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Surprising Origin of the “Filibuster”


Of all the political traditions in these United States, from kissing babies to throwing grandma under the bus, there is no greater opportunity for politicians to dive headlong into hypocrisy than the filibuster. For the minority party in the Senate, the filibuster is one of the noble “checks and balances” of the Republic, a heroic last resort against abominable attempts at legislative overreach such as the Vision Care for Kids Act, the  Truth in Caller ID Act and Civil Rights legislation.  With its Hollywood associations of heroic defiance and nightlong speechifying, it lets them play the scrappy underdog à la Jimmy Stewart…or Harry Reid. But no sooner do these underdogs take control of the Senate than they start to condemn the “undemocratic” and “obstructionist” checks on their mandate mounted by the new underdog, who only last October was decrying the tactics he now employs. Indeed, although seeing a single politician flip-flop to flatter the base or fellate the center is amusing in a trained monkey sort of way, to watch an entire house of Congress flip sides from one term to the next seems like an episode of the Twilight Zone.

True to its name, the original “filibuster” was a pirate, rule-bender, and hostage-taker of entire countries. Deriving from the Dutch word vribuiter, meaning “privateer” (and related to the English word “freebooter”), the word entered the American lexicon by way of its Spanish form “filibustero.” Referring at first to the pirates that marauded the Caribbean in the days of Blackbeard and Jack Sparrow, the peoples of Latin America later applied the term to the Yanquis that began to descend upon them in droves in the mid-19th century. The first gringo tourists, you say? Not quite.


18th Century Filibuster

Before invading the Senate floor, filibusters were rogue American soldiers who embarked on military expeditions in Latin America for wealth, glory and to add more slave states to the Union. With the Missouri Compromise ruling out the addition of new slave states north of the 36°30′ parallel, pro-slavery Americans began to covetously eye the vast tropical estates to their south and dream of a vast empire of slavery extending from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego. Emboldened by Mexico’s weakness and the disarray in the dissolving Spanish Empire, bold adventurers staked out on their own to see if they couldn’t bite off a piece these countries: Baja California, Sonora, Cuba, Costa Rica and Nicaragua all felt their nibbles. One filibuster even briefly reigned as president of Nicaragua: William Walker, whose main acts in office were to make English the official language and re-institute slavery (after the Nicaraguans had abolished it).

19th Century Filibuster

19th Century Filibuster

Not all Americans were pleased by these actions of their rambunctious compatriots, and when the topic of filibustering Cuba appeared yet again on the agenda in 1853, Rep. Abraham Watkins Venable of North Carolina spoke against the acquisition of the island. In his eminently reasonable calculation, any attempt to liberate Cuba from Spain would provoke the Spanish to vindictively emancipate the island’s slaves, and far be it from the Honorable Venable to place a freedman in bondage:

None can be ignorant that the true cause which makes Cuba desirable is in the fact that it is cultivated by slave labor…Would not the instincts of self-preservation, as well as a determination to render valueless possessions forcibly wrested from the dominion of Spain, cause them to liberate the slaves of Cuba, in order to arrest the spirit of aggression by foreign adventurers? Should this be done, of what value would the possession be to the South?…I could never vote to enslave any man who had ever possessed a right to liberty according to the laws of the Government in which he lived.

Ridiculing this about-face by a fellow Southerner, Rep. Albert G. Brown of Mississippi delivers a stinging tu quoque and bequeaths the term “filibuster” to posterity:

When I saw my friend standing on the other side of the House filibustering, as I thought, against the United States…I did not know what to think. It seemed to me that he had taken formal leaves of his old State-Rights friends, and gone over to the Whigs.

So not only was Venable a filibuster, but a flip-flopper as well. A proud tradition is born.

As late as 1858, on the eve of the Civil War, Senator Brown still had a raging hard-on for Cuba. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see what the Rough Riders would do with it:

I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it…I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; and I want them all for the same reason — for the planting or spreading of slavery…I would spread the blessing of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost end of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them. I would not force it upon them, as I would not force religion upon them, but I would preach it to them, as I would preach the gospel. They are a stiff-necked and rebellious race, and I have little hope that they will receive the blessing, and I would therefore prepare for its spread to other more favored lands.

But in the course of this otherwise forgotten speech, Rep. Venable (who was already a lame duck at the time) delivered another argument that seems eerily familiar:

Suppose a portion of the people of any country have rebelled, and you send troops thither for the purpose of sustaining the weaker party against the stronger, do you not see that as soon as those troops are withdrawn, the stronger party will recover their ascendency? Do you not see that by your own principles, the majority have the right to govern, and that when you send an army to force liberty upon a people who do not understand it, when you have withdrawn that force, the stronger party will overpower and put down the weaker? If we set ourselves at work as crusaders to establish human liberty, you destroy everything at home…we concentrate around our Government principles and influences which, while they strike to enlarge our limits, strike at the root of our liberties also.

There is no new spin under the sun, it would seem, and no new political follies to contrive. America would have other go’s at Cuba and Nicaragua — not to mention points farther afield — with the same tragic results. But although the Howard Zinns and Olivers Stones of this country would prefer us to hearken to each moment’s shrill Cassandra, it begs the question: if America can bumble its way from blunder to blunder for over two centuries and still end up on top, what would happen if we actually had a government of sensible, prudent men?

I wouldn’t worry about that any time soon.

21st Century Filibuster

21st Century Filibuster