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Romantic On The Loose

July 2024
5min read

The 1850’s have been called the tormented decade of American history. In those years the slavery question got entirely out of control. In 1850 the problem might still have been settled by debate, compromise, and mutual arrangement, but by 1860 it was insoluble, and war had become virtually inevitable. The nation’s political machinery became progressively less and less able to deal with the nation’s foremost political issue, and finally it collapsed, at a cost which has not yet been entirely paid.

Symptomatic of the process was the increasing resort to violence. To shoot an antagonist came to seem better than to try to persuade him. Taking up arms against a sea of troubles, men simply made the sea stormier, and while they were doing it, violent action began to look reasonable, even praiseworthy. The readiness to go to war in 1861 rested at least partly on this foundation.

One of the most spectacular of the violent-action men of the 1850’s was a wispy, gray-eyed, oddly taciturn man named William Walker, who had a thirst for direct action which seems excessive even for that troubled era and who became the most spectacular filibuster of his times. Properly enough, he at last met the violent end he appears to have courted, but for a while he was famous, the hero of those romantic southern fire-eaters who dreamed of foiling the North by creating a slave-state empire around the shores of the Caribbean Sea.

Today Walker is half-forgotten, remembered only as a troublemaker who fortunately met a firing squad before he had quite exhausted his potential for harm. Yet he was a good deal more complex than he looks, and if he brought tragedy to others he brought it most of all to himself. For this man who became the idol of the most unrestrained advocates of slavery was through most of his life a firm antislavery man and a dedicated friend of the downtrodden. He died at last serving a cause which he would not have dreamed of embracing when he began—driven to it simply because he had become the prisoner of his own eccentric career. William Walker, in short, is worth a second glance, and a genuinely first-rate biography of the man is available in The World and William Walker , by Albert Z. Carr.

Essentially, as Mr. Carr makes clear, Walker was an intense, highly strung romantic in search of a cause. Tennessee-born and raised, he was given a solid education as a physician, but he quickly gave up the practice of medicine, apparently because it bored him. He then read law, but abandoned the practice of law for the same reason; and he found a more congenial career at last as a newspaperman, first in New Orleans and later in San Francisco. In the early 1850’s he was swept away from his moorings by the tide of “manifest destiny,” and he discovered Latin America—conceiving that here was the nation’s chance to fulfill a lofty mission and his own chance to win fame.

His motives were mixed, of course, and the international situation was more so. France apparently had designs on Mexico, England had a grip on Central America and seemed bent on extending it, and most Latin Americans seemed miserably misgoverned and desperately in need of the hope which an extension of democratic institutions and ideals would bring. Walker wanted to help the underdog and foil the conscienceless Europeans; he also, quite simply, wanted dazzling adventures. As Mr. Carr remarks, “his true profession was heroism.” So his new career began.

With an “army” of a few dozen San Franciscans, Walker invaded Mexico, aiming at conquest of the state of Sonora. That he met grotesque failure was beside the point. He proved himself a good soldier and an uncommonly gifted leader of men, his exploit somehow struck the American people as romantic, and he had found his métier. By 1856 he had recruited another raggle-taggle army, had gone to Central America, and had made himself undisputed master of Nicaragua.

He was not the typical filibuster. For one thing, he held his odd little army under strict discipline, so that it neither raped nor looted. The underprivileged peons liked him, and he had a genuine desire to make his conquest mean more than personal aggrandizement. He saw himself, in a cloudy but sincere way, as the agent of a beneficent American democracy. He would bring true freedom, justice, and economic advancement to the people of Central America. Doing all of this he would to be sure become a famous hero, but he would be a good hero.

The World and William Walker, by Albert Z. Carr. Harper & Row. 289 pp. $5.95.

Obviously enough, Walker was somewhat mixed, in his motives and in the way he rationalized them. Here he was the true product of his era, which had much the same difficulties. As Mr. Carr remarks:

“This man with the pedestrian name painted his exotic adventures on so large a canvas, in such brilliant colors, and in so surrealistic a style that it is easy to miss their inner meaning. Through his story the politics of an age may be discerned. His achievements were intimately connected with great issues—whether the Civil War would be fought—where the canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would be dug —whether Cuba and Central America would become part of the United States. The pattern of America’s present-day relations with the Latin-American countries was largely set in Walker’s time, and in spite of him. There is even perhaps in the background of the strange Walker saga a kind of Neanderthal anticipation of the dilemma in which the world finds itself in the mid-twentieth century.”

For Walker had stepped in beyond his depth. It was one thing to overthrow a Nicaraguan government which was disliked by most of its citizens, but by now he had the enmity of extremely powerful interests. The British government strongly opposed him, as did the governments of France and Spain, not to mention the governments of the other Central American republics and an influential bloc of Nicaraguans. Implacable Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose trans-Nicaraguan transportation system was being deranged, very much wanted him out of there. In the long run he could survive only if the government of the United States supported him. And this in the end the government refused to do—partly because the business struck Washington as pretty risky, and partly because it was beginning to look as if Walker might actually stand as a barrier to American territorial expansion in the Caribbean.

Then, at last, the ultra-slavery men of the cotton states offered their aid. They had dreamed of a slave-state empire embracing practically everything from Cuba to Panama. Here, apparently, was the man who could win it for them. If he would forget about bringing a better life to the peons and come out instead for slavery, they could provide recruits, arms, money—and, in the course of time, an independent Southern Confederacy which would expand to the southward and in which he would become a key figure.

By now Walker was in despair. In the face of the rising pressures he could not stay in Nicaragua; he let his ideals go, embracing the cause of expansionist slavery, and became that saddest of figures, the romantic who gives up the essence of his dream in order to seize what looks like the main chance. He went back to the United States, threw himself into the arms of the fire-eaters, raised a new expedition, went down to try the conquest of Honduras—and, in 1860, was beaten, and went to his execution before the rifles of a Honduran firing squad. The fire-eaters had promised him much more than they could deliver, and to get it he had given up much more than he could afford to lose.

His country promptly forgot him, of course. He could remain forgotten, except that he does stand as a symbol of the iSso’s. Trying to do good, he at last did evil; attempting to take a fighter’s way out of perplexity, he succeeded in the end only in making his own problem, as he helped to make America’s, insoluble.

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