Arch Stanton Guest Post: Episode 6 of Today I Learned – William Walker: Imperialist Batman

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You know someone is an interesting historical figure when no one can agree on how to identify them. Abraham Lincoln – President. John Wilkes Booth – guy who shot the President. John Lennon – songwriter. Mark David Chapman – guy who shot Lennon. Let’s get off this path. Describing William Walker’s legacy is a tricky proposition, so let’s quote Wikipedia directly – “an American physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America with the intention of establishing English-speaking slave colonies under his personal control, an enterprise then known as “filibustering”. So let’s get into William Walker’s time as a journalist lol jk we’re going to talk about how he repeatedly appointed himself President of both nonexistent and pre-existing nations. You are goddamn right there’s a story here about the Batman of nation-building.
Starting with the first instance of self-proclaimed presidency in 1853, William Walker and his Macys-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-headed ass unilaterally decided it was his patriotic duty to protect California (recently granted statehood in 1850), and set out with 45 men/soldiers/pre-Minutemen Border Patrol members to conquer the Baja and Sonora provinces of Mexico. Yep, just like that, because that’s how international sovereignty, strategic warfare and the general laws of the universe work – you just decide something and it’s done without any repercussions. So this cluster of assholes (I believe that’s the proper plurality) shows up and just declares the Republic of Lower California to be a thing. They incorporated using Louisiana’s state laws, primarily because of the whole pro-slavery thing, but also because they were very interested in retaining the future right to get alcoholic beverages served to you at drive-thrus. The Mexicans were, unsurprisingly, surprised by their announcement (of the sovereign republic, not the alcohol at drive-thrus thing).
This reign lasted from October 3, 1853 (when the Republic of Lower California was declared) until January 21, 1854, when he seceded an enormous chunk of land to avoid retaliation from the Mexican army. The good news is William Walker could not be deterred, and declared a NEW republic, the Republic of Sonora, with a smaller, more well-defended territory. This territory was founded – you guessed it – January 21, 1854, and lasted until May 8, 1854, which did not end in some grand, noble battle, but instead ol’ Willie Walks fleeing because he was terrified of the impending Mexican war. He went back to California, where he was put on trial for “waging of an illegal war,” which is a thing I had never heard before outside of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Cambodia. Seeing as how this was the era of Manifest Destiny, and showing up and declaring territories as your American was championed across the country, his jury acquitted him in eight minutes.
Shamed by his failure and apprehensive about trifling with the Mexican army again with only a cluster of ill-trained and ill-equipped men, William Walker immediately redirected his patriotic efforts to Nicaragua, where he was set to protect economic interests and trade routes through the country for Pacific-Atlantic trade prior to the construction of the Panama Canal. Nicaragua was currently in a civil war between the Legitimatists (what a Trumpian party name!) and the Liberals, the latter of which needed help and for some baffling reason, decided they needed this 5’2” failed despot to help them.
(Quick detour – in the intro, the word “filibustering” was introduced, and it’s not the one you’re thinking of but is instead the concept of the private citizens showing up in another country to foment dissent or revolution, either with or without their country’s explicit support. Once the “filibuster” takes the country, they are more or less free to do whatever they please; sometimes this mirrors their home nation’s foreign policy interests for the area while other times it reverts to petty dictatorships. The idea is basically a private citizen acts as a foreign policy vigilante. Shockingly, this is a very American form of foreign policy – see the Bay of Pigs, the Philippines, the entire history of Central America. Filibustering is basically William Walker’s raison d’etre.)
So the Liberals ask this guy to show up with 60 men to help stir some shit up. On May 3, 1856, he sets sail from San Francisco for Nicaragua. By July 12, 1856, he would declared himself President of the Republic of Nicaragua. Walker, embracing his role as “Chief Asshole”, rescinds Nicaragua’s emancipation edict freeing all slaves in the hopes it would spurn support of the South who needed allies in the run up to the American Civil War, as well as supply them with more slaves. In a bold move, Willie Walks all but ensured his eventual defeat when one of his first moves as Nicaraguan President was repossessing Cornelius Vanderbilt’s railroads in the region (this story has layers) and gave them to Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison (SO MANY LAYERS) via bogus decrees/substantial bribes, allowing President Franklin Pierce to acknowledge him as the legitimate President of Nicaragua. Imagine Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg pissing in Jeff Bezos cereal with Donald Trump egging them on wait don’t do that because that’s gotta be coming up in the next few newscycles.
So Willie Walks hangs around, and actually kicks some Legitimatist ass for a while, but Costa Rico, Honduras and Guatamala, now with backing from Cornelius Vanderbilt, were not about this white asshole declaring countries his own and perpetuating American interests and uhhh, the slavery thing, and started to push Walker’s forces back. By May 1, 1857, he surrendered and was turned over to the United States Navy, who took him to New York City, where he was revered as a hero, until he shit-talked the Navy and blamed them for the failed… insurrection? War? Revolution? Still not really sure what you call this whole situation.
That’s the end of the story JUST KIDDING this motherfucker was arrested by the US Navy within SIX MONTHS of being returned for trying to return to Central America. SIX MONTHS. Even Hillary is impressed with his perseverance of becoming President despite the universe sending dozens of messages otherwise. Now THAT is the end of the stor- JUST KIDDING in 1860, he was arrested by British colonists in the British Honduras (modern day Belize) for attempting to create an English-speaking government for the region and, presumably, something about slaves. He was turned over to the Honduran authorities, who had just about had enough of this motherfucking shit, and promptly had him executed, proving the only way to rid yourself of an asshole is to have him blindfolded and shot in the face.
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