Wilmot, David

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David Wilmot was a lawyer, judge, U.S. senator, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1845 to 1851 the Pennsylvania Democrat served in the House where he drew national attention for his 1846 proposal. The wilmot proviso banned the expansion of slavery into the territories newly acquired from Mexico. Wilmot's disenchantment with slavery and the democratic party's support of it eventually led him to help form the republican party.

Wilmot was born on January 20, 1814, in Bethany, Pennsylvania. He studied the law with an attorney and became a member of the Pennsylvania bar in 1834. He established a law practice in Towanda and was soon recognized as an able lawyer.

However, politics drew Wilmot's interest. He became active in the Democratic Party and in 1845 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Wilmot strongly supported President

james k. polk and the Mexican War that began in 1845. When President Polk requested a congressional appropriation of $2 million to purchase land from Mexico, however, Wilmot vehemently objected to suggestions that slavery could be established in the newly acquired areas. He introduced the Wilmot Proviso to ban the spread of slavery but could not secure passage by both houses of Congress.

Wilmot left Congress in 1851, disenchanted with the compromise of 1850, which admitted California into the Union as a free state but gave the Utah and New Mexico territories the right to determine the slavery issue for themselves at the time of their admission to the Union. Most disturbing to Wilmot were the new powers given to the federal government to enforce the fugitive slave act (9 Stat. 462).

Wilmot served as a Pennsylvania state judge from 1851 to 1861. In 1854 he, along with disaffected members of the Democratic and Whig parties, helped form the Republican Party. The Republican Party was antislavery and adopted the Wilmot Proviso language as part of its platform. Wilmot became a prominent member of the party and was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served the 1861–63 term.

A strong defender of the Union, Wilmot supported President abraham lincoln in the early years of the u.s. civil war. Lincoln appointed Wilmot a judge of the U.S. Court of Claims in 1863, a post he served until 1868.

"Democracy is a principle of eternal justice."
David Wilmot

Wilmot died on March 16, 1868, in Towanda, Pennsylvania.

further readings

Going, Charles. 1924. David Wilmot, Free-Soiler: A Biography of the Great Advocate of the Wilmot Proviso. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1966.


Compromise of 1850; Republican Party; "Wilmot Proviso" (Appendix, Primary Document).

David Wilmot

views updated May 23 2018

David Wilmot

As the author of the Wilmot Proviso, David Wilmot (1814-1868), U.S. congressman, initiated the legislative effort to prohibit the expansion of slavery.

David Wilmot, the son of a prosperous merchant, was born in Bethany, Pa., on Jan. 20, 1814. He studied law, was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1834, and opened a practice in Towanda, Pa., in 1836, shortly after his marriage. He became more interested in politics than in law. An active and ardent Jacksonian Democrat, noted for his extemporaneous oratorical skills, he played a major role in Pennsylvania's Democratic state convention in 1844 and won a congressional seat, which he held from 1845 to 1851.

Initially Wilmot loyally supported the measures of James K. Polk's administration, although he had strongly supported Polk's opponent, Martin Van Buren, in the 1844 Democratic National Convention. During the Mexican War, however, Wilmot and other Northern and Western Democrats became convinced that Polk's policies would give the Southern wing of the party permanent dominance. Proslavery political power had already been enhanced by the acquisition of Texas. Northern and Western Democrats feared its further growth through the potential acquisition of more slave territory from Mexico.

Thus, when Polk requested funds to conduct peace negotiations with Mexico in 1846, Wilmot attached to the appropriations bill his famous proviso that slavery be absolutely prohibited in any territory acquired through those negotiations. Wilmot's measure passed in the House of Representatives but was blocked in the Senate. The Southern congressional bloc, led by John C. Calhoun, immediately countered with resolutions stating that property rights ("property" including slaves) were guaranteed by the Constitution and had to be fully protected in all Federal territories.

The principles stated in this debate permanently polarized proslavery and antislavery factions. Attempts at reconciliation—in the Compromise of 1850 and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act—only temporarily averted the confrontation. Ultimately the controversy over slavery in the territories split the nation's political parties asunder. When Abraham Lincoln, pledging unalterable opposition to any future extension of slavery in the United States, was elected in 1860, the slave states refused to accept their political defeat, and the stage was set for the Civil War.

Wilmot made no further notable political contributions. He held a judgeship from 1851 until 1861 and served in the U.S. Senate from 1861 to 1863. Lincoln appointed him to a Federal judgeship which he retained until his death on March 16, 1868, in Towanda.

Further Reading

Charles B. Going, David Wilmot: Free-Soiler (1924; new ed. 1966), is a thorough and competent biography. A lengthy discussion of the Wilmot Proviso is in Allen Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (2 vols., 1947). □

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