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Sat Feb 27, 2021, 07:27 PM

The bizarre back story of the filibuster

BY ROBERT E. MAY, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 02/27/21 06:00 PM EST 2THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL

As Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) dance around whether or not the Senate should end the filibuster’s stranglehold over legislation, it is instructive to recall the term’s linguistic roots and original meaning.

Derived from a Dutch word for freebooter (vrijbuiter), the word first appeared in English before the Civil War. In those days, when Americans spoke of filibusters, they meant private armed groups mounting criminal military expeditions against foreign countries from U.S. territory.

Not only were such invasions of other sovereignties illegal under the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1818; like piracy, they violated international law. Such assaults alarmed governments and legal theorists because they risked triggering unwanted wars. To grasp the danger, one only need ponder what might happen today if groups of Americans with AK-47s attacked Hong Kong on China’s coast or Russian positions in the Crimea. On Jan. 6, far-right extremists attacking the U.S. Capitol revealed in a domestic context the peril of escalation when random groups of armed private citizens assume the right to determine national policy by armed force. Filibusters before the Civil War put nations on both sides of the Atlantic in jeopardy of fighting unsought wars.


Throughout the nation’s history, starting long before the term was even coined, filibustering intruded into U.S. politics. Few Americans today are aware, despite all the focus on impeachment in the last year, that America’s first impeachment trial (during the John Adams administration) concerned an accused filibuster — U.S. Senator William Blount. That Tennessean was tried for organizing an invasion of Spanish North American territory beyond U.S. borders. Before the Civil War, almost all of America’s best remembered politicians — Clay, Calhoun, Lincoln, Douglas, Webster, Davis, Jackson, Polk, Seward among them — were compelled to stake out positions on filibustering, because the expeditions were simply so salient politically, diplomatically, and sectionally.

More:
https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/540825-the-bizarre-back-story-of-the-filibuster

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