the filibuster in us history.

The filibuster is a parliamentary procedure where someone, rather than use speaking time to contribute to a debate on some legislation before a vote, speaks interminably so that the debate never conclused and the legislative body runs out of time to get to a vote. This practice occurs when a legislature has limited time to vote on an issue but gives its members unlimited time to speak, and it is a powerful tool to shutter debate on specific issues or even drive the functioning of a body to a halt.


In the United States, there have been many famous filibusters over the years on serious political issues:

strom thurmond

24 hours, 18 minutes.

rand paul

12 hours, 52 minutes.

bernie sanders

8 hours, 37 minutes.

Like the filibusterers themselves, the filibuster itself is a polarizing tactic. Some consider it an embarrassment. Some go as far to call it the ‘Soul of the Senate.’ Recently in the United States, it has been consistently abused to prevent bills from passing, so much so that lawmakers have even voiced the option to revise existing laws to severely limit the practice.

One interesting aspect of the filibuster is why it’s called a filibuster. The history is somewhat surprising.


The word “filibuster” is original derived from a Dutch term for robber or privateer (vrijbuiter), later adopted by the Spanish (filibustero) during its colonial era. The Spanish used the word to describe freewheeling pirates and privateers who raided Spanish colonies and merchant ships. As piracy declined over the years, so did the usage of the word. This lasted until the 1850’s, when much of Latin America was in colonial revolt. Governments, colonial or otherwise, simply lacked the internal stability and power to maintain order within their borders. Suspension of law and order restored an environment that allowed pirates to flourish in the 16th century.

By this time, major changes had taken place in the world. Spain had lost most of its eminence in Europe and its power in its colonies. It had been supplanted by France and, to a much greater extent, England and the United States. These nations were in varying degrees in conflict with one another, trying to establish control new emerging Latin American nations. Establishing control would benefit the controller materially, as much of Latin America possessed a considerable amount of resources, and it would also destabilize indigenous governments and prevent them from emerging as a competing power later on. Some efforts were overt, such as the US wars with Mexico and the later French invasion, but others were not. Successful nations began to develop new political ideologies that explained their own military successes as reflective of their own cultural superiority and the conquered’s misfortunes as evidence of their cultural deficiencies. This mindset motivated much of the positive opinions of Britain and its empire-building and the United States and its westward expansion (Manifest Destiny).

william walker
William Walker.

Some individuals, motivated by national and/or religious fervor, took it upon themselves to carry out what they believed to be the natural tendency of history - overthrow of Latin American governments in favor of Anglo-dominated colonial states. Filibuster, a term that had originally been associated with simple pirates, entered the English language to identify these politically-motivated brigands who took arms against emerging indigenous governments.

The filibusters themselves were at times helped by their respective governments, who intended to use them to carry out plausibly-deniable acts against foreign nations, also known as false flag operations. The most notorious example is William Walker, who travelled to Nicaragua to overthrow the government with tacit support from the United States and, upon success, was recognized as the legitimate leader of the country by the Pierce administration. When local militias united against him, he was rescued and returned to the United States by the British.

Many other examples of this exist. The wikipedia page alone lists William Blount, Augustus W. Magee, George Mathews, George Rogers Clark, William S. Smith, Ira Allen, William A. Chanler, James Long, and Gregor MacGregor. The combined effort of all of them reduced many Latin American nations to decades of revolutions, government abuse, and even anarchy.

Of course, at this point, you may wonder what this has to do with parliamentary filibustering.

The history is important because it establishes this - filibustering is an illegitimate attempt by an individual for political reasons to undermine and even usurp an existing government. This was noted within the United States, and in the 1850s, it was used to pejoratively describe people who abused Senate rules to monopolize time and prevent action on legislation.

Essentially, the practice that is a legitimate debate tactic gets its name from an insult that its practitioners were undermining the country.