Sunday, January 03, 2010

David Wilmot Confers With President Polk

James K. Polk's diary entry for Wednesday December 23, 1846 describes a curious conversation that the president held with David Wilmot.

Four months earlier, as the Congressional session was expiring, Wilmot had lobbed his incendiary Proviso into the debate over the Mexican War. Now, shortly after the beginning of the new term, Wilmot made an appointment to see the president, arriving "[a]fter night" on December 23rd. By coincidence, Charles J. Ingersoll, another Democratic member of the House from Pennsylvania, showed up unannounced shortly after Wilmot did, apparently cramping the conversation somewhat. Nonetheless, the president was able to "hold hold a conversation with him [Wilmot] on the subject of slavery restriction, which had been attached upon his motion at the last Session of Congress to the Bill which proposed to appropriate two millions of Dollars, with a view to enable the Executive to make a Treaty with Mexico."

The strange part is that Wilmot had apparently scheduled the meeting to tell the president that he would not re-introduce his Proviso in the current session:

He expressed an entire willingness to vote for the appropriation without the restriction, and said he would not again move the restriction, but that if it was moved by others he would feel constrained to vote for it.

Polk attempted to reassure Wilmot that he was making the right decision. The Mexican War was not some conspiracy to extend slavery to New Mexico and California. Echoing arguments made by others, the president contended that it would be virtually impossible for slavery to take root in those places. At all events, the Proviso represented an improper attempt to restrict the Executive's power to negotiate a treaty, and as a practical matter would make any peace treaty with Mexico unratifiable by the Senate:
I told him I did not desire to extend slavery, that I would be satisfied to acquire by Treaty from Mexico the Provinces of New Mexico & the Californias, and that in these Provinces slavery could probably never exist, and the great probability was that the question would never arise in the future organization of territorial or State Governments in these territories. I told him that slavery was purely a domestic question, and to restrict the appropriation which had been asked for, so as to require the President to insert it in a Treaty with a Foreign Power, was not only inappropriate and out of place, but that if such a Treaty were made it must be opposed by every Senator from a slave-holding State, and as one third of the Senators could reject a Treaty it could not be ratified, though it might be satisfactory in all other respects. I told him that tramelled with such a restriction I could not use the appropriation at all and would not do so.

Wilmot then reiterated that he would be willing to vote for the so-called $2 Million Bill without any restriction attached. If others renewed the Proviso, he was in favor of non-binding sense-of-Congress language:
He said he would be satisfied with a simple legislative declaration in the Bill of the sense of Congress, without requiring it to be inserted in the Treaty, or, if it was not moved by others, he would be willing to vote for the appropriation without such a restriction in any form.

Ingersoll's presence then aborted the conversation, and Wilmot departed.

I, at least, was surprised to read of Wilmot's expressed flexibility. He had introduced his Proviso less than four months earlier with an intensity of expression that suggested no ground for compromise. To the best of my knowledge, his public pronouncements thereafter demonstrated an unrelenting resolve to bar slavery from previously free territory.

Did Wilmot have a temporary pang of regret that he he had inadvertently caused an earthquake? Was he cynically seeking to demonstrate party loyalty or obtain Polk's favor for a pet cause? Or was the performance nothing but a charade, since he knew that in all probability one or more of his co-conspirators would re-introduce the Proviso, making his pledge irrelevant? (In fact, Preston King gave notice that he would re-introduce the Proviso less than a week later, on December 29, 1846.) And if so, why? Your informed speculation is welcome.

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