldiers to liberate, marry, and annex them. American men elevated a culture of martial manhood, yet white women were ordinarily left out of imperial fantasies except as devoted helpmeets who willingly sent their brave husbands off on a noble quest south of the border. This, at any rate, was the tale told by southern belle Lucy Holcombe in her 1854 novel, The Free Flag of Cuba.

A different set of gender anxieties emerged as Americans looked to Hawaii and Japan. Hawaiian women were fetishized for their primitive beauty and athletic abilities, while their men, like Native Americans, were presumed destined for extinction, and thus praiseworthy as a vanishing breed of warriors. The problem with Japan, oddly enough, was not the men but their fat and ugly women, who painted their lips in such a way as to accentuate their black teeth.

There are several compelling reasons for recommending this book. It exposes the gloss in the traditional image of Western expansion for what it is: the wagon train headed west is replaced with a more violent picture of the brash and arrogant filibuster who conquers with the sword, and defends conquest with the pen. Filibustering contributed to the language of American foreign policy while leaving open the possibility that unrepentant slavery might yet be reexported. William Walker went from being a Free Soiler to a proslavery advocate, as a means to attract Southerners to his Nicaraguan expedition. And, as Greenberg concludes, the filibustering craze did little to improve trade relations for the United States because the federal government often coddled the mercenaries.

The real power of the filibusters was not their success as revolutionaries (most failed), but that they captured the American imagination, presenting heroes and antiheroes. William Walker was an early version of Chuck Norris...


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