Wednesday, January 21, 2009

David Wilmot on His Motivations

Another fascinating aspect of David Wilmot’s speech in Albany, New York on October 29, 1847 is his description of the motivations underlying the Proviso and the desire to keep slavery out of new territories

Wilmot discussed the issue in the context of addressing “[a]n effort . . . made to bring odium upon this movement as one designed especially for the benefit of the black race.” Wilmot adamantly denied this charge:
While its success would insure the redemption, at an earlier date, of the negro from his bondage and his chains, I deny that it was especially for him, that the Proviso was offered; or that he is the party most deeply interested in its result. It has, with justice and propriety, been called the “White Man’s Proviso”; and the Free White Laborer, has by far the deepest stake in its failure or success. For him it solves the momentous question, whether that vast country, between the Rio Grande and the Pacific, shall be given up to the servile labor of the black, or be preserved for the free labor of the white man. Shall that fair clime, with its rich soil and abundant resources, capable of sustaining a population of fifty millions of freemen, be preserved to the white man and his posterity, or shall it be given up to the African and his descendants? This is the great ultimate question involved in the present struggle between Freedom and Slavery.

Wilmot then illustrated and expanded on this theme by describing a conversation he said he had held with “an intelligent member of Congress from the South.”
[The southern congressman] said, “if you succeed in your efforts to prevent the extension of slavery, and confine us to the territory now occupied by it, in less than a century we will have a population of thirty millions of blacks, with less than half that number of white population in their midst; and, said he, then the terrible alternative will be presented: we must either abandon the country to them, or cut their throats.” Would you, said he, bring such a calamity upon us?

Wilmot replied that he did not have an answer; he could only trust “in an all mericiful Providence.” But it was clear to him that “enlarging the borders of slavery” would only make the problem worse:
[I replied t]hat if the alternative which he had presented, should come, we had better meet it with a population of thirty than an hundred millions of slaves; and upon the theatre of its present limits, than upon the wide domain of one half of this continent. You are afraid, said I, now to look those dangers in the face and boldly meet them, that you would cast upon posterity, magnified a thousand fold.

It is not clear from the transcript when Wilmot shifted from describing his conversation with the southern congressman to making a direct address to his Albany audience. The first sentences can be read either way:
In God’s name, as we love our country and our race, let us stop in this mad career of human slavery. The negro race already occupy enough of this fair continent; let us keep what remains for ourselves, and our children – for the emigrant who seeks our shores – for the poor man, that wealth shall oppress – for the free white laborer, who shall desire to hew him out a home of happiness and peace, on the distant shores of the mighty Pacific.

Free laborers of the North! – down trodden free white men of the South! this is your cause, and the cause of your children! -- Where negro slavery is, there free white labor cannot come, without sharing its degradation and partaking of its dishonor.

About the illustration:
An optimistic view of the presidential prospects of Martin Van Buren, nominated at the Free Soil Party's August 1848 convention in Buffalo, New York. Here Van Buren rides a buffalo and thumbs his nose as he sends Democratic candidate Lewis Cass (left) and Whig Zachary Taylor flying. Both are about to land in Salt River. Van Buren says defiantly, "Clear the track! or I'll Ram you both!" Cass, whose "Wilmot Proviso" hat has already landed in the river, exclaims, "Confound this Wilmot Proviso, I'm afraid it will lead to something bad." (On the Wilmot Proviso see "Whig Harmony," no. 1848-21.) Cass's opposition to the proviso put him at odds with a large number of Democrats. Taylor speculates, "If I had stood on the Whig platform firmly, this would not have happened." He cites his reluctance to decisively embrace the regular Whig party doctrines. His cap flies in the air, spilling a packet of "Dead Letters." (On the "dead letter" matter see "The Candidate of Many Parties," no. 1848-24.)

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