Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America / Edition 1

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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 as heroes 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"May has produced his magnum opus. . . . Unquestionably the finest volume yet written on the subject of filibustering."
Civil War History

"This is one of those rare books that [combines] an interesting topic and excellent writing.

"[This book] uncovers issues largely ignored by previous scholars and connects filibusterism with the war with Mexico and the Civil War.
(Hispanic American Historical Review)"

"Manifest Destiny's Underworld is a well-researched and thoughtful analysis of a neglected yet important topic of American history.
(North Carolina Historical Review)"

James M. McPherson
The fullest, most detailed, most thoroughly researched book ever written on the antebellum filibuster movement. This book will become an essential reference work on its subject.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807855812
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 8/30/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert E. May is professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His previous books include The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim and the prize-winning John A. Quitman: Old South Crusader.

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Read an Excerpt

Manifest Destiny's Underworld

Filibustering in Antebellum America
By Robert E. May

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2703-1

Chapter One

Narciso López's Predecessors

Around the Moro's grim façade The soul of Lopez wanders And Crittenden-a glorious shade! Beside him walks and ponders. O, God of Peace! that such as these, Like dogs, should be garotted- Choked out of life by Spanish beasts, Fierce, bloody and besotted. -Democratic Review, December 1854

Were one to trace American filibustering to the date that the term came first into use, then it started either in 1850 or in 1851. Still fumbling as late as 1849 for the right label to pin on private military expeditions, U.S. citizens employed a variety of phrases including "Aaron Burr scheme" and "buffalo hunt," none of which gained lasting currency. The Venezuelan native Narciso López's attempts to overthrow Spanish rule of Cuba in May 1850 and again in August 1851, however, jolted Americans into refining their terminology.

In both instances, López landed on the island with hundreds of men whom he had recruited in the United States. Spanish troops repulsed his 1850 expeditionary force shortly after its arrival on the steamer Creole at Cárdenas on Cuba's northern coast. López's army occupied the Cárdenas railroad station and captured the town's military garrison, but absorbed over fifty casualties in one day of fighting. Forced to reembark and flee to the United States when Spanish reinforcements precluded his intended advance toward Matanzas (and, ultimately, Havana) and threatened to trap him, López was lucky to escape alive. The Creole reached Key West, Florida, barely ahead of a pursuing Spanish warship.

López would not be so fortunate the next year, after his forces came on shore at a tiny coastal village about sixty miles west of Havana. Within three weeks, Spanish troops crushed the invaders, killing many of them in battle, capturing survivors, and then executing some of the prisoners. Colonel William Crittenden, the nephew of U.S. attorney general John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, and fifty of his men were shot by a firing squad on August 17. On September 1, Spanish officials had López garroted on a plaza of the Punta-a small fort on the western shore of Havana's well-protected harbor entrance, roughly opposite one of the island's best-known landmarks, a larger fortification known to Americans as Morro Castle.

According to reports reaching American newspapers, huge audiences of onlookers cheered during the executions of the invaders. Some accounts described spectators as mutilating the bodies of Crittenden and his men after their deaths. One State Department informant in Havana even claimed that the Crittenden party's executioners had shot to maim rather than kill, and that the knife-wielding mob had taken the responsibility of finishing the men off.

Although these expeditions occurred during a national crisis over slavery in California and other issues that threatened to destroy the Union, Americans found their attention drawn to López's daring endeavors. In rapt, often horrified fascination, Americans waited impatiently for reliable accounts of his fate. In one of his several diary entries about the invaders, for instance, the New York lawyer George Templeton Strong remarked, "No certain news yet about Lopez and his gang." Similarly, on the very day that López was executed, U.S. Senator Sam Houston of Texas expressed frustration that no news had arrived from Cuba, telling a correspondent that he feared disaster. Even Senator Henry Clay, then at the middle of efforts to find a legislative solution to save the Union, could hardly overlook the Cuban business. His son, serving as U.S. chargé d'affaires in Portugal at the time of López's first foray, alerted him that "news of the Cuba invasion" was causing a "sensation" in Lisbon. By that time, Clay had already implored the Senate not to be "diverted" from the "grave" California question by the Cuban matter.

Once reliable information actually arrived, Americans became so transfixed by the story in Cuba that they sometimes relegated to secondary importance the sectional crisis and the "Compromise of 1850" that temporarily resolved the difficulty. "The Cuban invasion is now the only staple of home news," an observer in New Orleans maintained shortly after the failure of López's 1850 attempt. "How the recent Cuban Excitement has overlaid all other subjects," observed another Southerner during the López frenzy. Clay, meanwhile, worried that disunionists would use Cuban affairs to obscure their own intentions.

Few Americans kept closer watch on the filibusters than did U.S. government officials, as the invasions seriously endangered U.S. relations with Spain and other European powers. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in his journal that telegrams from Savannah were reaching President Millard Fillmore "every hour" with "news of the Cuban invaders." Fillmore's second annual message to Congress, submitted in December 1851, gave approximately twice as much attention to the Cuban invasions as to the North-South crisis over slavery.

In seeking a term that would characterize not only López's expeditions but also other invasion plots, Americans fastened on filibuster-a modification of the French word flibustier and the Spanish filibustero, which were themselves derivatives of an old Dutch term for freebooter. Thus, when hearing about López's execution, Strong exclaimed, "If this little band of militant philanthropists and self-consecrated missionaries of Republican scum has been exterminated, it will be long before filibusterism recovers from the shock." Anticipating the same fate for adventurers invading Mexico, the correspondent of a New Orleans newspaper in Rio Grande City, Texas, observed that such "filibusters" might want to give confession to a priest at Mexican army headquarters on the border.

The term filibustering entered circulation so suddenly that in September 1851 a religious journal in Boston actually took note of its advent, cautioning to no effect that this "vulgarism" might become accepted language if the press kept utilizing it. But rather than discard the word, commentators started exploring its etymological links to possible sources such as Cape Finisterre in northwestern Spain, flibot (Spanish for a light boat), and other conceivable forerunners. Soon the term became so salient in everyday American speech and text that Harper's New Monthly Magazine could pronounce that filibustering was destined to "occupy an important place in our vocabulary."

* * *

Dating U.S. filibustering from the coining of the word, however, would be misleading, since filibustering expeditions occurred during the earliest years of the Republic. In fact, the first federal impeachment trial in U.S. history hinged on William Blount's filibustering plot during John Adams's administration. In July 1797, Blount, one of Tennessee's first two U.S. senators, drew an impeachment charge by the U.S. House of Representatives after the administration received correspondence indicating that he was planning to invade territory beyond U.S. boundaries. Though unable to refute the evidence, Blount (and his counsels) contended that Senate members were not impeachable civil officers, and he escaped conviction when the Senate passed a resolution that it lacked authority over his case.

Most of the early Republic's pioneering filibusters including Blount chose as their destinations neighboring Spanish colonies in North America-especially New Spain's provinces of East and West Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. However, in 1806 Francisco de Miranda targeted Spanish holdings further south. That year, he led some two hundred recruits on an expedition from New York port to his native Venezuela. Some adventurers, moreover, looked northward to British Canada. The Vermonter Ira Allen turned up in Paris in 1796, seeking arms and the collaboration of French expeditionary troops for an invasion that would liberate Canada and convert it into an independent democratic republic called United Columbia. Allen's New Englanders would march northward from Missisquoi Bay on Lake Champlain while French forces attacked Quebec by an invasion up the St. Lawrence River. Allen's plot collapsed after a British warship intercepted his shipment of 15,000 muskets and 21 cannon back across the Atlantic. Still, he spent years trying to revive his filibuster, and submitted revised plans to unreceptive French officials as late as December 1799.

Little mystery attaches to the filibusters' concentration on Spain's North American provinces. Nearby Americans held long-standing grievances against Spanish officials. Spain's authorities closed the lower Mississippi River Valley to U.S. trade between 1784 and 1788, and they imposed tariffs on American imports and exports through New Orleans between 1788 and 1795. After the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo ("Pinckney's Treaty") of 1795, the governor of West Florida required nearly prohibitive 12 percent duties from Americans shipping goods via the Mobile River. Borderlands Americans also resented Spain's failure to resolve disputed land claims in the area, and they accused Spanish authorities of instigating Indian attacks against them. Most important, Spain's North American holdings, particularly the Floridas, seemed to lack enough troops and loyal subjects to repel American invasions.

Spanish habitations in turn-of-the-century East Florida barely extended beyond a corridor of land in the northeastern corner of today's state of Florida. Pensacola, the capital of West Florida, represented the only sizable Spanish settlement on the peninsula's Gulf side. Although both provinces, and Louisiana, fell under the administrative authority of the captains general of Cuba, they never received sufficient garrisons to deter filibustering. Spanish troops in all East Florida at the time of one American filibuster totaled a mere 408 men. Nowhere in North America did Spanish officials maintain a regular schedule of border patrols.

Conditions became especially ripe for filibusters after revolution broke out throughout Spain's colonial empire in the Americas. Between 1810 and 1824, rebellions overthrew Spanish authority everywhere in the Western Hemisphere except for Cuba and Puerto Rico. The revolts occurred after the invasion of Spain in 1808 by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte-an invasion that brought years of turmoil to Spain and distracted Spanish authorities from colonial affairs across the Atlantic. Capitalizing on this opportunity, U.S. filibusters converged on Spanish domains, frequently as affiliates of Latin American revolutionaries. The U.S. army officer Augustus W. Magee, for example, in 1812 led the vanguard of the Mexican insurgent José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara's Republican Army of the North across the Sabine River into Texas. Americans who filibustered with the Scotsman Gregor McGregor and "Commodore" Luis-Michel Aury to Amelia Island in East Florida in 1817 likewise joined leaders who claimed revolutionary credentials.

Some early U.S. filibusters hoped to annex liberated colonies to their own country. James Long's unsuccessful 1819 expedition to Texas, organized primarily in Mississippi and Louisiana, grew out of southwestern irritation at news of the recently negotiated Adams-Onís Treaty between the United States and Spain, which, though it acquired Florida, surrendered American claims to Texas. George Mathews, one of the most elderly filibusters in U.S. history, similarly had expansionist intentions.

Mathews's escapade began as a collaboration with President James Madison on the eve of the War of 1812. Worried that Spain, allied with Great Britain against Napoleon in Europe, might cede its remaining holdings in Florida to Great Britain, a far stronger military power, the president asked Congress to authorize a temporary U.S. occupation of any part of Florida designated for such a transfer. Congress in January 1811 granted Madison's request. Later that month Mathews, a former governor of Georgia then seventy-two years of age, received an appointment from the Department of State as one of two commissioners empowered to investigate conditions in East Florida: the commissioners could negotiate East Florida's annexation to the United States should the Spanish provincial governor be receptive; they could occupy the province, with the assistance of U.S. ground and naval forces, if they found that Spain was ceding it to Britain.

Mathews discovered no willingness on the part of Spanish officials to treat for Florida's cession to the United States; nor did he uncover evidence of a pending cession to Britain. But rather than give up his mission, Mathews converted it into a filibuster. Commanding a mixed force of borderland Georgians, Americans residing in Florida, and even a few of Florida's Spaniards, Mathews and his filibusters, in a campaign beginning in March 1812, captured Fernandina on Amelia Island, took other settlements in northern East Florida, and besieged the capital of St. Augustine. Meanwhile, Mathews established a puppet government for East Florida whose sole purpose was to cede itself-that is, the entire province of East Florida-to Mathews as an agent of the U.S. government. What had been effected by arms, in other words, could be presented to world opinion as peaceful annexation: a willing people (the inhabitants of the new "Republic of Florida"), according to a draft treaty that Mathews forwarded to the Department of State on March 21, voluntarily chose to cast their lot as a territory in the American Union!

As with later expeditions, volunteers in these first U.S. filibusters did not necessarily follow the same sirens as their commanders. Recruiters realized that it took promises of land, good pay, pensions, political appointments, and other rewards to convince men to serve in such dangerous affairs. Then, too, some filibusters hoped to strike it rich from privateering or smuggling operations connected to their expeditions. The adventurers who in 1816-17 captured Galveston and Fernandina, previously centers of privateering, smuggling, and even piracy, continued such endeavors after their takeovers-all in the name, supposedly, of the Latin American revolutions.

* * *

Whatever their intentions, U.S. filibusters engaged in criminal behavior. Private military expeditions in peacetime naturally risk retaliatory attacks by invaded countries. Responding to the danger that filibusters might draw nations into unnecessary wars, theorists of international law, long before the American Revolution, established the principle that sovereign states must stop persons from using their jurisdictions to mount expeditions against the territory of countries with which their own nations are at peace.

America's founding fathers (many of them lawyers by profession) had versed themselves in the Swiss author Emmerich de Vattel's The Law of Nations (1758) as well as the tracts of Hugo Grotius and other codifiers of international law, and had followed its precepts about private military invasions. Although no supranational organization then existed to rule on or enforce international law, it made sense for early American leaders to outlaw filibustering, not only because of their intentions to found a country based on law, but also because they were sensitive to their new nation's relatively limited military power. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution empowered Congress to penalize "Offenses against the Law of Nations." Under this mandate, the nation's lawmakers responded with "neutrality" enactments in 1794, 1797, 1800, 1807, 1817, 1818, and 1838 to repress filibustering expeditions and other infringements of international law.

The Neutrality Law of 1818, which superseded all previous legislation, became the bane of American filibusters. Its Article 6 provided for the imprisonment to a maximum of three years and fines of as much as three thousand dollars (a far more considerable sum then than today) for persons who, within U.S. jurisdiction, began or aided "any military expedition or enterprise ... against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district, or people, with whom the United States are at peace."

Despite this legislation, it would be a mistake to assume that American leaders, many of them avid territorial expansionists, shared an unwavering commitment to eradicate private expeditions. To be sure, one can cite instances aplenty when federal officials intervened against filibusters. Most early U.S. presidents issued proclamations against filibustering activities. Cabinet members summoned governors, district attorneys, marshals, and military officers to interdict pending expeditions, and even tipped off Spanish officials about filibuster movements so that defensive military preparations might be made in targeted colonies. From time to time, federal authorities prosecuted filibusters for violating the neutrality laws. Yet there were occasions when federal authorities found it convenient to overlook, or even assist, filibuster plots in the expectation that they might eventuate in U.S. territorial growth.


Excerpted from Manifest Destiny's Underworld by Robert E. May Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Narciso Lopez's predecessors 1
Ch. 2 Harry Maury's America 19
Ch. 3 America's second sin 59
Ch. 4 John Goddard's lesson 81
Ch. 5 Samuel Hay's puzzlement 117
Ch. 6 Francis Smith's integrity 169
Ch. 7 New York's visitors 183
Ch. 8 The State Department's albatross 215
Ch. 9 Judge Campbell's nightmare 249
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