An Anti-Filibuster Alliance: Latin America and Opposition to U.S. Expansionism

An Anti-Filibuster Alliance: Latin America and Opposition to U.S. Expansionism

When we think of a filibuster today, we likely think of the increasingly disappearing action by a Senator to hold up a piece of legislation by continued speech; however, in the mid-nineteenth century, filibusters were military strong men who desired to project and expand U.S. power into the Caribbean. The war with Mexico in 1846 set the United States on a trajectory toward expansion and created an assumption in Latin America that the United States had turned from a beacon of republicanism into an imperial, autocratic oppressor similar to Russia. This is an image the country still struggles with in Latin America.

During the 1850s, Central America and Cuba became repeated targets of private filibuster armies. Historians have done much to explain the role of these southward expansion projects in the causation of the Civil War.[1] However, these studies do not take into consideration Latin America and the reactions of the states in the region. Considering the tension-laden relationship between the United States and Latin American states, it is worth looking back in time to see the origin of Latin America’s mistrust as well as early coping mechanisms against U.S. expansionism.

Setting off the turbulent decade of the 1850s was Narciso López, who in 1850 and 1851 tried unsuccessfully to free Cuba from Spanish rule. However, nobody could rival the illustrious William Walker and his adventures to capture Sonora and Baja California in 1853, or his odd career in Nicaragua. Even if the filibusters were limited in scope and even more in success, they put fear into the minds of the people in Central America, worrying that what had happened to Mexico could happen to them, or that a filibuster would take over their government.[2] Therefore, some of the Latin American states assumed it best to form an alliance against U.S. aggression.

Engraving of John Randolph Clay, 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In November 1856, the U.S. Minister to Peru, John Randolph Clay, reported to Washington the content of what he termed the “Continental Treaty” between Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. He had tried for a while to figure out its details. In his letter, Clay explained that the treaty was a reaction to U.S. activities in the Caribbean basin. He pointed to the recent protest by the Peruvian Minister Resident in Washington regarding U.S. recognition of the new William Walker regime in Nicaragua. Considering the controversy surrounding the Walker government, the Peruvian protest and creation of an anti-filibuster treaty should not have come as a surprise.[3]

However, Clay blamed outside forces for the new treaty between the three Latin American states. In his letter to William L. Marcy, President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of State, Clay wondered if Brazil was behind the decision to form a continental alliance against the United States, indicating that Clay viewed the Brazilian Empire as a rival in Latin America. Despite lacking evidence, he called on Washington to “not permit Brazil, to continue to act secretly against our interests in South America.” Trying to give reasons, Clay wrote, “They think to attain this object, by exciting the prejudices of the inhabitants throughout South America by representing us as foreign to them ‘in blood and religion.’”[4] Despite Great Britain often appearing as the rival for U.S. interests in Latin America, Brazil was just as significant a rival to worry about.

Even a year later, Clay continued to worry about Latin American countries forming defensive alliances against the United States. Ignoring the war against Mexico and recent filibusters, Clay in sanctimonious fashion wrote, “I should regret if the Government of Peru participated in the idea, that there was anything in the foreign policy of the United States subversive of the rights of any of the HispanoAmerican Republics, as the suspicion, besides being unjust, might induce Peru to act in a manner to weaken the friendly relations existing between the two Nations.”[5] Despite his country being frequently the aggressor in the last decade, Clay failed to understand Latin American fears regarding U.S. threats to their sovereignty.

As the United States disintegrated into rebellion and war, its attention to Latin American affairs declined. However, the European intervention to collect debt in Mexico and eventual French invasion caused renewed concerns about Latin American security.[6]

Withdrawal of the French forces from San Juan Bautista, capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco, on February 27, 1864. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By early 1862, as word spread about the allied landing in Vera Cruz, the Peruvian President worried about the intentions of the three European governments: was this more than just debt collection? He was certain that the American states would resist any attempt by European powers to reconquer lands in the Americas.[7]

The events in Mexico continued to concern the Peruvian government, and the new U.S. minister in Peru, Christopher Robinson, reported that the people of Peru not only sympathized with the Mexicans but felt a heightened sense of patriotism as well. Clubs had formed with the goal to create a union among the Spanish-American countries, allowing them to jointly deal with foreign threats. Even more, the clubs called for the creation of national guard units to prepare for Peru’s defense. Robinson claimed that the club looked to the United States as a bulwark against reconquest and expressed their sadness at the rebellion in the country, which had made the Mexican situation possible. This represented a dramatic change in attitude, according to Robinson. Initially, Peruvians had looked favorably to the secession crisis and a possible victory of the southern states, as it precluded renewed filibuster expeditions against Latin America.[8]

The Latin American side is a story lacking in most accounts of the 1850s filibusters. While we know much about how the government’s decision to prevent filibusters from using U.S. soil to prepare for invasions impacted northern and southern political attitudes, leading eventually to the rebellion of some southern states, the reactions of Latin American governments remain absent. In light of the unjustified war of aggression against Mexico and the incorporation of vast amounts of Mexican land, the United States lost much of its role-model image for Latin American states, and the filibusters only confirmed that. It is therefore not surprising that Latin American states sought to defend themselves against such acts of aggression with defensive alliances.

At the same time, a closer examination of Latin American relations during the Civil War may yield a far more complex picture than U.S.-Latin American scholarship has so far provided, with rivalries that not only involved France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, but also the Brazilian Empire. This is a story that moves well beyond the power center in Washington or filibuster ground zeros, and into the hall of presidential palaces in Lima, Bogota, or Caracas.


[1] See Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973); Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2] See Robert E. May, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Tom Chaffin, Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996).

[3] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, November 10, 1856, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA).

[4] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, November 10, 1856, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856, NARA.

[5] John Randolph Clay to Lewis Cass, July 11, 1857, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 13, January 1, 1857-December 27, 1857, NARA.

[6] See Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph Over Monarchy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971).

[7] Christopher Robinson to William H. Seward, February 25, 1862, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 18, November 6, 1860-June 12, 1863, NARA.

[8] Christopher Robinson to William H. Seward, June 10, 1862, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 18, November 6, 1860-June 12, 1863, NARA.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

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