Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 5: "He approved with his whole heart"

When the freshman Congressman from Pennsylvania took his seat, the ground did not shake; the walls of the chamber did not collapse. So far as one can tell from the Congressional Globe, there was no uproar or outburst. In fact, what seems to have happened was . . . not much. The Chair simply called the next speaker.

Although subsequent speakers referred to Rep. Wilmot’s position and proposed amendment, what is surprising is how restrained most of the reactions were. Perhaps the Congressmen were so surprised by this unexpected turn that they tread cautiously, not knowing what to make of it.

The very next speaker, Washington Hunt of upstate New York, a Whig, spoke briefly to charge the president “with having intended war.” Rep. Hunt took the opportunity to endorse Rep. Wilmot’s position:
If the President desired peace on honorable terms with reference in the difficulties that then existed, Mr. H. would support him; but he was opposed to the acquisition of California, unless upon the terms proposed by the gentleman from Pennsylvania; the attempt to bring it in as slave territory would tend to a dissolution of the Union.

In light of Rep. Hunt’s somewhat provocative closing, even more remarkable was the muted reaction of the following speaker, Rep. Alexander Dromgoole Sims of South Carolina. Rep. Sims spent the first half of his remarks defending the president’s honorable and pacific intentions when the war began. Only thereafter did he address Rep. Wilmot’s proviso. But there was no table thumping or violent denunciation; Rep. Sims simply deplored intermingling “the exciting topic of slavery,” which he maintained was not directly relevant to the issues at hand, and had been offered merely as a tactic to defeat the appropriation request:
He regretted that the gentleman from Pennsylvania [Mr. WILMOT] had chosen to mingle with the question the exciting topic of slavery by the amendment which he had introduced; that he (Mr. S.) regarded the agitation of that subject as premature, and not properly connected with the appropriation asked for at this time. If this amendment should be adopted, he would be constrained to vote against the bill. He feared it was offered to defeat the appropriation. He regretted the factious opposition manifested.

The speaker who followed Rep. Sims was even more circumspect. Rep. Garrett Davis, Whig of Kentucky, castigated the president’s motives for beginning and prosecuting the war, and denounced any attempt to seize additional territory. The one thing he did not breathe a word of during his verbose presentation was slavery, or Rep. Wilmot’s amendment.

Not so former president John Quincy Adams, now a Whig Representative from Massachusetts, who rose next. Yet, despite his reputation as an antislavery advocate and leader of the prolonged fight against the Gag Rule, Rep. Adams spoke mildly. He approved of Rep. Wilmot’s amendment, but did not insist upon it. Provided that Rep. McKay’s bill was amended “so as to specify expressly that the money is granted . . . for negotiating peace with Mexico,” Mr. Adams
Would vote for it even without the adoption of the amendment of the gentleman from Pennsylvania, [Mr. WILMOT,] the object of which he approved with his whole heart; and he should like to see a resolution of the House added, interdicting the President of the United States from acquiring any territory which shall be the abode of slavery.

In explaining his reasoning, Rep. Adams did probe a sensitive point that grew in importance later on. Mexico had abolished slavery, Rep. Adams pointed out. To the extent that the United States acquired Mexican territory (other than Texas), Adams contended, slavery would remain illegal there, unless and until it was sanctioned by positive law. He could therefore vote for the appropriation, safe in the knowledge that he was not authorizing slavery in any new territory:
There are no slaves in California – slavery is abolished there; and if we were to make peace, and in that peace to acquire California, there could be no law of slavery established there, unless it was made an article of the treaty itself. This was reason sufficiently strong to induce him to vote for this bill without adding to it what the gentleman from Pennsylvania proposed, of which he entirely approved.

The heart of Rep. Adams’ objection to the original bill was that it failed to specify the purpose for which the funds could be used. Rep. McKay therefore rose to announce “that he had a substitute for the bill” that satisfied this objection by providing that the appropriation was made “to enable the President to enter upon negotiations for the restoration of peace with Mexico, whenever it shall be in his power to do so,” and
to enable the President to conclude a treaty of peace with the Republic of Mexico, to be used by him in the event that said treaty, when signed by the authorized agents of the two Governments, and being ratified by Mexico, shall call for the expenditure of the same, or any part thereof; full and accurate accounts for which expenditure shall be by him transmitted to Congress at as early a day as practicable.

The photograph is of Washington Hunt of New York.

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