March of Progress: The Racist Ideological Template of the Filibustering World (United States, circa 1850)
A vast percentage of North America was not enough. Killing and oppressing the Natives of this region, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was not enough. Respecting the sovereignty of other countries and peoples was not an option. During the mid-1800s, and reaching its zenith in the 1850s, large numbers of U.S. citizens were involved in what are referred to as filibustering expeditions. As described by Robert E. May in Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America:
The term “filibuster” carried a far different connotation before the Civil War than it does today. During that period, the word generally referred to American adventurers who raised or participated in private military forces that either invaded or planned to invade foreign countries with which the United States was formally at peace. Although these expeditions violated the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1818…as well as U.S. treaties and international law, thousands of Americans either joined such groups as recruits or provided them with material support… (xi)
These filibusters were not satisfied with the land thus accumulated by the United States and were far from peaceful adventurers. Their aim was not to explore foreign lands and bring back trinkets to their American cities and families. There aim, while fueled by thoughts of wealth and power, was to “bring back” entire countries and regions to the United States.
Thoughts of expanding U.S. territory throughout the entire hemisphere were on the minds of many U.S. citizens, but it was the filibusters who were the battering ram of that expansionist thought. And while the U.S. government had no qualms about being directly involved in the issues of foreign countries, it was the filibusters who unapologetically took up arms in their pursuit to conquer and “civilize” these lands. Some of the most infamous filibusters, William Walker, General Quitman, Henry L. Kinney, John T. Pickett, and those lesser-know foot soldiers, seemed not only interested in military conquest, but justified their actions with the chant of “liberty.” These men were seen by many in U.S. society as liberators who were bringing civility to those places that lacked sophisticated, progressive, and enlightened civilizations.
The filibusters viewed themselves as warriors of progress and invaded Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, and other Central American and Caribbean countries and regions, as well as focusing their eyes on the distant Hawaiian Islands. And while these filibustering ploys were largely unsuccessful, and added to growing sentiment against the United States and its motives in the Americas, the understanding by filibusters that foreign lands were filled with “savages” that needed to be civilized, was not a radical or extremist notion. Filibusters were products of their social environment, an ethnocentric environment which had racist underpinnings and whose ideology was extremely negative toward non-White peoples and nations. And while it is true that some filibusters set their eyes on liberating/conquering places such as Ireland and Canada, the vast majority of filibustering took place in Central America, and rhetoric that accompanied those expeditions was soaked in racist and paternalist thought.
My aim is to present some of the more important aspects of the racist social fabric that influenced filibustering, focusing on scientific, philosophical, and academic ideology and writing. By no means will this be an exhaustive presentation, but the examples I provide are meant to situate racist filibustering thought within a larger social context. Once again, the thinking by filibusters that their expeditions were noble, for they were spreading civility to “savages,” was not isolated and extremist. This thinking was widespread in U.S. culture, and deeply seeped in the minds of scientists, academics, intellectuals and the “common man” alike. Racism was a central template from which the culture as a whole, and filibusters specifically, operated.
Filibusters Within a Larger Context of Racism
To understand the racist notions behind filibustering we must view this phenomena within a larger historical context. As a guiding framework for this I point to Cornell West’s A Genealogy of Modern Racism. In this piece, West highlights major factors in the development of racist thinking in the West. He first points to the birth of the Authority of Science in the 1600s, which stressed “observation” and “evidence” and gave seemingly objective “facts” about race an aura of infallibility (94). A seminal figure in the advancement of the authority of science was Francis Bacon and his work The Advancement of Learning and the thinking of Rene Descartes, who was highly influenced by scientific thought.
Next, West points to the Revival of the Greek Classics in Western thought, specifically from 1300-1800. During this time artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians (e.g. Petrarch, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Erasmus, El Greco, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Milton, Bach, Holderlin, and Mozart) heralded a new appreciation for ancient Greek culture and thought. “The creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian philosophy, Greek ocular metaphors, and classical aesthetics and cultural ideals constitutes the essential elements of modern discourse in the West” (97). This harkening back to the Greeks embedded specific notions of intelligence and beauty in Westerners for centuries, and is part of the historical backdrop of racist filibustering in the United States.
The third component of West’s Genealogy fits under the umbrella of science but is focused on work done in the social sciences, mainly in the 1700s, and specifically on the Division of Humans into Races. In order for racism to exist (in filibustering and beyond) there must first be a development of the idea that different races are in existence. This seems a simple point, but even in contemporary society, it is rarely questioned in popular circles whether or not different races actually do exist. Social scientists of the late-17th and 18th centuries were central in the scientific and social construction of race. Physicians such as Francois Bernier, Carolus Linnaeus, and Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon began to separate humans into specific racial (looking primarily at skin color) categories. As I will discuss later, this scientific categorization always involved placing the White, European race at the top of the racial hierarchy.
West then discusses a component of racial historiography that blends science and the Revival of the Classics. The pseudo-sciences of Phrenology and Physiognomy blossomed in the 1700s and once again aimed to divide humans into categories and validate the supremacy of the White man. Phrenology, the study and reading of human skulls, put forth the notion that the White, European skull was superior to, and more aesthetically beautiful than, those of non-Whites. The German physician, Franz Joseph Gall, went even farther in stating “that the inner workings of the brain could be determined by the shape of the skull. …He associated an arched forehead with a penchant for metaphysical speculation; a skull arched at the rear with love of fame; and a skull large at the base with criminal activity” (West 103). Physiognomy, the studying and reading of faces, looked at the “facial angles” of the different races and compared them to the proportions of ancient Greek faces, which were seen as ideal. Both of these pseudo-sciences were highly influential in the development of the idea that there was a superior human aesthetic, and thus inferior human aesthetics. They influenced painters and sculptors who began to favor classical ideals of beauty (102).
A final and direct influence on racist thought in the West was the philosophy of Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Hume, Jefferson, and Descartes (though he predated the Enlightenment Era, he influenced it highly). As I will discuss, these “enlightened” thinkers held racist ideologies, and were both products of, and perpetuated, scientific and social racism in the century leading up to the filibustering movement. These philosophers, who were held up as intellectual giants, continued the thought that non-White races were inferior to Whites (usually European Whites), and this thinking created and reinforced racist thinking in the West as it trickled down from their pens to the citizenry of Europe and the United States.
Ultimately, all these catalysts for racist thought led to the development of the “normative gaze” and the idea that non-Whites needed to be “uplifted” and civilized (97; 104). This normative gaze was cast down upon those that did not look, think, and act like the European White man and thus non-Whites were judged in a seemingly intellectual and scientific manner. And because they did not measure up, in the eyes of these “liberating” Whites, they needed to be helped, uplifted, and civilized. This notion was seen by many as a positive and righteous duty, and more enlightened than those who simply wanted to kill or enslave those that looked different than White Europeans. Many European and U.S. citizens, especially in the 18th and 19th century, held the belief that it was objectively True that different races existed, that the White race was superior, and that non-Whites, wherever they may be, must be colonized and civilized. This thinking was a direct catalyst for the filibustering movement of the 1850s in the United States.
As stated earlier, the filibusters were not an anomaly of U.S. culture and society—they were birthed from it. They were/are part of the racial social fabric of the West and fit into the greater racist puzzle of the United States. They may have only numbered in the thousands, but the filibusters represented a rather common sentiment in U.S. thought during the 1800s—the notion that “we” are better than “you.” Let us now look at some more specific examples.
By the mid-1800s, science had long gained its reputation as a center for reason and objective truth. Work in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc. had catapulted scientific thought to the level of religious thinking, if not beyond, for many in the West. So it is no surprise that science, in many ways, led the way for racist ideologies during the 1800s. Racist ideologies which affected the way in which non-Whites were viewed by most White citizens of the United States, and specifically the filibusters who traveled to places like Central America to “civilize” and “liberate” the Natives of that land.
Let me begin by pointing shortly to the social scientist discussed in the introduction. As aforementioned, seeing another race as different, and inferior, cannot happen without first believing that humans are truly made up of different races. It was French physician Francois Bernier who began to divide humans into differing races—four of them: Europeans, Africans, Orientals, and Lapps. It was then Carolus Linnaeus in Natural System (1735) that provided the more influential and authoritative text on race, also providing four divisions: Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Home Afer, and Home Americanus. And while there must be a distinction made between racializing (division of humans into races) and racism (dividing and placing humans into a hierarchical framework based on race), these early social scientists were clearly involved in both. Look at Linnaeus’ description of Europeans and Africans, which was taken as obvious scientific truth by many Whites:
European: White, Sanguine, Brawny. Hair abundantly flowing. Eyes blue. Gentle, acute, inventive. Covered with close vestments. Governed by customs.
African. Black, Phlegmatic, Relaxed. Hair black, frizzled. Skin silky. Nose flat. Lips tumid, Women’s bosom a matter of modesty. Breasts give milk abundantly. Crafty, indolent. Negligent. Anoints himself with grease. Governed by caprice. (220-221)
This was a clearly biased description but was labeled as “Natural” by Linnaeus, which would later echo in the filibusters’ view that the Natives of Central America were naturally inferior and it was a good and natural thing to want to colonize, civilize, and help those naturally weaker peoples.
Another influential strain of “scientific” work was in the fields of phrenology and physiognomy. These fields, while claiming objectivity in the evaluation of skulls (phrenology) and faces (physiognomy), were highly influential in developing a sort of aesthetic racism. While some scientists rebuked the notion of claiming value judgments based on physical appearance, many bought into the idea that those with certain skull types, and certain facial angles, were closer to the ideal physical state—no surprise…the ancient Greek face and body.
Two leading proponents of this thinking were anthropologist Johan Friedrich Blumenbach and anatomist Pieter Camper. Blumenbach suggested that “since black people were farthest from the Greek ideal and located in extremely hot climates, they were, by implication, inferior in beauty to Europeans” (West 101). It seems no mere coincidence that this type of thinking was later extended, by the Whites of the United States, to the hotter regions of Central America and the darker peoples of that region, during the 1800s and the period of filibustering.
As for Pieter Camper, he believed that one could not only scientifically measure the differences in cranial and facial angles among different races of human beings, but that the ideal facial angle (100 degrees) was only achieved by the ancient Greeks. Thus, “he tried to show that the facial angle of Europeans measured about 97 degrees and those of black people between 60 and 70 degrees, closer to the measurements of apes and dogs…” and, crucial to the development of racist thought, he “held that a beautiful face, beautiful body, beautiful nature, beautiful character, and beautiful soul were inseparable” (101). So, for the myriad of people who agreed with Camper’s scientific “data,” non-Whites were not simply less beautiful, but less human, less natural, and in need of a make-over of the soul. Quite astounding indeed! And it was an ideology that carried weight deep into the 1800s and the United States’ dealings with Natives throughout the Americas.
Moving forward to the 19th century, we see the further development of what has been called scientific or biological racism—basically, the use of science to create, justify, and implement racist notions—which would later influence the development of eugenics. Some of the most influential work in this area was done by Josiah Clark Nott, George Robbins Gliddon, Robert Knox, Samuel George Morton, and Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau. Nott (1804-1873), an American from the South, helped popularize polygenist theory, which argues the separate origins of differing races, inTypes of Mankind or Ethnological Research, co-written with George Robbins Gliddon, and written during the peak of the filibustering movement, 1854. Gliddon also wrote Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857) which continued to perpetuate polygenist theory, supported at times by illustrations showing the perceived inferior status of non-Whites (Figure 1).
Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), an American physician and social scientist, focused on arguing that different humans were actually of different species and not merely different in terms of aesthetics, and that racial mixing produced weaker offspring (Fredrickson 74ff). Much of Nott’s and Gliddon’s work was based on Morton’s research and writing and all together formed the central corpus for the development of scientific racism along with Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau. Gobineau (1816-1882), fits neatly between this section on science and the coming section on philosophy for he has been described as a French intellectual and man of letters while using scientific formulations to back up his claims. Gobineau has also been labeled the father of White Supremacy and marked with developing the racialist theory of the Aryan master race. His most popular and influential work was An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853). While his work was later seminal to Nazism (though he held Jews as intellectual beings), it centered on the differences between the Aryan race and all others—and of course the supremacy of the Aryan race to all others. An interesting side-note is that Gobineau’s thinking was influential in the way White Americans would later view race and treat non-Whites from the Americas even though his work labeled many “White” non-Aryan Europeans in large parts of Britain, France, Spain, and even Germany, as degenerate, and not being related closely enough to the ideal Aryan race. Here are but a few examples of Gobineau’s attitudes toward non-Aryans, from the chapter “Racial Inequality Is Not the Result of Institutions” from his An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races:
“[if men are equal] why then…has [the Huron Indian] not invented printing or steam power? Why…has his tribe never produced a Caesar or a Charlemagne among its warriors…”
“The Spanish Indians, are, at any rate, extremely prolific, and have even transformed the blood of their conquerors, who have now dropped to their level. But the Redskins of the United States have withered at the touch of the Anglo-Saxon energy. The few who remain are growing less everyday; and those few are as uncivilized, and as incapable of civilization, as their forefathers.”
“…barbarism occupies the same place in the life of peoples as infancy does in the life of a man; and that the more rudeness and savagery a nation shows, the younger it really is.” (36ff)
As is evident, the racist paternalism of the filibusters had a scientific template from which to operate. With notions of a hierarchy of races embedded in European and United States culture, it is no surprise that the filibusters were intent on spreading the “superior” race across the Americas and believed that their notions of less civilized, darker and inferior societies, were naturally and objectively true.
While scientific and philosophic thought cannot so easily be compartmentalized, for each influences the other, philosophy will be looked at here as a separate entity from science that provided an intellectual backdrop to the racist ideals of antebellum America and the filibusters. And while philosophic thought was clearly influenced by scientific work, the philosophers presented here were not scientists per se, but were instead social intellectuals whose ideologies were not directly connected to the scientific method.
Before discussing some philosophies of the 19th century, and philosophers who were contemporaries of the filibusters, once again we must look back, at the philosophy that predated and influenced that period. Even before the Enlightenment philosophy of the 1700s, discussed briefly in the introduction, we must first point to the Revival of the Classics of which Cornell West wrote in A Geneology of Modern Racism. While not spoken directly of in West’s piece, the revival of the Greek classics in the West undoubtedly refocused attention on Plato and his dualistic/positivistic worldview. For Plato, there were clear distinctions between good/evil and mind/body, among others. He believed in unwavering TRUTHS, described many times as the “Forms.” His model of thought, though present in various forms in other cultures and times, influenced Greece, Rome, and ultimately much of the West, and was in sharp contrast to the Sophists who predated, and were contemporaries of, Plato, who held a more relativistic approach to truth(s).
Platonic notions of reality led to, and reinforced, division among different modes of thinking, different civilizations, different realities, and most crucially, to the labeling of some realities as being only skewed shades of the TRUTH. It is no surprise that the colonizing West would revive Platonic thinking and emphasize the superiority of those who were the closest physical and intellectual ancestors of the Greeks—White Europeans, and later, White European Americans.
Continuing in the line of Platonic, and Aristotelian, thought was Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher who has been called by many the father of modern philosophy. Descartes emphasized mind/body dualism which was used by many to label the “more body, less mind” Blacks and Natives of the Americas as inferior to the “more mind, less body” peoples of the White European race. Even in late 19th-century New Mexico, with its high percentage of Native Americans, the body of the non-White was attempted to be contained and civilized and made to conform to White norms, who were seen as being in control of their bodies while emphasizing their mental abilites (Mitchell 19-27). This dualistic thinking in the philosophical and social realms continued with the Enlightenment philosophers, some of which used this thinking to back racist ideologies.
Three of the most prominent philosophers of the Enlightenment were Voltaire (1694-1778), David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). While these philosophers are well known for their intellectual achievements, their racist thinking is many times brushed under the proverbial historical rug. But one cannot state that Voltaire, Kant and Hume were fundamentally influential thinkers of their time, and highly influential to philosophy and society after their time, and then proceed to avoid their thinking on matters of race. If we agree that these two men were seminal figures, we cannot downplay their influence in the realm of race and racism in antebellum America and beyond.
Voltaire, who has been championed as a defender of civil liberties and religious rights, was an unapologetic racist. He held that black and indigenous peoples were animals who were physically and mentally inferior to Whites. In relation to Blacks/Africans he writes, in Traite de Metaphysique (1734):
I see monkeys, elephants, negroes, who all seem to have some gleam of an imperfect reason. They have a language that I do not hear, and all their actions appear to also refer to a certain end. If I judged things by the first effect they make on me, I would have the leaning one to believe that of all these beings it is the elephant which is the reasonable animal.
I thus suppose myself arrived to Africa, surrounded by negroes, Hottentots, and other animals.
In Essai sur les mœurs (1756):
The same providence which produced the elephant, the rhinoceros and Negroes, gave birth in another world to moose, condors, animals who believed a long time they have the navel on the back, and men of a character which is not ours.
And in referring to Native Americans in the same essay:
All the rest of this vast continent [of America] was shared, and still is, by small societies to whom the arts are unknown. All these peoples live in huts; they wear the skin of animals in cold climates, and go nearly naked in the temperate ones. Some feed from hunting, others on roots that they knead. They have not seeked another way of life, because one does not desire that which one does not know. Their industry has been unable to go beyond their urgent needs. Samoyèdes, Lapps, habitants of the north of Siberia, those of Kamtschatka, are even less advanced than the people of the America. Most of the Negroes, all Kaffirs, are plunged in the same stupidity, and they will stagnate a long time.
Hume’s notion of non-Whites was quite the same as Voltaire’s, though Hume’s irony rests in that he condemned slavery. In a footnote to his essay “Of National Characteristics,” he states:
I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general al the other species of men…to be naturally (my emphasis) inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences…
In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, shoe speaks a few words plainly. (Hume qtd. in Popkin 213).
Notice that Hume sees his viewpoint as natural—that which is commonly known and objectively true. This is in line with scientific thought that created, perpetuated, and reinforced scientific racism, which viewed its findings as clear and natural understandings of humanity.
Kant, who relied heavily on Hume, states that “the negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling” (qtd. in West 106). And, referring to Hume’s philosophy directly, he states in Observations of the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:
Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a simple example in which a negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although man of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art of science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between the two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.
Apparently, this great mind of the 18th century had no understanding or respect for the civilizations from which these “negroes” were taken. And, as he points to Whites who have risen from “rabble” and poverty, he fails to see that racist thinking, such as the one he perpetuated, hindered non-Whites from “rising aloft” in White-dominated Europe and the “New World.” Kant also clearly believes in polygenist theory, including its hallmark of not only separating the races but claiming “superior gifts” and greater “mental capacities” for the Whites. And while Kant and Hume spoke mainly about the Black African, their racist ideology spilled across the Atlantic and into the minds of White Americans who used such ideologies when thinking and speaking about the Native Americans of North, South, and Central America.
The two final examples point to Americans who were not as strongly philosophers as they were statesmen, but whose thinking and writings on the subject of race were not only indicative of Voltaire, Hume and Kant, but were highly influential in the United States at the time of the filibusters, and directly before the filibustering movement began.
The first was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States who was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, rightfully, has been labeled one of the greatest minds in U.S. history, which goes to show that even someone of his great talent and intellect was prisoner to the racist thinking of the time. And that is no small point. The wheel of racism that began turning in the 1600s (not that hatred of “otherness” didn’t begin before then) made its way across Europe, across the Atlantic, firmly planted itself in the minds of White Americans in the 1700s, continued into the 1800s and reached a “moment of articulation” (Hall) in the filibustering movement of the 1850s. Though he signed an 1807 bill abolishing slavery, Jefferson kept the wheel of racism turning in his Notes on Virginia, stating:
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to whites; in reason much inferior…and that imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous…Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.
Jefferson is a good example of the mindsets of the later filibusters in Central America who understood themselves as racially superior and saw the non-Whites as lacking in intelligence and civility. Basically, the Central Americans were seen as a group of people who didn’t necessarily need to be enslaved (though many filibusters wanted that) but who needed to be uplifted, for they were inferior in a myriad of ways.
Finally, let us look at John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), who was vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson but was more influential in his later role as U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Calhoun was a fierce supporter of slavery during his lifetime and even addressed slavery as a “positive good” in a speech delivered on the Senate floor in 1837. In the speech he states:
But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:—far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.
But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.
Once again, a perfect example of the mentality of the filibusters, who held the same view when going into Central America. Many of them felt that they were not only not doing wrong, but indeed doing what was naturally good for these non-White peoples. After all, in the minds of the filibusters, as with Calhoun, non-Whites were seen as not having a developed culture, a complex history and civilization, and were apparently not capable of having any intelligent agency in their own lives.
From a modern perspective it is hard to imagine that such racial ideology was coming from even the most educated intellectuals of the time. But when physicians and scientists, who were increasingly being seen as objective purveyors of knowledge and Truth, and philosophers and statesmen, were in line with such racist thinking, it is no surprise that such thinking found its way into everyday society.
Another place, though closely related to science and philosophy, where racist ideology had footing and influence, was in academia.
The most glaring example of racist thought in antebellum American academia was the fact that non-Whites rarely received any substantial formal education, if any. While conditions for non-Whites was harsher in the South, where many filibusters came from, it was rare in the North as well for non-Whites to receive formal and substantial educations. Even a great figure like Frederick Douglass was never educated in a formal/institutional sense. The very idea of educating non-Whites was a matter of debate throughout the young United States. In The Education of the Negro prior to 1861, written in 1919 by C.G. Woodson, the author points to this ongoing debate:
Then followed the…period, when the industrial revolution changed slavery from a patriarchal to an economic institution, and when intelligent Negroes, encouraged by abolitionist, made so many attempts to organize servile insurrections that…most southern white people reached the conclusion that it was impossible to cultivate the minds of Negroes without arousing overmuch self-assertion (3).
Some point to the fact that, despite restrictions against educating slaves, some slave owners would educate the slaves for the purpose of increasing their economic gains, but this “education” was minimal and usually centered around learning some English and learning to do their jobs more efficiently. Never was this education even close to the formal education being provided to Whites at schools across America. So, we have the exclusion of non-Whites from academia, which is no surprise given their supposed inferior status, but what about what was going on in academia. Or I should also say, what was not going on.
The canonical texts of the United States in the 1800s excluded non-White, non-European/European-American voices, and only included those texts that would reveal the presumed glory of the growing nation. This is no surprise, for nation-building requires that the educational system be on par with the rhetorical message of the growing government. While a number of specific literary examples could be pointed to let me focus on two from Dana D. Nelson’s The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature 1638-1867.
William Byrd’s Histories of the Dividing Line “urge[s] a more rigid social hierarchy, one which finally works not to modify but to codify racial and social distinctions” (30). And while Byrd attempted to understand the viewpoint of Native Americans, and look at commonalities between White and Native Americans more than most of his contemporaries, he was still in line with racist ideology:
I never could learn that the Indians set apart any day of the Week of the Year for the Service of God. They pray, as Philosophers eat, only when the have a stomach, without having any set time for it. Indeed these Idle People have very little occasion for a Sabbath to refresh themselves after hard Labour, because very few of them ever Labour at all…they would rather want than Work, and are all men of Pleasure to whom every day is a day of rest (qtd. in Nelson 33).
Moving forward to 1831, we have James Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which established him as the one of America’s first world-renowned authors. In it, Cooper proceeds to “other” the Native Americans and presents them as an essentialized and fixed entity. “This notion of a timeless and fixed Indian essence was highly strategic to a society that prided itself on its ‘march of progress’” (Nelson 44). And when Native Americans in the novel are shown to have some skill and reason, they are still marked as inferior and seen as possessing nothing but “Indian skill,” obviously seen as inferior to true skill, or White-mans skill (46). Similar sentiments can be found in other novels, such as Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods and William Gilmore Simm’s The Yemassee.
These essentialist and racist notions were all part of the “march of progress” envisioned by most of the White citizens of the United States and were clearly in the minds of the filibusters who were not satisfied with the mere Westward expansion of Manifest destiny, but wanted to expand it into South and Central America in the 1850s.
A final telling example of the racist ideology which was pervasive in academic circles brings us to Samuel Stanhope Smith, President of Princeton University and an honorary member of the American Philosophical Society. Smith, an influential figure in American academics in the 19thcentury, was actually a monogenist (as opposed to the polygenist theory discussed in the sections on science and philosophy) who was a proponent of intermarriage in the United States, but his underlying assumptions still pointed to a racial hierarchy, with White being superior. As Cornel West points out, “the ‘normative gaze’ operative in Smith’s viewpoint is located…in the assumption that physical, especially racial, variations are always degenerate ones form an ideal state. For Smith, this ideal state consisted of highly civilized white people” (104). And as Winthrop Jordan points out inWhite Over Black, “Smith treated the complexion and physiognomy of the white man not merely as indication of superiority but as the hallmark of civilization” (515). So in one man, Smith, we have the convergence of scientific, philosophic, and academic influences on racialist thinking, while also illustrating the harkening back to the civility and beauty of the Greeks, apparent in Smith’s Essays:
It may perhaps gratify my countrymen to reflect that the United States occupy those latitudes that have ever been most favourable to the beauty of the human form. When time shall have accommodated the constitution of its new state, and cultivation shall have meliorated the climate, the beauties of Greece and Circasia may be renewed in America; as there are not a few already who rival those of any quarter of the globe.
What is interesting is that one of the most liberal and progressive thinkers of 19th-century America could not escape the racist undertones and assumptions prevalent at the time. The filibusters too were products of this social environment, an environment that, within the two extremes of the time, slavery and abolition, had at its core an understanding that non-White civilizations were inferior and needed to shown the light by White America. The filibusters thought they were this light and aimed it, and their guns, at places like Central America and the Caribbean throughout the 1850s.
The filibusters may have only numbered in the thousands but their manpower must not be understated, for they had support from thousands more who felt it was America’s divine calling to invade foreign soil and take what was naturally theirs (May 52). The leading filibuster, William Walker, even had the audacity (lunacy?) to refer to himself as the “rightful and lawful chief executive” of Nicaragua when addressing U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Gate in 1857, despite the fact that he had simply invaded Nicaragua, a sovereign country, with a group of armed Americans (49). The same sentiment was expressed by “Colonel” Anderson, another leading filibuster, when he stated, in 1858, about Nicaragua as well, that he was determined to “get back to our country—ours by every right legal and moral” (50).
What the filibusters did was neither legal nor moral, and it was my aim to show that it was also not a radical or extreme undertaking given the White American mindset at the time. The mindset of the filibusters was indicative of the social ideology of the time. They were truly cut from the fabric of America, even though their actions were continually chastised by the federal government itself. This is an extreme irony considering the involvement the United States government and military had in the affairs of Central American and Caribbean nations during the 1800s. A trek through (some times hidden) history shows the United States’ brutality and negligence in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, and its neighbor to the south, Mexico.
A short, but glaring, example of governmental notions of paternalism and superiority that parallel the filibusters can be seen in U.S. intervention in Panama. Since at least September of 1856 (at the height of filibustering), the U.S. government and military have been heavily involved in that nation. First, troops were sent to “protect American interests in that region,” which later ballooned into over a hundred years of military intervention involving the manhandling of the Panamanian government, its people, and land (Lindsay-Poland 18-19). Moving ahead even fifty years after the rise of filibustering, we see the same racist notions in Panama with the building of the Canal. It was understood by White Americans, backed once again by “scientific” data, that the climate of the tropics had “degenerated” the Negro and the Native, and that, along with the climate, “association with natives, [was] apt to have a detrimental effect upon children’s mental and moral outlook” (34). Furthermore, annual reports by Army doctors in Panama “listed the names of each White U.S. employee who had died in the preceding year, but the many more West Indians who had perished were not named in the record. Instead, they were anonymous to history, reaffirming the notion that White U.S. workers built the canal” (35).
It was as if though the U.S. government made a clear distinction between the illegal acts of the filibusters and their legal and justified rights as a government to intervene in countries like Panama. As historical analysis continues to shine a light on U.S. interventions in the hemisphere throughout the past two-hundred years (and beyond), we will/are beginning to see little difference between the actions and intentions of the filibusters and those of the government that nominally opposed them.
And with a vivid racist ideological template from which these actions sprung, it is clear that the filibusters represented the norm, rather than a radical component, of American culture and thinking in the mid-1800s. Filibustering was a moment of “articulation” (Hall) that illustrated vast and complex economic, political, and ideological forces that came to life in the attitudes and actions of the filibusters. They were part of the racist wheel that continues to turn to this day, in personal, legal, economic, scientific, governmental, and social dealings within the United States and in the United States’ dealings with foreign lands and people. A wheel that continues to turn in the name of “progress.”
Figure 1 from Gliddon’s Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857)
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