Friday, January 23, 2009

David Wilmot on the Necessity of the Proviso

Northern opponents (and some southern ones) of the Wilmot Proviso repeatedly complained that the Proviso was a needless provocation of the south. Due to climate and geography, they argued, slavery could never establish itself in the southwestern lands obtained from Mexico. The Proviso was, therefore, purely symbolic at best and served no practical purpose. Later, similar objections were made Stephen Douglas and other proponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Substituting popular sovereignty for the provisions of the Missouri Compromise that barred slavery from those territories conceded nothing, they contended, because the laws of nature, weather and geography would do the job every bit as well.

Yet another interesting aspect of David Wilmot’s October 29, 1847 speech in Albany, New York is his response to these contentions. To begin with, he deftly turned the tables on his opponents. If slavery could never take root in the Mexican territories, then why were southerners screaming bloody murder about the Proviso? And why were northern dough-faces taking their side?
Again, the Proviso is assailed by northern dough-faces as an idle, harmless abstraction. Would it not be well to inform the south of this fact? Her eminent statesmen, who have been supposed to understand abstractions tolerably well, cannot be apprised of the innocent and harmless character of the Proviso. They would not become so strongly excited as to threaten a dissolution of the Union on a mere idle abstraction. Will not Mr. Ritchie, and the government presses of the North, embark in this labor of love, and cease their denunciation of those who seek to make the Rio Grande [the presumed border between Texas and the anticipated Mexican territories] what Jefferson and the men of the South made the Ohio [River], a boundary over which Slavery cannot pass?

In fact, Wilmot rejected the premise of the doughface argument: weather and geography, he maintained, were not insuperable barriers to slavery. Laws, not nature, had prevented slavery from establishing itself north of the Ohio River. The Proviso was every bit as necessary as the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise had been:
The Proviso and the Ordinance of 1787 are abstractions, alike in their character and their consequences. What stopped Slavery on the south bank of the Ohio? What prevents its crossing an imaginary line beyond the Missouri, the line of 36 deg. 30 min. N.? The will of the nation, expressed authoritatively in legislative enactments. Like these enactments, the Proviso proposes to erect a barrier against the advance and extension of Slavery.

The Proviso was not an insult to the south. It was the south, not the north, that was issuing arrogant demands and insolent threats in an attempt to convert free land to slavery, in defiance of the nation’s history:
Heretofore, limits have been set, over which Slavery should not pass; now the law of Freedom is to be annulled to make room for its extension. This is the arrogant and insolent demand made upon us, and made in a tone of threatening defiance. The South will not yield, therefore the North must. The North shall yield! This is the attitude of insulting defiance assumed by the South.

Shall we yield? NEVER. God forbid! Are we so tame, so servile, so degenerate, that we cannot maintain the rights of a free soil, and a free people? Where is the spirit of our fathers? Are we Slaves, that knowing our rights, we dare not maintain them?

I hold free soil as sacred as free men, and, so help me God! I would as soon submit to have the chains fastened upon the free limbs of our people, as to surrender their rightful inheritance to the demands of the Slave power. Let us hurl back the defiance of the South, and in a voice of thunder, proclaim that the North will not YIELD. Come what may come – be the issues life or death, the North will not yield.

About the illustration:
A parody of Democratic politics in the months preceding the party's 1848 national convention. Specifically, the artist ridicules the rivalry within the party between Free Soil or anti-slavery interests, which upheld the Wilmot Proviso, and regular, conservative Democrats or "Hunkers." The "Gilpins" (named after the hero of William Cowper's 1785 "Diverting History of John Gilpin," who also loses control of his mount, to comic effect) are regular Democrats Lewis Cass, Thomas Hart Benton, and Levi Woodbury, who ride a giant sow down "Salt River Lane" away from the "Head Quarters of the Northern Democracy," which displays a Liberty cap and a flag "Wilmot Proviso." Cass, a former general and avid expansionist, wears a military uniform and brandishes a sword "Annexation." John Van Buren (right), a Free Soil Democrat, tries to restrain the pig by holding its tail. He remarks, "This is our last hope. If the tail draws out, they are gone for good." A man at left tries to block the pig's passage shouting "Stop, stop, Old Hunkers! here's the house!" Cass orders, "Clear the road. Don't you see that we are fulfilling our manifest destiny!" Benton asserts, "We are not a whit inclined to tarry there." On the far right a stout gentleman chases after them calling, "Hey! hey, there! where upon airth are you going? Come back here to your quarters!" Meanwhile former President and Free Soil contender Martin Van Buren is neck-deep in a pool at the lower right. He laments, "Had I served my country with half the zeal with which I served my illustrious predecessor, I should not thus have slumped in the mud." He refers to his service under Andrew Jackson, whom he succeeded as President. Attribution of "The Modern Gilpins" to John L. Magee is based on its similarities in draftsmanship and facial characterizations to Magee's 1850 satire "The Clay Statue," (no. 1850-9) and to several Mexican War prints he executed for the publisher Baillie.

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