Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 4: "God forbid"

Casting about for a Democrat, the Chair recognized a freshman Representative from Pennsylvania, David Wilmot. David M. Potter explains why the Chair may have made the fateful choice he did:
With debate so stringently limited, the chairman of the Committee of the Whole must have wondered whether to recognize Wilmot or some other claimant. If he did, he may have recalled that the Pennsylvanian had been an exceptionally faithful administration man. Wilmot had voted for measures to carry through the annexation of Texas, already decided by the previous Congress; he had supported the Oregon compromise with its embarrassing retreat from demands for the boundary at 54° 40’; and most important, he had gone down the line for the administration’s tariff reduction when every other Democrat from Pennsylvania crossed party lines to vote against it.

“Within the allotted ten minutes,” in Professor Potter’s words, “Wilmot made a place for himself in history.” His opening sentences no doubt jolted the unsuspecting Chair, for Wilmot began by denouncing the President’s secrecy:
Mr. WILMOT regretted that the President had not disclosed his views. He disliked to act in the dark on this or any subject. If this had been done, and it had been expedient to have received and deliberated upon it publicly, they might have gone into secret session.

Rep. Wilmot’s next sentences were mysterious. While affirming that he believed that the war was “necessary and proper,” and that it was not “a war of conquest,” for that very reason he questioned why the President needed funds. Moreover, he indicated that he intended to offer an amendment, the substance of which he did not immediately disclose:
He would vote for this appropriation in case the amendment he intended to offer was adopted. He disagreed with some of his friends that this was an unnecessary war; he believed it a necessary and proper war. He believed it not to be a war of conquest; if so, he was opposed to it now and hereafter. If this country was now to be forced into such a war, he pronounced it against the spirit of the age, against the holy precepts of our religion; he was opposed to it in every form and shape. But he trusted that the President was sincerely ready to negotiate for an honorable peace.

But the President asked for two millions of dollars for concessions which Mexico was to make. We claim the Rio Grande as our boundary – that was the main cause of the war. Are we now to purchase what we claim as a matter of right? Certainly she was not to be paid for the debts she owes our citizens.

Rep. Wilmot went further: he would be delighted if the United States were to acquire California, provided that it were done “on proper conditions” and “by fair and honorable means:”
Mr. W. took it, therefore, that the President looked to the acquisition of territory in that quarter. To this he had no objection, provided that it were done on proper conditions. On the contrary, he was most earnestly desirous that a portion of territory on the Pacific, including the bay of San Francisco, should come into our possession by fair and honorable means, by purchase or negotiation – not by conquest.

To this point, auditors who did not know what was coming must have been totally befuddled. What on Earth was Wilmot talking about? Then he dropped his bombshell:
But whatever territory might be acquired, he declared himself opposed, now and forever, to the extension of this “peculiar institution” that belongs in the South. He referred to the annexation of Texas, and to his affirmative vote on the proposition connected with it at this session; he was for taking it as it was; slavery had already been established there. But if the free territory comes in, God forbid that he should be the means of planting this institution upon it.

(Emphasis added.)

Rep. Wilmot “concluded by offering an amendment . . . providing against the establishment of slavery, or involuntary servitude, in any territory which may be acquired,” the text of which was as follows:
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 monies 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.

With that, the freshman Representative sat down.

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