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"William Walker, Of Nicaragua": Filibusters, Illustrated Newspapers, and the Malleability of Imperial Citizenship

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Abstract:

The filibustering of William Walker in Nicaragua during the 1850s presents a significant though often overlooked moment in U.S. history that unsettles the political and legal borders distinguishing domestic space from the foreign, which in turn complicates the boundaries of national identity. While at first glance Walker’s brief takeover of Nicaragua and the reinstitution of slavery in that country appear as an unconventional assertion of an individual U.S. citizen seeking personal power, recent scholarship has situated Walker and other filibusters firmly within the context of national territorial expansion, fueled by the ideology of Manifest Destiny. However, little critical attention has been paid to how Walker was figured as both a U.S. national subject and a “foreign” ruler in the popular press and at mass political rallies. Moreover, Nicaragua was also simultaneously understood as a part of and apart from “America,” laying bare inherent contradictions embedded within the legitimizing strategies that underwrote imperial expansion.

This paper attends to these contradictions by focusing on representations of both Walker’s and Nicaragua’s equivocal relationship to the United States during the 1850s. Accounts of Walker’s assertion of empire in daily and weekly periodicals served as cultural spaces that simultaneously delimited and extended the location of “America.” In particular, new technologies in print and visual culture such as illustrated newspapers played a significant role in depicting Walker as both a national hero and a legitimate foreign ruler. Written and pictorial accounts published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, for example, helped produce and reproduce the contradictions of U.S. imperialism, gendered and racialized national identity, and the unstable relations between domestic and foreign space, all of which point to the difficulty of defining the legal, cultural, and social place of “America.” In Leslie’s, Walker was positioned as both “American” and “Nicaraguan,” while the Central American country itself was represented as destined to be incorporated within the American home and also figured as immutably foreign.

This paper seeks to engage some of the stakes of American Studies in a transnational context, particularly the ways in which attempts to incorporate new places and peoples within the space of “America” often elicited cultural conflict and an indecisive national response. The representations of Walker’s short-lived conquest of Nicaragua found in this particular archive register the complex relations among new forms of media, empire-building, and the ambivalent attempt to construct discrete, coherent national spaces and identities at a time of great tension and transformation both within the U.S. and the larger world-system. This particular historical moment within the long history of U.S. empire also provides an unique occasion to consider the divergent means of legitimating imperial violence. How do we situate the U.S. government’s condemnation of private armies attacking sovereign countries in relation to state-sanctioned violence? Are these antagonistic, or can they be understood as working together in an attempt to forcefully redraw the boundaries of America? These, and other questions, will help critically situate one of the many transnational spaces marked by violence that shape the American past.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185768_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Lewis, Adam. ""William Walker, Of Nicaragua": Filibusters, Illustrated Newspapers, and the Malleability of Imperial Citizenship" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185768_index.html>

APA Citation:

Lewis, A. , 2007-10-11 ""William Walker, Of Nicaragua": Filibusters, Illustrated Newspapers, and the Malleability of Imperial Citizenship" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185768_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: The filibustering of William Walker in Nicaragua during the 1850s presents a significant though often overlooked moment in U.S. history that unsettles the political and legal borders distinguishing domestic space from the foreign, which in turn complicates the boundaries of national identity. While at first glance Walker’s brief takeover of Nicaragua and the reinstitution of slavery in that country appear as an unconventional assertion of an individual U.S. citizen seeking personal power, recent scholarship has situated Walker and other filibusters firmly within the context of national territorial expansion, fueled by the ideology of Manifest Destiny. However, little critical attention has been paid to how Walker was figured as both a U.S. national subject and a “foreign” ruler in the popular press and at mass political rallies. Moreover, Nicaragua was also simultaneously understood as a part of and apart from “America,” laying bare inherent contradictions embedded within the legitimizing strategies that underwrote imperial expansion.

This paper attends to these contradictions by focusing on representations of both Walker’s and Nicaragua’s equivocal relationship to the United States during the 1850s. Accounts of Walker’s assertion of empire in daily and weekly periodicals served as cultural spaces that simultaneously delimited and extended the location of “America.” In particular, new technologies in print and visual culture such as illustrated newspapers played a significant role in depicting Walker as both a national hero and a legitimate foreign ruler. Written and pictorial accounts published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, for example, helped produce and reproduce the contradictions of U.S. imperialism, gendered and racialized national identity, and the unstable relations between domestic and foreign space, all of which point to the difficulty of defining the legal, cultural, and social place of “America.” In Leslie’s, Walker was positioned as both “American” and “Nicaraguan,” while the Central American country itself was represented as destined to be incorporated within the American home and also figured as immutably foreign.

This paper seeks to engage some of the stakes of American Studies in a transnational context, particularly the ways in which attempts to incorporate new places and peoples within the space of “America” often elicited cultural conflict and an indecisive national response. The representations of Walker’s short-lived conquest of Nicaragua found in this particular archive register the complex relations among new forms of media, empire-building, and the ambivalent attempt to construct discrete, coherent national spaces and identities at a time of great tension and transformation both within the U.S. and the larger world-system. This particular historical moment within the long history of U.S. empire also provides an unique occasion to consider the divergent means of legitimating imperial violence. How do we situate the U.S. government’s condemnation of private armies attacking sovereign countries in relation to state-sanctioned violence? Are these antagonistic, or can they be understood as working together in an attempt to forcefully redraw the boundaries of America? These, and other questions, will help critically situate one of the many transnational spaces marked by violence that shape the American past.

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