Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America

Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America

Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America

Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America


This fascinating study sheds new light on antebellum America's notorious "filibusters"--the freebooters and adventurers who organized or participated in armed invasions of nations with whom the United States was formally at peace. Offering the first full-scale analysis of the filibustering movement, Robert May relates the often-tragic stories of illegal expeditions into Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries and details surprising numbers of aborted plots, as well. May investigates why thousands of men joined filibustering expeditions, how they were financed, and why the U. S. government had little success in curtailing them. Surveying antebellum popular media, he shows how the filibustering phenomenon infiltrated the American psyche in newspapers, theater, music, advertising, and literature. Condemned abroad as pirates, frequently in language strikingly similar to modern American denunciations of foreign terrorists, the filibusters were often celebrated at home asheroes who,epitomized the spirit of Manifest Destiny. May concludes by exploring the national consequences of filibustering, arguing that the practice inflicted lasting damage on U. S. relations with foreign countries and contributed to the North-South division over slavery that culminated in the Civil War.


It was a strange duel by tall tale. in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for August 1855, the writer and illustrator David Hunter Strother, using his familiar pseudonym “Porte Crayon,” recalled the time he swapped yarns with the free-spirited teamster Tim Longbow in a western Virginia barroom. Longbow claimed to have sailed from San Francisco, gone six weeks aboard ship without any food but biscuits and a caught whale, swum across the entire Central American isthmus, and hiked all the way from Panama to New Orleans, before asking Crayon to identify the “singularest thing” he had ever seen in his own travels. Crayon countered with the North Pole, and predicted that it would soon belong to the United States. After all, people were “getting up some filibustering parties to get hold of it as soon as possible, for the purpose of extending to its benighted inhabitants the blessings of American freedom during the winter, lights and firewood included.” Longbow was convinced, shouting “Hurra for liberty!” and promising to help out by providing booze and food.

What did Crayon mean by his seemingly bizarre retort about filibustering in the Arctic? Strother's readers would have instantly realized that Crayon was lampooning his countrymen for their insatiable desire to absorb foreign domains into the United States. No one at the time was talking seriously about taking over the uninhabitable North Pole, but many Americans were very vocal in their demands that their nation expand elsewhere. Nor would readers have required explanations as to what filibustering had to do with America's territorial ambitions.

The term “filibuster” carried a far different connotation before the Civil War than it does today. During that period, the word generally referred to American adventurers who raised or participated in private military forces that either invaded or planned to invade foreign countries with which the United States was formally at peace.

Although these expeditions violated the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1818 (which prohibited such private warfare) as well as U.S. treaties and international law, thousands of Americans either joined such groups as recruits or provided them with material support as part of a movement that crossed American ethnic, regional, and class lines. the sons of some of the South's wealthiest planters joined indigent northern city dwellers in filibuster armies. Politicians . . .

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