Monday, January 16, 2017

The First Filibusters

The filibuster, or private freelance soldier invading a foreign land (and, by extension, a group of such adventurers carrying out such an operation), is a characteristically American creation. He is the export version of the Minuteman, a militia soldier of sometimes inconsistent commitment, but capable of dramatic and assertive action in times of revolutionary enthusiasm. To an American frontiersman of the early nineteenth century, raised in a tradition of volunteer militias and decentralized power, the idea of invading a foreign country was hardly treasonous. After all, he could point to incursions into New France before the French and Indian War that helped win the province for England.[1] Furthermore, the frontiersman who faced hostile Indian attack and routinely launched swift reprisal raids without waiting for authorization by distant authority was conditioned to asserting himself first and seeking sanction after the fact, if he bothered about sanction at all. Such men were often encouraged by leaders who, before the advent of national political parties, sought political power through recruitment of followers.  And the potential prizes were personal as much as national. As Laurie Winn Carlson writes, “Filibusters, offered what everyone on the crowded frontier wanted: free land.”[2]  Indeed, when Gutiérrez made his appeal to American volunteers, he put land at the center of his inducements, alongside more lofty goals such as the “discomfiture of tyrants” and the “emancipation of the Mexicans.”[3]
Aaron Burr, who schemed in 1804 to create a Western Republic
The collapse of the Burr filibuster, ostensibly aimed at Spanish territory, was a result of Jefferson taking swift action to enforce the Neutrality Act. But Burrism endured, and with the collapse of Spain that began in 1808, most American frontiersmen viewed their neighbor in a way similar to what a modern American would describe with the term “failed state,” and here perhaps was an opening that allowed them to split legal hairs. In 1810, a judge in Mississippi wrote to President James Madison of an encounter with a man involved in a secretive organization called the “Mobile Society,” which was planning to attack Spanish West Florida. The Judge, Harry Toulmin, informed the man that the attack would be in violation of U.S. law. As Toulmin reported to Madison,
Upon this he observed, that there was no law of the United States which prohibited such an expedition: that the act of congress related merely to fitting out military expeditions against the dominions of any foreign prince or state, & that inasmuch as the president had rejected the ambassador of the Spanish Junta, and had declared that he would not receive an ambassador from King Joseph; the province of Florida could not be considered as belonging to any foreign prince or state, and consequently an expedition against that province, would not come within the provisions of the act of congress.[4]

It was a legalistic justification, perhaps, but one to which there would soon be added an additional argument. As war clouds loomed over the United States and Great Britain in the spring of 1812, it escaped no one’s attention that Spain was an ally of Great Britain. Americans from the President down expected that war with one would include war with the other as well, and made their schemes accordingly. The fact that war with Spain never ultimately occurred did not derail the incursion into Texas, as the Republican Army of the North moved in after the declaration of war against Great Britain without waiting for a similar declaration against Spain.
The filibuster mentioned in Toulmin’s letter to Madison was a young lawyer named Joseph Pulaski Kennedy. He indeed joined a private invasion of West Florida in 1810, which precipitated Madison’s assertion of American authority over the region, in effect, dragging the U.S. into an action that it may not have done on its own. He was, as we will see, one of the many men who later joined the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition into Texas. His background provided one road to Texas. It was not typical, for while there were some themes that stand out, there was no such thing as a typical member of the expedition, and no such thing as a typical road.
Signature of Joseph Pulaski Kennedy, from an 1814 letter

[1] Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963),7.
[2] Carlson, 149.
[3] Bernardo Gutiérrez, “Proclamation of José Bernardo Gutiérrez De Lara,” The Herald of Alexandria, Louisiana, August 31, 1813. Microfilm: Beinecke Library, Yale University; Microfilm copy on file at the Alamo Library, San Antonio, Tx. (accessed March 31, 2016).
[4] Harry Toulmin to James Madison, 28 July 1810, Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue, ed. The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 October 1809–2 November 1810 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), pp. 447–453.] (accessed Sep. 10, 2016).

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