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HOW CAN A representative democracy obstruct a majority view? In one word: filibuster. And an example comes to immediate mind: gun control. Here are tidbits on etymology of the word “filibuster,” its evolution in U.S. government practice, and its relationship to this most pressing and horrific problem facing our country.

Definition. According to Merriam-Webster, filibuster has two quite dissimilar definitions: “1: an irregular military adventurer. specifically: an American engaged in fomenting insurrections in Latin America in the mid-19th century. 2 a: the use of extreme dilatory tactics (as by making long speeches) in an attempt to delay or prevent action especially in a legislative assembly. b: an instance of this practice.

Merriam-Webster notes that the first known use of the word was in 1851, in the sense of an irregular military adventurer.

Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, by Eric Partridge, Greenwich House, 1983.

Eric Partridge’s book Origins gives details beginning with the word “booty”: 1. Booty comes from the Middle French butin, plunder. 2. Freebooter, from the Dutch vrijbuiter, became the Spanish flibustero, whence the English filibuster.  

Freebooter image from

Etymological Irony. There’s horrible etymological irony in today’s debate of gun control revolving around our Constitution’s Second Amendment’s protection of “a well-regulated militia.” Note the term “well-regulated,” which clearly does not apply to all of today’s AR-15 wielders. Ironically, they and their proponents are closer to the idea of the Dutch vrijbuiter, as far from “well-regulated” as imaginable.

When in Rome.… The Roman Senate had a rule that all business had to conclude by nightfall. With this in mind, the Roman senator Cato the Younger was known to use prolonged oratory to obstruct law making. One of the times, Cato began a long-winded speech countering Julius Caesar, only to have the latter jail him for the rest of the day. This caused a brouhaha, Cato got released, but Caesar eventually got his way. Cato died by suicide at age 49.

Marcus Porcius Cato “Uticensis” (of Utica), 95 B.C.–46 B.C., aka Cato the Younger, conservative Roman senator during the late Republic. Bronze bust from the Archaeological Museum of Rabat, Morocco; image by Prioryman from Wikipedia.

If you’re seeking a moral in this tale, evidently you’re to be disappointed.

Aaron Burr’s Fine Doing. Wikipedia notes that “In 1789, the first U.S. Senate adopted rules allowing senators to “move the previous question (by simple majority vote)”, which meant ending debate and proceeding to a vote. But Vice President Aaron Burr argued that the previous-question motion was redundant, had only been exercised once in the preceding four years, and should be eliminated, which was done in 1806, after he left office. The Senate agreed and modified its rules. Because it created no alternative mechanism for terminating debate, filibusters became theoretically possible.”

Aaron Burr, Jr., 1756–1836, American politician and lawyer. Third vice president of the U.S. when he killed Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel. Beat the rap, though eventually arrested for treason. Beat that rap too. 

Yet another political tale sans moral. 

Terminating Debate Through Cloture. The United States Senate website notes that “Prior to 1917 the Senate rules did not provide for a way to end debate and force a vote on a measure. That year, the Senate adopted a rule to allow a two-thirds majority to end a filibuster, a procedure known as ‘cloture.’ In 1975 the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds of senators voting to three-fifths of all senators duly chosen and sworn, or 60 of the 100-member Senate.” And this is where things stand today. 

Indeed, just the threat of a filibuster is quite enough to stall legislative action if 60-vote approval isn’t foreseen. Thus, so much for “majority rule.” 

More Bad Guys. Currently it’s Republicans who are toting their guns and threats of filibuster, even though a majority of Americans are for increased measures of gun control.
On the other side of the aisle, Senator Strom Thurmond, Democrat-South Carolina, set the record for longest filibuster (24 hours 18 minutes) against the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. Wikipedia recounts that “he began with readings of every U.S. state’s election laws in alphabetical order. He later read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington’s Farewell Address.”

Wikipedia says other southern Democrats “believed his defiance made them look incompetent to their constituents.”

Imagine that: an incompetent Senator. Quelle surprise. ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022

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