“But if it [the administration] seeks to make an extension of slavery the test of party standing & fidelity, does not the independence of Democracy itself demand bold and manly resistance?
“Anything that President Polk has dared to recommend as a part of the policy of his administration I have cordially supported…Yet Sir, I told the truth at Montrose, that my grave was to be made and myself buried, if it was in the power of an administration that I have thus supported,...
“Anything that President Polk has dared to recommend as a part of the policy of his administration I have cordially supported…Yet Sir, I told the truth at Montrose, that my grave was to be made and myself buried, if it was in the power of an administration that I have thus supported, to kill me off…Do I not support every leading and prominent measure of the administration?…Why should I be assailed and pursued with bitterness by the officials of the government. And if I am, must I hold my peace? Is this the justice of democracy? Is there no standard of right and wrong…?
Abraham Lincoln called himself a “Wilmot man”, agreeing the Wilmot, having strongly supported the Proviso
This is the first letter of Wilmot relating to his Proviso that we can recall seeing
David Wilmot served as a congressman representing Pennsylvania’s 12th district from 1845-1852. He was a loyal Democrat and supported President James K. Polk and his policies, including the initiation of the Mexican War. But he was also part of an informal group of anti-slavery Democrats, which was opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories that would be obtained from Mexico at the war’s end. In 1846 Wilmot introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill for $2 million dollars to be used in negotiating a treaty of peace with Mexico. The amendment, which came to be known as the Wilmot Proviso, would ban slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico.
The Wilmot Proviso read: “Provided, That, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.” It passed in the House, but failed in the Senate. One of its chief supporters in the House was Congressman Abraham Lincoln, who called himself a Wilmot man and wrote “The Wilmot Proviso, or the principle of it, was constant coming up in some shape or other, and I think I may venture to say I voted for it at least forty times, during the short term I was there.”
In a February 1847 debate over the Proviso, Wilmot explained that he was not an abolitionist, as he was not seeking to abolish slavery in the Southern states, but simply wanted to preserve the integrity of free territories that did not have slavery and did not want it. He said, “We ask that this Government protect the integrity of free territory against the aggressions of slavery—against its wrongful usurpations…There is no question of abolition here, sir. It is a question whether the South shall be permitted, by aggression, by invasion of right, by subduing free territory and planting slavery upon it, to wrest this territory to the accomplishment of its own sectional purposes and schemes. That is the question. And shall we of the North submit to it? Must we yield this? It is not, sir, in the spirit of the compact; it is not, sir, in the Constitution.”
Wilmot was adamant about his opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories and would eventually leave the Democratic Party and run for Congress as a Free Soiler. He later took a leading part in the founding of the Republican party in 1854, and in 1860, at the Republican National Convention, Wilmot was instrumental in turning Pennsylvania’s delegation to Lincoln. After the election, he served the remainder of Simon Cameron’s term in the U.S. Senate after Lincoln appointed Cameron as Secretary of War. Once the Senate term ended in 1863, Lincoln appointed Wilmot as a judge of the U.S. Court of Claims.
With the defeat of its army and the fall of the capital, Mexico City, in September 1847 the Mexican government surrendered to the United States and entered into negotiations to end the war. These resulted on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848.
Autograph Letter Signed, four pages, Washington, December 29, 1847, to an unknown recipient, defending his comments against the extension of slavery into the territories, condemning the Democrats and men in Polk’s administration for their attacks on him while forgetting the support he had given them, and justifying his speaking out rather than remaining silent, all at a time when it was clear that the war’s end was imminent and much new territory would be ceded to the United States. The letter reads in part: “For your friendly remarks touching my speech at Montrose, I am truly thankful. I know they were made in the most lively and sincere friendship, and for that I value them.
“I must have said some things in the excitement and heat of the moment that had better not been said. I judge from your letter, that I spoke against Texas annexation. I must have been far carried away. I supported the measure earnestly myself, and when cool have even justified and defended it. No one has supported more firmly or cordially than myself the measures of his administration. Anything that President Polk has dared to recommend as a part of the policy of his administration I have cordially supported. Tariff. Independent Treasury. Resistance to Extravagant Expenditures for Internal Improvement. The War, and Indemnity. Yet Sir, I told the truth at Montrose, that my grave was to be made and myself buried, if it was in the power of an administration that I have thus supported, to kill me off. Do our people invest the Powers that be, with so sacred a character, that prudence demanded me the concealment of this truth? There is not an enlightened politician in the land but knows that prostration is sought of the Powers here, and should I like a slave chant the praises of those Powers while they are performing their work, or protesting against its injustice appeal to my party and the people? Have I departed in aught from the line of party fealty or duty? Do I not support every leading and prominent measure of the administration? If my conduct has been without reproach in this respect, and I confidently challenge any attack on it, why should I be assailed and pursued with bitterness by the officials of the government. And if I am, must I hold my peace? Is this the justice of democracy? Is there no standard of right and wrong, but the fiat of a government journal?
“This administration justly merits the support of the Democracy and shall continue to receive mine in all its efforts to maintain our principles and to carry the country honorably through its present difficulties. But if it seeks to make an extension of slavery the test of party standing & fidelity, does not the independence of Democracy itself demand bold and manly resistance? I certainly never intended to make any flings at the administration, except to this point. Things are looking very much [as if] Taylor was in truth the man upon whom the Whigs would finally rally. If so, Southern democrats frankly say that he will sweep all before him in the South. If so, our Presidential gamblers have played a pretty game in reaching after the South. Had things taken a different course, there could have been such a feeling created in the North as would have bound down any Southern slaveholder and secured the Election of a Northern democrat. But what advantage would we have in the North with Cass, Buchanan or Dallas over the Whigs with Taylor!…”
This is the first letter of Wilmot relating to his Proviso that we can recall seeing. It is historic.
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