Wednesday, January 21, 2009

David Wilmot on the Creation of the Wilmot Proviso


The disputes between Barnburners and Hunkers erupted into schism in September 1847. At a New York state Democratic convention held in Syracuse on September 29th, the Hunkers obtained a narrow majority and nominated Hunker candidates for statewide office. The Barnburners walked out.

The Barnburners reassembled at a separate convention, held in the town of Herkimer on October 26, 1847. One of the featured speakers was none other David Wilmot. His speech at Herkimer was apparently not transcribed. Several days later, however, on October 29, 1847, Wilmot delivered a substantially identical speech in Albany, which was transcribed.

Although the entire speech is available online here, it’s in pdf format. I thought it would we worthwhile to transcribe and highlight some of the most interesting portions for you.

One fascinating part of Wilmot’s speech describes the origins of the Proviso that bore his name:

The history of the introduction of this measure into Congress is brief. The occassion [sic] which called for it, arose but a few hours before the adjournment of the first session of the late congress; which took place at 12 o’clock M. of Monday the 10th of August [1846]. On the Saturday before, the message of the President, asking that two millions be placed at his disposal, was received and read in the House of Representatives.

It was the subject of general remark and speculation. That day at dinner, the conversation turned upon it; in which Robert Dale Owen of Indiana, Robert P. Dunlap of Maine, Jacob S. Yost of Pennsylvania and myself took a part. I remarked that it was clear, that the two millions asked for by the President, was to be paid, if paid at all, as the first instalment, of purchase money, for large accessions of territory from Mexico to the United States; and then declared my purpose, in case Mr. [James Iver] M’Kay, (the chairman of the committee of ways and means,) should bring in a bill, to move an amendment, to the effect that slavery should be excluded from any territory acquired by virtue of such appropriation.

Mr. Owen objected, and said he would make a speech against it. Gov. Dunlap and Mr. Yost approved of such an amendment, and advised me to adhere to my purpose. . . .

After dinner, in front of the hotel, I had further conversation with several members. Those that I now recollect, were Mr. Grover of New York, Mr. [Jacob] Brinkerhoff of Ohio, and Mr. [Hannibal] Hamlin of Maine. We agreed to advise our northern friends generally, when we re-assembled in evening session, and if the measure met with their approbation, that it should be pressed. We did so, and so far as I heard, Northern democrats were unanimous in favor of the movement.

When the bill was introduced, or called up, several gentlemen collected together, to agree upon the form and terms of the proposed amendment. I well recollect that Mr. [George O.] Rathbun, Mr. [Preston] King, and Mr. [Martin] Grover of New York; Mr. Brinkerhoff of Ohio, Mr. Hamlin of Maine, and Judge Thompson and myself of Pennsylvania, were of the number, if we did not constitute the entire group. Some were engaged in drafting an amendment, myself among the number, and several were submitted; all of which underwent more or less alterations at the suggestions of those taking part in the business going on. After various drafts had been drawn and altered, the language in which the amendment was offered was finally agreed upon, as the result of our united labors.

Wilmot specifically denied that “the design” of the Proviso “was to embarrass the administration” or “that it had its origins in a political intrigue for a Presidential candidate in 1848. He pointed out that he had loyally supported all of the initiatives of the Polk administration. He asserted that, when he moved the Proviso, he did not realize that the administration would oppose it:
Previous to its being moved, I never heard the suggestion made, that it would embarrass the Administration. We did not then know that the Administration desired to plant slavery on free soil. It is only recently that this hateful policy had been boldly put forth.

About the illustration:
The artist predicts a decisive Whig victory in the presidential election of 1848, with Whig candidate Zachary Taylor "bagging" all of the states in an electoral sweep. (Taylor actually carried only fifteen of the thirty states.) A kneeling Taylor (left) gathers fallen pigeons, each bearing a state's name, into a bag. Holding up the New York bird he muses, "My purpose would be suited without this fellow, however I'll take him: the more the merrier for the 4th of March next." Taylor's strength in New York was considered questionable before the election. Standing to the right is Lewis Cass with a musket at his side. Looking over at Taylor, he marvels, "What an all devouring appetite the fellow has: I expect he'll bag me in the bargain!" In the background Martin Van Buren is caught by the seat of his trousers on the nails of a fence. Holding a rooster labeled "Proviso" he cries, "Cass, come and help an old crony won't you!" Peering over from behind the fence is Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot, author of the Wilmot Proviso, who threatens Van Buren with a switch, "I'll teach you to come ta robbing my barn!" Van Buren and the Barnburner Democrats adopted the proviso, which barred slavery in American territory gained in the Mexican War, as the main plank in their 1848 campaign platform.

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