Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Filibuster

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 16, 2011

A filibuster is a political delaying tactic found on the Senate floor in the U.S. and in Parliament in Canada and the United Kingdom.   In other words, a filibuster is an attempt to delay or stop a vote on an issue in a legislative body. 

The term filibuster was also used in the mid-1800s with regards to American adventurers intent on overthrowing governments in Central and South America. The legislative version of the term was first used in 1854 in the United States when opponents tried to delay the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Congress.

In the U.K. in 1874, Joseph Gillis Biggar made long speeches in the House of Commons to delay the passage of Irish coercion acts. Charles Stewart Parnell joined him in this effort thereby effectively obstructing the business of the House.  This then forced the Liberals and Conservatives to negotiate with the Irish Parliamentary Party on the subject of self-government in Ireland.

On October 28, 2010 President Barack Obama stated:

There are a couple of things that have changed in our politics that are gonna have to be fixed. One is the way the filibuster operates. As I said, that’s just not in the Constitution.

Nearly 70 years before that, on November 21, 1942 the Miami News ran an article entitled “Pepper Urges Anti-Filibuster Rule Be Enacted By Senate.”  The opening paragraphs read:

Sen. Claude Pepper (Dem., Fla.) reacted to a successful Southern filibuster against his anti-poll tax bill Saturday with an angry promise to stage an all-out fight for revision of senate rules so that such legislation-killing tactics would be impossible in the future.

“The time to permit filibusters has disappeared in America,” he told the senate.  “We cannot continue to give one-tenth of this body the authority to control the rest.”

He heatedly called for an amendment to the rules which would make it possible to choke off debate not only on bills before the chamber but also on time-wasting debate on points of order, a tactic frequently employed in filibusters.

Filibusters are legendary in American politics.  The Atlanta Independent newspaper of October 18, 1928 discussed events from the previous generation in an article entitled, “The Republican Party and Remedial Legislation.”

The last effort made by the Republican Party to enforce the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment by appropriate legislation was the Lodge Bill, introduced in the 51st Congress by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, under Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine as Speaker.  In 1890 this bill was put through the House, but died in the Senate, by reason of Democratic filibustering and swearing that before the bill should pass, they would filibuster the balance of the senate session.  In all of the democratic efforts to defeat remedial legislation for the relief of the Negro votes in the South, Tammany Hall was its ally, and contributed in every way possible to defeat Republican efforts.   When the Democrats got control of both branches of Congress in 1879, they proceeded to repeal and nullify every law on the books guaranteeing the colored man political equality.

On June 16, 1880 the New York Times reported on a filibuster in an article entitled, “Ben. Holladay’s Just Claim: Democrats Filibuster Against A Bill To Save A Public Servant From Ruin.”  The article dealt with the out-of-pocket expenses of one Ben Holladay who carried the mail for the Government via an overland route prior to the construction of the Pacific railroads.  He claimed to have suffered losses “caused by the depredations of hostile Indians” in carrying out these duties. The article read in part:

After a short debate upon the Mexican Pension bill, awakened by what had been said in regard to it, Mr. Wallace made another motion for an executive session.  It had become apparent that the opposition minority of Democrats intended to continue to filibuster, and for this reason the motion was passed by a vote of 27 to 26.

A New Zealand newspaper, the Daily Southern Cross, published a news story entitled, “The St. Juan Outrage” on January 6, 1860 that stated:

The dispute was a geographical one, “Generalis sum Americanus et super geographicam,” thought General Harney.  Pacific envoys had been balancing the conflicting claims of their respective countries long enough.  Like Brennus of old — who, as far as benighted heather could be, was himself a Filibuster — the General determined to throw his sword into the scale.  Bent on a terrible campaign, he led off, conformably to all the principles of strategy, with a ruse de guerre.  There is nothing like lulling an enemy into false security.  The General opened hostilities against the Governor of Vancouver’s Island with an afternoon call — pacem duello miscuit.  The manoeuvre, though a daring one for times of peace, was happily effected without loss of life.

It is agreed that the first notable (albeit not the first) U.S. Senate filibuster took place in 1841 when dissident senators held the floor for 7 days straight in opposition to a bill about hiring the Senate printers.  Later that same year, another filibuster erupted with regards to the re-establishment of the Bank of the United States.  Henry Clay attempted to introduce a rule that would limit filibusters but he wasn’t able to get enough support to have the rule passed.

In 1821, shortly after Mexico gained its independence, James Long led the filibuster expedition known as the Long Expedition into Texas.  They successfully captured and held La Bahía for three days before being captured by Mexican forces. The fort remained in Mexican hands until the 1830s which led to then-President Santa Anna’s annulment of the Mexican Constitution of 1824.

But long before a filibuster was an American adventurer intent on overthrowing governments in Central and South America, and long before a filibuster had anything whatsoever to do with Senators and Members of Parliament, filibusters existed in the early 1600s.

Buccaneers, who were of English and French nationality, were the first to settle on the West Indian Caribee island of Saint Christopher.  The term “buccaneer” was derived from “boucan” or dried meat cured in the Indian style.  The French adventurers, already known as filibustiers, saw that term corrupted into filibuster.  These filibusters made repeated attempts up to 1678 to overthrow Spanish and Dutch possessions in the West Indies  and each attempt met with failure for the filibusters.  They moved on to such efforts as the 1688 attack against the Danish settlement on St. Thomas and other such expeditions.  In 1697, the French Governor of Hispanolia engaged 1,200 men which included 700 filibusters in an expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies.

So while Jimmy Stewart’s famous filibuster scene in Frank Capra’s classic 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” falsely promotes the mythical yet endearing image of filibustering Senators as heroes of the people because they are standing up against a corrupt political establishment, the facts usually seem to  tell a completely different story.

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