Acts of piracy

The history of 'filibuster'

During Wendy Davis’ “filibuster” of the Texas Senate in May, seeking to block a bill to limit abortions, Gov. Rick Perry said the tactic was “nothing more than the hijacking of the democratic process.” Those words were echoed in the runup to the US Senate’s elimination of “filibustering” for most presidential nominees last week.

Equating a “filibuster” to a crime like “hijacking” is neither inaccurate nor partisan. Without any intention to support or decry the Senate action, or the tactic, remember that the word “filibuster” itself derives from dastardly deeds.

Of “filibuster,” The Oxford English Dictionary says, “the ultimate source is certainly the Dutch vrijbuiter,” or “freebooter,” “a privateer … a piratical adventurer, a pirate; any person who goes about in search of plunder.” From the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, the OED says, the preferred term in English was the French “fibustier.” But about “1850-54,” the OED says, the form “filibuster,” from the Spanish filibustero, “began to be employed as the designation of certain adventurers who at that time were active in the W. Indies and Central America.”
In fact, the first appearance of “filibuster” in The New York Times was in the 1852 accounts of people accused of running provisions to Cuba in support of attempts to overthrow Spanish rule.

Robert E. May, author of Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America, said “filibuster” emerged as the preferred term for private military expeditions in 1850 or 1851: “The term filibustering entered circulation so suddenly that in September 1851 a religious journal in Boston actually took note of its advent, cautioning to no effect that this ‘vulgarism’ might become accepted language if the press kept utilizing it.”

The press did.

Around that same time, the OED says, someone in the Congressional Globe wrote: “I saw my friend…filibustering, as I thought, against the United States.” In 1889, the noun appeared, referring to the person blocking the action, not the act itself. Within a few years, though, the noun “filibuster” was being applied to “an act of obstruction in a legislative assembly,” the OED says. Its use is “chiefly American.” The people doing it now are called “filibusterers,” or other words that can’t be printed here.
In 2011, John Nichols wrote a piece for The Nation detailing the political history of the term, noting that “‘filibuster’ was first used in a legislative context to describe those who hijacked the legislative process.” (Emphasis added.)

According to a Google Ngram, which traces the frequency of the use of a word in Google’s digitized database, use of the word “filibuster” was at its highest in the mid-1960s, when Southern Democrats had used the filibuster several times in attempts to block the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In 1957, Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, “filibustered” for more than 24 hours to stall voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

So this news article describing a “day and night” that was “spent in meaningless voting on motions to adjourn, made by the Democratic filibusters” determined to block voting on the Civil Rights Act, is a familiar one.

Except that it was from The New York Times of January 28, 1875, for voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed equal treatment for blacks in public places. That act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.

As a pirate might say, Arrrrr.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.