WILMOT PROVISO. Immediately after the beginning of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), President James Polk asked Congress for $2 million, which he intended to use to buy a peace treaty with Mexico. A rider was attached to the bill on 8 August 1846, by David Wilmot, a little-known Democratic representative from Pennsylvania. The Wilmot Proviso, as it became known, would forbid the extension of slavery to any territory acquired from Mexico. The proviso caused a split among the Democrats as northerners supported it and southerners opposed it. Polk eventually got his appropriation, but Congress rejected the Wilmot Proviso after a bitter debate. The provision was reintroduced several times afterward, but never approved.
The implications of the Wilmot Proviso were far reaching. Wilmot's action was on behalf of a group of northern Democrats who were angry over Polk's political appointments, his apparent proslavery actions in Texas, his compromise with Great Britain over the Oregon issue, and Polk's veto of a rivers and harbors bill supported by midwestern Democrats. Many northern Democrats were also resentful of the domination of the party by southerners, feeling they had made too many concessions to the southern wing in the past, and that the war with Mexico was an act of aggression designed to expand slavery. As a result, the Wilmot Proviso sparked what would become a rancorous national debate on the question of expanding slavery into the territories.
All but one northern state legislature endorsed the Wilmot Proviso, while southern legislatures expressed their determination to resist it. Southern slaveholders resented the proviso as it seemed to stigmatize them, suggesting that they were not the equals of northerners. More importantly, southerners feared that if slavery could not expand, the slave system would slowly be strangled once it was surrounded by free territories. Prominent senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina argued that the territories were the common property of all the states, and Congress lacked the power to prevent persons from taking their property into a territory; therefore slavery was legal in all the territories. Failure to uphold this principle, Calhoun declared, would destroy the balance between the free and slave states. At the end of 1847, Michigan's Democratic senator Lewis Cass argued for what would become known as "popular sovereignty" by proposing that the territories decide the slavery question themselves. This idea attracted support from both northern and southern Democrats, each of whom interpreted the concept to fit their own views about the expansion of slavery.
Polk seems not to have understood the nature of the debate, holding that the slavery issue was a domestic problem and not a question of foreign policy. The president failed to recognize the question was, indeed, a major foreign policy issue. Expansion had been a significant aspect of American foreign policy since colonial days. The end of the Mexican-American War would leave either slave owners or anti-slave forces in control of an enormous amount of new territory; in time, the winner could control the government. Polk thought that Congress was raising the issue in order to embarrass him; he felt slavery could not exist in the poor soil conditions of northern Mexico.
The proviso served to heighten sectional animosity, and later efforts to pass the measure only provoked further debate. The modern Republican Party would be founded on the principle of halting slavery's expansion, and Abraham Lincoln would be elected to the presidency on a platform that promised to carry out the principles of the Wilmot Proviso.
Foner, Eric. "The Wilmot Proviso Revisited." Journal of American History 56 (1969): 262–279.
Morrison, Chaplain W. Democratic Politics and Sectionalism: The Wilmot Proviso Controversy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
The 1846 Wilmot Proviso was a bold attempt by opponents of slavery to prevent its introduction in the territories purchased from Mexico following the Mexican War. Named after its sponsor, Democratic representative david wilmot of Pennsylvania, the proviso never passed both houses of Congress, but it did ignite an intense national debate over slavery that led to the creation of the antislavery republican party in 1854.
The Mexican War of 1845–1846 was fueled, in part, by the desire of the United States to annex Texas. President james polk asked Congress in August 1846 for $2 million to help him negotiate peace and settle the boundary with Mexico. Polk sought the acquisition of Texas and other Mexican territories. Wilmot quickly offered his proposal, known as the Wilmot Proviso, which he attached to President Polk's funding measure. The proviso would have prohibited slavery in the new territories acquired from Mexico, including California.
The proviso injected the controversial slavery issue into the funding debate, but the House approved the bill and sent it to the Senate for action. The Senate, however, adjourned before discussing the issue.
When the next Congress convened, a new appropriations bill for $3 million was presented, but the Wilmot Proviso was again attached to the measure. The House passed the bill and the Senate was forced to consider the proposal. Under the leadership of Senator john c. calhoun of South Carolina and other proslavery senators, the Senate refused to accept the Wilmot amendment, approving the funds for negotiations without the proviso.
For several years, the Wilmot Proviso was offered as an amendment to many bills, but it was never approved by the Senate. However, the repeated introduction of the proviso kept the issue of slavery before the Congress and the nation. The compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state but left the issue of slavery up to the citizens of New Mexico and Utah, created dissension within the Democratic and Whig parties. The strengthening of federal enforcement of the fugitive slave act (9 Stat. 462) angered many northerners and led to growing sectional conflict.
The creation of the Republican Party in 1854 was based on an antislavery platform that endorsed the Wilmot Proviso. The prohibition of slavery in any new territories became a party tenet, with Wilmot himself emerging as Republican Party leader. The Wilmot Proviso, while unsuccessful as a congressional amendment, proved to be a battle cry for opponents of slavery.
Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. 1995. Sectional Crisis and Southern Constitutionalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press.
Morrison, Chaplain W. 1967. Democratic Politics and Sectionalism: The Wilmot Proviso Controversy. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.
Rayback, Joseph G. 1971. Free Soil: The Election of 1848. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.
Compromise of 1850;"Wilmot Proviso"(Appendix, Primary Document).
The Wilmot Proviso was an unsuccessful congressional amendment, offered for the first time in 1846, that sought to ban slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico after the Mexican War. Named after its sponsor, Democratic Representative david wilmot of Pennsylvania, the proviso never passed both houses of Congress, but it did ignite an intense national debate over slavery that led to the creation of the antislavery Republican party in 1854.
In August 1846 President james k. polk asked Congress for $2 million to help him negotiate peace and settle the boundary with Mexico. Polk sought the acquisition of Texas and other Mexican territories. Wilmot quickly offered his amendment, which he attached to Polk's funding measure. The House approved the bill and sent it to the Senate for action. The Senate, however, adjourned before discussing the issue.
When the next Congress convened, a new appropriations bill for $3 million was presented, but the Wilmot Proviso was again attached to the measure. The House passed the bill, and the Senate was forced to consider the proposal. Under the leadership of Senator john c calhoun of South Carolina and other proslavery senators, the Senate refused to accept the Wilmot amendment and approved the funds for the negotiations without the proviso.
Though the amendment was never enacted, it became a rallying point for opponents of slavery. The creation of the republican party in 1854 was based on an antislavery platform that endorsed the Wilmot Proviso.
Source: Congressional Globe, 29th Congress, 1st session (August 12, 1846), p. 1217.
Provided, that, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.