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Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America

Author(s):May, Robert E.
Reviewer(s):Wynne, Ben

Published by EH.Net (February 2003)

May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum

America. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002,

xviii + 426 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2703-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ben Wynne, Department of History, Florida State


Robert E. May’s latest work, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in

Antebellum America, offers an excellent treatment of an often-overlooked

American proclivity of the pre-Civil War period. As May points out in his

preface, in today’s vernacular, the term “filibuster” itself has been hijacked,

its antebellum meaning obscured by longwinded speeches designed to create

legislative logjams in Washington. However, before the Civil War the term

referred to “American adventurers who raised or participated in military forces

that either invaded or planned to invade foreign countries with which the

United States was formally at peace” (xi). Many of the questions May strives to

answer in his book are precisely those that make the topic so fascinating:

exactly who were the men (and occasionally women) who participated in these

expeditions? What motivated them? Why did the United States not do more to rein

them in and what were the long-range consequences of this activity?

The work is divided into nine chapters. The first three provide an overview of

the filibuster phenomenon, tracing it back to America’s earliest history, and

outlining the American government’s responses to early expeditions. They also

introduce the audience to some of the notable characters involved in

filibustering, including Narciso Lopez, who dreamed of taking Cuba; William

Walker, the doomed conqueror of Nicaragua; and Mexican War hero and Mississippi

governor John A. Quitman (of whom May has previously produced a fine

biography). These early chapters also address filibustering’s place in American

popular culture, where it was celebrated in many circles as a glamorous

incarnation of the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Some participants in filibuster

expeditions became larger than life figures, and their exploits were lauded in

books, songs, theater productions, and in the popular press. Whenever the

legality of these expeditions was brought into question, American apologists

took great pains to point out that filibustering was not strictly an American

phenomenon, with British activities in India frequently used as a comparison.

The next four chapters delve deeper into the nature of the expeditions. May

describes the disparate motives that brought men into the service. Some

participants were displaced veterans of the Mexican War who had difficulty

adjusting to civilian life once that war ended. Others, including many

immigrants, came from urban environments that were short on jobs and long on

desperation. Some men entered the service one step ahead of the law while

others came from the better elements of society. May also points out that the

same sense of comradery and secrecy that drew many men of the period into the

Freemasons also drew some men into the filibuster movement, as did abstract

vision of glory and more basic desires for adventure and travel. Latin America

was a favorite target for these expeditions because of political instability in

the region and because filibusters could claim, in the true spirit of Manifest

Destiny, that they were actually “liberating” a supposedly inferior culture

through conquest. Through it all the United States government could do little

to stop the filibuster expeditions that continually undermined American foreign

policy. According to May, the Federal government’s lack of success was due to

more than just the fact that it lacked sufficient manpower to deal with the

problem. Sympathetic public officials and a general public that was fascinated

by the phenomenon also allowed the expeditions to flourish.

The book’s final chapters deal with the consequences of filibustering. May

points out that, ironically, while the movement was associated with the tenets

of Manifest Destiny, filibusters actually impeded United States’ territorial

expansion by discrediting the process of territorial growth. They also created

innumerable headaches for the American State Department, whose diplomats had to

convince foreign officials that the American government did not sanction

filibustering and indeed did its best to combat it. Many foreign governments

tended to reflect their view of filibusters as notorious pirates onto Americans

in general, which bred distrust among other nations that had the potential to

lead to war. The mayhem that filibusters generated in Latin America and other

areas also impeded the expansion of U. S. commercial interests.

Toward the end of the book May discusses the influence of filibustering on the

sectional tensions that were threatening to tear the country apart during the

1850s. In the decade before the Civil War, slavery and filibustering became

hopelessly intertwined. Some filibusters solicited Southern support for their

efforts with the implication that they would be spreading the institution of

slavery into conquered territories. In other cases, as filibustering began to

be thought of as more of a southern activity, the implications were more

direct. The best example May gives is that of John Quitman and his allies, who

not only recruited Southerners for an invasion of Cuba, but also sought

financial backing from slaveholders and completely “conceptualized their

project in sectional terms.” (257) When the administration of Franklin Pierce

enforced the Neutrality Law against the expedition, Quitman and his associates

interpreted the policy as an attack on slaveholding and on the South in

general. While May concedes that there is sparse evidence of filibustering as a

bona fide secessionist plot, he does emphasizes that dreams of a tropical

empire based on slavery were in the minds of some, and he furthermore adds that

with regard to the secession crisis, “Had Americans never filibustered, the

Union might have weathered the storm.” (279)

Robert May, who is professor of history at Purdue University, has produced a

well-crafted work that is a must read for anyone interested in antebellum

America. It is surprising that filibustering has not received more attention

from historians in the past. Filibusters had an important impact on the United

States in the years leading up to the Civil War, and their stories are filled

with dramatic events and colorful characters. In May’s book the significance of

the topic is certainly apparent.

Ben Wynne is Visiting Assistant Professor in the History Department at Florida

State University. His most recent book, Hard Trip, A History of the 15th

Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A. will be published in April of 2003 by Mercer

University Press.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century