When Filibustering is Not a Waste of Time

Daniel J. Burge
An engraving of a man bound, blindfolded, and seated in a chair facing a firing squad, with a priest on one side of him and a solider on the other.

Execution of General Walker, from R. M. Devens, Our First Century (1876).

In 1886, Charles William Doubleday published an account of his time spent in Nicaragua, serving under the notorious filibuster William Walker. He called his book Reminiscences of the ‘Filibuster’ War in Nicaragua, making sure he placed scare quotes around the word filibuster. On the few occasions within the book in which he mentioned the word filibuster, he denounced the noun, labeling it an “opprobrious and unjust appellation” and an “epithet.”[1]

Today, we are less likely to think about the word filibuster as an epithet. If we think of the word at all, we typically envision a boring senatorial speech, something that Jimmy Stewart did in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, however, filibuster not only had a different meaning, it invoked much stronger emotions. As I worked on my manuscript that became A Failed Vision of Empire (yes, this is a shameless plug for the book), I dug deeper into the arguments made by those who opposed filibustering.[2]

I found myself fascinated by the folks who deployed the word as an epithet, those whom Doubleday most likely loathed. But the more I read, the more I came across a name I did not expect to find: John Brown. Time and time again, writers in 1859 and 1860 labeled John Brown a “filibuster.” Yet because it had little to do with the book, I set aside the story. When I finally decided to pick up the threads of that story, I found myself with not only a journal article, but a far more interesting story, one that redefined how I saw the word filibuster.

As I worked on the book I quickly realized that filibuster was a loaded term in the mid-nineteenth century. The people I was most interested in, those who did not think armed groups of men should travel from the United States to Cuba and Nicaragua and overthrow governments, often denounced filibusters. For them, filibuster served as a synonym for freebooter or pirate. Conversely, those who served under men like William Walker—like Doubleday—despised “filibuster” and typically referred to themselves as liberators. They compared themselves to the Marquis de Lafayette and depicted their actions as quests to spread freedom abroad.

An engraving of a man in a dark coat and a hat climbing a scaffold while a crowd and a solider on horseback look on.

John Brown ascending the scaffold preparatory to being hanged, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Defined either way, John Brown did not seemingly fit into either of those categories, so I remained perplexed by why his name kept popping up. Eventually the book took on a publishable form, and I traveled to visit my in-laws over the holidays. Being the type of person who has found it advantageous in life to “be working on a project” when social occasions arise, I determined to return to John Brown.

At this moment, I was still unsure where the project would lead, as I was relatively unacquainted with the literature on John Brown. As I began reading up on him and his raid on Harpers Ferry, I could not find a substantive answer to my original question: Why did those living in the mid-nineteenth century refer to John Brown as a filibuster? Using the books to flesh out my narrative, I continued to research and within a month had sketched out an essay.

I wish that reviewers loved the essay and commented in lengthy paragraphs upon the profundity of my arguments, but such was not to be. A good journal article takes time and sometimes a lot of reviews. In this case, I ended up with eight reviews, as the article moved from journal to journal. Each time, reviewers asked me to dig deeper and helped me sharpen my arguments. Most importantly, they prodded me to do more than merely reveal that folks dubbed John Brown a filibuster. Through their questions and queries, an argument emerged.

I won’t rehash my eventual argument here, as I hope everyone reads the article. Instead, I wanted to use this companion piece to advocate for the usefulness of academic journals. Maybe I am biased because I ended up working as an associate editor, but journal articles still perform a useful function. Over a year of working sporadically on “John Brown, Filibuster,” I rethought the aims of the Republican Party and helped confirm my suspicion that foreign and domestic policy were rarely separate categories in the nineteenth century. I found myself constantly learning.

My point in this is to encourage my fellow researchers to pick up the narratives that have fallen by the wayside. Follow your instincts. In preparing to write this piece I was amazed at the number of articles on the Panorama that dealt with scholars following small hunches. Writing academic articles can lead to jibes about how nobody reads them apart from peer reviewers and family members (which, I suppose, means that mine already has a comparatively wide readership). Yet, I think academic articles do something more. In this case, it challenged me to rethink how I see John Brown, the events leading up to the Civil War, and how I define filibustering. My sincere hope is that those who read “John Brown, Filibuster” will never again look at filibustering the same way. At the very least, it has taught me that pursuing a filibuster is hardly a waste of time.


[1] C. W. Doubleday, Reminiscences of the ‘Filibuster’ War in Nicaragua (New York, 1886), iv, 62.

[2] Daniel J. Burge, A Failed Vision of Empire: The Collapse of Manifest Destiny, 1845–1872 (Lincoln, NE, 2022).

26 June 2023

About the Author

Daniel J. Burge is associate editor at the Kentucky Historical Society.

Recent Contributions to the JER
Share this Post