Busting the Filibuster: Some History Behind the Senate’s Reactionary Procedure

Nevada Democratic Senate Goliath Harry Reid has hurt the Right's feelings.

Nevada Democratic Senate Goliath Harry Reid has hurt the Right’s feelings by limiting their capacity for throwing tantrums.

Last week, Harry Reid, the Senate’s mousy, soft-spoken, bespectacled Mormon Majority Leader from the land of perpetual vice colloquially known as the state of Nevada unleashed his inner Incredible Hulk. The normally mild-mannered — but politically shrewd — Reid opened up the ultimate can of senatorial whoop ass by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” a procedural act in the Senate that disregards a century of precedent by voting to end a filibuster with a simple majority rather than requiring the traditional votes of sixty senators. Reid justifiably dropped this bomb in order to overcome years of Republican filibustering of President Obama’s executive branch administration nominees.

While the drooling, milquetoast, Beltway punditocracy has decried Reid’s use of the nuclear option as an affront to non-existent D.C. civility, the Majority Leader’s move was entirely justified. After all, in an unprecedented show of political obstructionism, the grunting collective of curmudgeonly Uruk-hai known as the Republican Party have blocked well over 80 qualified nominees for various executive posts, most notably those Obama nominated for the federal appeals court.

The Republicans’ excessive use of the filibuster as a tool of reactionary obstructionism has given the old Senate procedure a bad name in the press, but really, the filibuster, and the idea behind it, has long been used by minority reactionaries to achieve their political goals in otherwise unfavorable circumstances. But what, exactly, is a “filibuster?” Teagan Goddard’s Political Dictionary offers a fairly precise answer, defining it as “an informal term for any attempt to block or delay U.S. Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.” Essentially, filibusters serve to delay votes and confirmation on key Senate bills and nominations — they’re a stalling tactic.

In American popular culture, filibusters are most well known for being marathon, uninterrupted speeches delivered on the Senate floor with the goal of preventing a full vote on any given legislation. In these instances, the filibuster is a test of stamina, since the speaker can’t stop talking or even take a bathroom break during the procedure. This type of filibuster will forever be embodied by Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which idealistic junior senator Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart is full, warbly voiced glory) talks for twenty-four hours to prevent a corrupt Senate colleague from building a dam on land designated for boys’ camps. As I’ll soon discuss, such marathon filibusters have occurred, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

The current GOP, for example, have abused the filibuster precisely because rather than staging talk-based delays of President Obama’s executive nominations — which are long, sweaty, and generally a pain-in-the-neck — they’ve instead gummed up the political system by merely refusing nominees a basic up or down vote. That’s right: there’s no long speechifying, just procedural chicanery employed by a minority party to ensure government gridlock and to prevent its opponents from implementing their agenda. Historically, different U.S. political parties have used the filibuster to their advantage, but conservatives have often employed this tool in an attempt to extract major concessions from unwilling parties or to delay political changes that threaten traditional social hierarchies. Indeed, the filibuster, regardless of who has employed it, has always been a reactionary tool.

The term “filibuster” stems from a Dutch word meaning “freebooter,” or someone who “took booty or loot;” essentially, a pirate. In American usage, the filibuster has been most often associated with the U.S. Senate, but in the nineteenth century, the word “filibuster” also referred to acts by conservative southern imperialists who sought domination of the Caribbean in the name of the Slaveholding South. As historian William Freehling notes, the most fantasy-prone of antebellum (pre-Civil War) southerners dreamed of expanding the pro-slavery South’s territory to include Cuba, Brazil, and the nations located around the Caribbean Sea, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and New Granada.*

Mississippi pro-slavery radical John Quitman. He really, really wanted to filibuster Cuba, but got...busted.

Mississippi pro-slavery radical John Quitman. He really, really wanted to filibuster Cuba, but got…busted.

To achieve their dreams of an expanded southern empire, private adventurers known as “filibusterers” eschewed diplomatic talk in favor of launching a “filibuster,” an outright invasion of a sovereign nation with the goal of fomenting a revolution, overthrowing the existing government, and annexing the territory to the U.S.* These southern revolutionaries offered to launch filibusters into Latin America in the name of Dixie.

The most successful (at least in the short-term) of the southern filibusterers was a Tennessee lawyer named William Walker. In the Spring of 1855, Walker and a band of 57 loyal “freebooters” landed in Nicaragua, then in the midst of civil war, where they were joined by local forces. The filibusterers soon captured the city of Granada, after which Walker formed a provisional government and declared himself military ruler. Walker then won the presidency in 1856, but his time as Nicaraguan strong-man was short-lived: in September 1860 he was executed by a firing squad in Honduras.

Walker was temperamentally meek and mild when compared to the pro-slavery Mississippi radical John Quitman. A wealthy Natchez planter who owned over 200 slaves, Quitman advocated for the annexation of slave-rich Cuba, a move that would add to southern wealth and southern political influence by providing Dixie with an additional slave state and its attendent U.S. senators and congressional representatives. But Quitman never matched Walker’s filibustering success. Despite raising a 1,000 man army and securing the financial backing of prominent southern planters, governors, and U.S. senators hell-bent on a Cuban invasion, Quitman ran afoul of federal U.S. neutrality laws. In May 1854, President Franklin Pierce declared that he would prosecute any southern filibustering expeditions. Quitman went to court, and his dream of conquering Cuba in the name of the South never materialized.*

The southern filibustering exhibitions of the nineteenth century were thoroughly proactive in design, but they were also ideologically reactionary. Pro-slavery advocates’ dreams of expanding the Slaveholding South’s empire into Latin America grew out of fears of a growing northern anti-slavery movement that sought to limit the spread of slavery within the continental U.S. If northern radicals vowed to halt slavery’s expansion into the American West, pro-slavery southerners reasoned, then the South would secure its own land in Latin America to expand its slave empire. In this respect, the reactionary conservatism of pro-slavery southerners led to proactive schemes to dominate other nations in the name of racial slavery.

The reactionary conservative spirit of the nineteenth century southern filibusterers lived on in the most famous of all spoken filibusters: the epic, 24 hour, 18 minute 1957 filibuster against the Civil Rights Act delivered by conservative South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. While Thurmond never launched an invasion of a foreign nation, his use of the filibuster to thwart legislation aimed at eventually securing equal rights for African-Americans echoed the nineteenth century filibusterers’ aims to secure the permanent status of southern slavery — based as it was on the domination of blacks by whites. Both types of filibusters, then, involved reactionary attempts by conservatives to maintain current social and economic hierarchies. Thus, the term “filibuster,” which originally characterized a piratical conqueror of foreign territory, came to define a type of piratical legislative maneuver in which a senator attempted to defeat the passage of a bill, or at least run off with some legislative booty via concessions from the bill’s sponsors.

Thurmond’s 1957 filibuster remains the longest spoken filibuster on record. He held the Senate floor from 8:54 pm on August 28 until 9:12 pm the next day. To fill the time, he read the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and other historical documents, and before his marathon talk, he took steam baths to dehydrate his body so as to avoid running to the John mid-speech. Thurmond’s filibuster failed to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but he was more concerned with making a grand statement than he was with stopping the bill. And that statement was one of vociferous protest against racial equality, a theme that directly connected Thurmond’s bloviating with the nineteenth century pro-slavery filibusterers of the southern past. The South Carolina senator did not advocate slavery, but he supported the same racist social order that had underpinned slavery before the Civil War.

Strom Thurmond: the embodiment of 20th century filibustering just to be a jerk.

Strom Thurmond: the embodiment of twentiethth century filibustering just to be a jerk.

The historian Richard Hofstadter made this connection in the late 1940s when he wrote about the long theme of racial hierarchy that connected the antebellum South to Thurmond and his Dixiecrat allies. “What makes the situation in the mid-twentieth century most similar to that of a hundred years earlier is that the doctrine of white supremacy and the state of race relations in the nation at large once again have powerful critics,” Hofstadter wrote.* In the case of nineteenth century filibusterers like Walker and Quitman, those critics were northerners who would thwart southern designs to expand slavery. For the filibustering Thurmond, those critics were agents of the federal government who sought to force racial equality on the South.

In both cases, however, conservatives reacted against threats that might upend the South’s system of racial hierarchy. As historian Nadine Cohodas notes in her book Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, “Thurmond stoked the fires of resistance…to his constituents. He was a cheerleader for segregation, even if the cheers he led were not always couched in racial terms but in the antiseptic rhetoric of states’ rights.”* The claim of state’s rights was, of course, the same rhetoric used by nineteenth century southern filibusterers looking to shirk U.S. neutrality laws by claiming that the federal government had no legal right to interfere with racial slavery at the state level. As an aside, Thurmond’s segregationist stances didn’t stop him from fathering illegitimate children with his black servants, just as fears of “miscegenation” didn’t stop antebellum slaveholders from having offspring producing trysts with their human property.

The abuse of the filibuster by the contemporary GOP, then, is in keeping with a long tradition in which conservative minority parties in the U.S. government sought to enforce their will, or at least protest change, by mounting reactionary displays either on the Senate floor or in the jungles of Central America. Of course, the GOP is not defending slavery or racial apartheid, but they are continuing a reactionary American tradition in which conservatives sought to gum up the governmental works in the name of protesting change that might advance historically liberal agendas.

That the GOP is now strongest in the South, where it receives the most intense support for using the filibuster to block every and any appointment by the first black President, only further highlight how the past is always present, even if it can’t prevent the march of social change. No wonder Harry Reid voted to kill the filibuster: some things have to change, regardless of what conservatives think. Besides, the GOP has already vowed to use the “nuclear option” for its own benefits when they inevitably regain control of the senate. Ah, the good times march on.

* See William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Vol. II, Secessionists Triumphant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 145, 148, 165-66.

* See Richard Hofstadter, “From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats,” Social Research 16 (June, 1949): 141.

* See Nadine Cohodas, Strom Thurmond & the Politics of Southern Change (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993), 14.

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