Monday, March 31, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 2: Hugh White Pleads for an Amendment

Saturday August 8, 1846 had been a typically oppressive August day in the District of Columbia. After a long and contentious session during the day, many members of the House were not eager to return to the steamy chamber after supper for a frantic and potentially difficult evening session. The Congressional Globe reported that, when the House reconvened at 5:00 p.m., “but a very small portion of a quorum . . . was present.” Subsequent votes indicated that perhaps 172 of 228 members ultimately straggled in. Some, according to David Potter, were partially intoxicated. Ice water and fans were in heavy supply.

The House began the session by considering and disposing of a number of non-controversial bills and resolutions, such as “A bill for the relief of Ebenezer Conant,” and “A bill declaratory of the powers, and legalizing certain acts, of the chief clerk of the Patent Office.”

After disposing of these matters, Democratic Rep. James Iver McKay of North Carolina – who had acted as the administration’s point person on the President’s message during the afternoon – began to turn the House toward that issue, by moving that the House resolve itself, once again, “into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union.” The House did so, with Rep. Moses Norris, Jr., a Democrat from New Hampshire, acting as Chair of the Committee.

The Committee briefly considered two other matters and then turned to the President’s message. Rep. McKay promptly moved that the Committee consider the request and the implementing bill that he had introduced during the afternoon (quoted in my last post). Before doing so, he pointedly reminded the members that debate was strictly limited: a total of two hours, and no more than ten minutes per speaker.

Given the limits of debate, the Chair, Rep. Norris, presumably had substantial discretion as to which members to recognize. Perhaps he figured that he had to give the Whigs their pound of flesh and decided it was better to get the objections out of the way. Whether for that reason or another, he first recognized a Whig, Hugh White of upstate New York.

Rep. White launched into a bitter denunciation of both the procedure, designed to stifle debate, and the substance of the message and bill:
My efforts to obtain the floor [earlier in the day] while they [the issues relating to the message and bill] were under discussion were unavailing; had it been otherwise, I should then, as I shall in my published remarks, denounce the measure as fraught with more mischief and positive evil to the people of this country than any man has ability to estimate or comprehend . . ..

Rep. White then raised the issue that, he believed, had prompted the President to provoke a war: slavery:
I repeat, sir, I have no confidence in this application for money; territory is what is sought after, and I cannot give my sanction to this appropriation, unless the bill upon your table shall be so amended as to forever preclude the possibility of extending the limits of slavery.

Rep. White did not himself propose to amend the proposed bill to achieve this result. Instead, he implored his Democratic colleagues to do so:
And I call upon gentlemen on the other side of the House to bring forward such amendments as shall effectually prevent the further acquisition of territory, which may be caused by the adoption of that institution [slavery]. I call upon the other side of the House to propose such an amendment, not only as an evidence of their desire to restrain that institution within its constitutional limits, but as a guaranty that the President will honestly and faithfully apply the funds so generously placed in his hands to the ends specified in his message.

There is no evidence establishing that Rep, White knew that Democrats were about to propose the amendment he urged. However, his eloquent plea certainly leaves open the possibility that he was tipped off or had heard a rumor of the plans of David Wilmot and his co-conspirators.

The picture is of Committee Chair Moses Norris, Jr.

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