Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 1: President Polk Bites the Bullet

Like most of you, I have read about the Wilmot Proviso. But I’ve never actually read the proceedings as recorded in the Congressional Globe for myself. I thought we’d read along together.

As the First Session of the 29th Congress was drawing to a close in August 1846, President James K. Polk had a problem. Having launched a war against Mexico in May, he anticipated wresting large chunks of territory from that country. He needed money that he could use in connection with the negotiation of a treaty by which the United States would acquire that land.

This, Polk knew, was a political hot potato. As David Potter has explained, Polk had earlier tried to arrange funding through a vote “in secret executive session by the Senate,” which would then be ratified by the House without debate. This attempt failed because the Whigs had “made it clear that publicity would be the price of their support.”

Polk therefore decided to bite the bullet. August 8, 1846 was a Saturday. Congress had already voted to adjourn on Monday August 10, “and both houses were in the usual end-of-session turmoil.” President Polk gambled that, if he made his request that Saturday, there would sufficient time to pass an authorizing bill following a short debate. At about noon, he therefore sent to Congress a public message in which he expressed the hope that Mexico might cede territory and requested that the sum of $2 million be appropriated for that purpose:
I invite your attention to the propriety of making an appropriation to provide for any expenditure which it may be necessary to make in advance for the purpose of settling all our difficulties with the Mexican republic. It is my sincere desire to terminate, as it was originally to avoid, the existing war with Mexico by a peace just and honorable to both parties. It is probable that the chief obstacle to be surmounted in accomplishing this desirable object, will be the adjustment of a boundary between the two republics, which shall prove satisfactory and convenient to both, and such as neither will hereafter be inclined to disturb. In the adjustment of this boundary, we ought to pay a fair equivalent for any concessions which may be made by Mexico.

Under these circumstances, and considering the other complicated questions to be settled by negotiation with the Mexican republic, I deem it important that a sum of money should be placed under the control of the Executive, to be advanced, if need be, to the government of that republic immediately after their ratification of a treaty. . .

. . . I would, therefore, recommend the passage of a law appropriating two millions of dollars, to be placed at the disposal of the Executive, for the purposes which I have indicated. . . .

Immediately after the Speaker of the House, John Wesley Davis (Democrat, Indiana), laid the president’s recommendation before that body, Joseph Reed Ingersoll, a Whig representing a Pennsylvania district adjoining Philadelphia, moved to refer the proposal to the Ways and Means Committee, “with instructions to report a bill in conformity with the suggestion of the President.” Given the imminent conclusion of the Congressional session, Ingersoll’s motion was clearly designed to derail the president’s initiative.

Democrats leapt to the President’s defense. George C. Dromgoole (Democrat, Virginia) moved that the message instead be considered by the House sitting as a Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union. Speaker Davis, a Democrat, ruled that Representative Drumgoole’s motion had precedence and would be voted on first. The motion passed, and the House promptly “resolved itself into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union.”

President Polk had clearly conferred in advance with the Democratic leadership, for James Iver McKay, a Democrat from North Carolina and the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, had already written “a bill, (for the purpose, he said, of carrying into effect the recommendation of the President),” which he promptly offered for consideration:
AN ACT making further provision for the expenses attending the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations.

Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a sum of $2,000,000, in addition to the provision heretofore made, be, and the same is hereby, appropriated, for the purpose of defraying any extraordinary expenses which may be incurred in the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations, to be paid out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, and to be applied under the direction of the President of the United States , who shall cause an account of the expenditure thereof to be laid before Congress as soon as may be.

The debate quickly descended into a procedural free-for-all. To make a long story short, the House ultimately agreed, as the hour of the 3 p.m. approached, to recess until 5 p.m. The House approved Representative McKay’s motion that, when debate on the message was re-commenced, “all debate on the said message shall terminate in two hours after it shall again have been taken up in committee.”

After briefly considering other issues, the House recessed. The Representatives would reconvene at 5:00 p.m., after they had had dinner, and perhaps a few drinks. A momentous evening awaited them.

The picture is of Speaker of the House John Wesley Davis of Indiana.

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