ECW welcomes back guest author Katy Berman.
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 of the Executive to 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. – David Wilmot, August 8, 1846
Unexpected historical discoveries delight the historically-minded traveler. Two such happy accidents befell me on a recent trip to Towanda, Pennsylvania. To be sure, the north-central town is not a typical destination for a winter get-away, but I was familiar with the region and needed to get out, out, out of the house.
My first discovery was that songwriter Stephen Foster attended school in Towanda, and spent time in nearby Camptown. Although some musicologists question the connection, the small village of Camptown claims it was the inspiration for one of Foster’s greatest hits, “Camptown Races.” Considering that there were once horse races from Camptown to Wyalusing, five miles away, and a line from the song reads, “Camptown racetrack five mile long,” Camptown has a credible boast.
The second discovery was more poignant. On a stroll down Towanda’s Main St., an historical marker informed me that David Wilmot, “The Great Free-Soiler” died in a house across the street. It is a handsome Victorian, free from the renovations that so often mar old buildings. Gazing at his home, I was struck that I knew nothing about the man behind the Wilmot Proviso.
The Wilmot Proviso is, of course, well-known. It is praised for being the opening salvo in the war on slavery, our first step on the path to national redemption. Generations of historians have affirmed its significance and moral power. One historian concludes “the conflicting passions aroused by the Proviso most definitely proved a threat to the national parties and to the nation itself.” Ironically, it was attached to a bill that was never enacted; many considered it irrelevant to the territories in question. It was also introduced by a little-known, first-term Congressman who seemed, to a second historian, “to have stumbled into history and then to have slumped back into a well-deserved obscurity.”
As if to underscore Wilmot’s seeming insignificance, his authorship of the Proviso is disputed. Some believe that Ohio Congressman Jacob Brinkerhoff drafted the amendment, or it might have been any of a group of men, Wilmot and Brinkerhoff included, that discussed the Proviso. However it played out, Wilmot was the one who gained the floor on August 8, 1846, giving his name to a proposal that wouldn’t die.
War with Mexico had been declared May 13, 1846; Texas had become the twenty-eighth state nearly five months earlier. President James K. Polk had asked Congress for two million dollars to purchase territory from Mexico, should the opportunity arise. The vast territory Polk hoped to acquire stretched from Texas to the shining sea of the Pacific.
Northern Democrats were disgruntled that Texas had entered the Union as a slave state, while the fate of Oregon Territory, expected to be free, was still in limbo. Wilmot and other free-soil Democrats, felt betrayed by their President and their party.
Wilmot introduced his Proviso, and the House passed the amended appropriations bill 107-90. The vote was ominous: for the first time, members voted chiefly along sectional rather than party lines. The bill was sent to the Senate, but on that final day of the session, was not brought to a vote.
The President was appalled. He confided to his diary that the amendment was “mischievous and foolish,” because slave-holders had no wish to expand into western territories. Polk met privately with Wilmot, and asked him to refrain from raising the amendment a second time. Wilmot agreed, but the standard was raised by Preston King of New York when he attached the Proviso to a new appropriations bill. The Senate refused to pass the bill with its controversial amendment.
Wilmot again championed the Proviso on February 8, 1847. His ire was directed at “the cowardice of the North” for objecting to the Proviso because it would promote disunion. Wilmot declared he was not an abolitionist; he wanted free territory for free labor. “Shall these fair provinces be the inheritance and homes of the white labor of free men or the black labor of slaves?” Wilmot demanded. 
The freshman Congressman had begun to make enemies. He was reelected for a second and third term, but in 1850 was rejected as his party’s nominee. However, Wilmot still had friends and supporters back home, and in 1851 was elected Judge for Pennsylvania’s thirteenth district.
The Wilmot Proviso lived on in congressional debates, despite the absence of its namesake. Within the country, it created a seemingly insoluble impasse between North and South. Wilmot had blamed Northern dithering for “the aggressions of slavery.” The South castigated the North as the true aggressor, and insisted on equal rights in the territories. Voices in the North called for a holy war against slavery; the South called for disunion and a convention of southern states at Nashville. Remedies were suggested: Extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, implement popular sovereignty, admit states before they underwent the territorial stage. Finally, the towering figures of Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts joined together to save the Union, and the resulting Compromise of 1850 bought peace for a few years.
Wilmot did not lose his taste for politics. In 1855, he became a founder of the emerging Republican Party in Pennsylvania, and brought his Proviso with him. At the first Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on June 17, 1856, Wilmot was made chairman of the Platform Committee. Echoes of the Proviso can be found within the Platform’s Preamble, Second and Third Resolutions. The latter states, in part: “it is both the right and imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism- Polygamy and Slavery.”
Four years later, northern indignation was at a fever-pitch. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision and the conflict over slavery in Kansas had strengthened the Republican commitment to no slavery in the territories. On the first day of the 1860 Republican National Convention, David Wilmot was nominated as Temporary President, perhaps to give him the opportunity for delivering the “Chairman’s Inaugural.” In a stirring address, Wilmot alluded to Dred Scott, the “new dogma” that “the Constitution was established to guarantee to slavery perpetual existence and unlimited empire.” Rejecting the legitimacy of that ruling, Wilmot declared, “It is our purpose to restore the Constitution to its original meaning. . . .Slavery is sectional. Liberty, National.”
The Republican Platform denounced that “new dogma” and asserted that freedom in national territories was enshrined in the Constitution. If legislation was necessary to protect that freedom, the Republican Party intended to enact it.
And so it was that on June 9, 1862, the Republican Senate passed a bill that recalled the amendment introduced by David Wilmot fourteen years earlier. “A Bill to Render Slavery Sectional and Liberty National” read “That from and after the passage of this Act, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time be hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States. otherwise than in the punishment of a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Senator Wilmot did not speak to the matter, but was able to cast a favorable vote. He had been nominated to fulfill the remainder of Simon Cameron’s term after the latter was appointed to President Lincoln’s cabinet.
David Wilmot’s health was in a slow decline during his two years in the Senate and afterwards as a Court of Claims Judge, an appointment made by President Lincoln in 1863. Wilmot strove to fulfill his responsibilities, but his absences grew more and more frequent. Death came on April 6, 1868, followed by burial in a family plot overlooking the Susquehanna River.
“The Bedford Inquirer” eulogized Judge Wilmot as the “author of the famous Proviso that bears his name, one of Freedom’s boldest champions and Slavery’s bitterest foes.” “The Jeffersonian” described him as “well-known from his intimate connection with the political history of our country for the past thirty years.”
It may be said that after making his momentous remarks during the Twenty-ninth Congress, David Wilmot did retreat into relative obscurity. Nevertheless, he lived a life of principled endeavor and notable achievement, never losing sight of his goal to thwart the spread of slavery.
Katy Berman is a retired elementary-school teacher residing in New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English at the University of California, Berkeley and her Master’s in American History through American Military University. For several years, she has reviewed books for “The Civil War Courier.”
 Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978),50.
 Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (NY: Harper Perennial, 2011),18, 65, 68.
 Craven, Avery. The Coming of the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957),221.
 Foner, Eric, “The Wilmot Proviso Revisited,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 56, no. 2, (Sept., 1969), 262-264.
 Potter, The Impending Crisis,26.
 Craven, The Coming of the Civil War, 220.
 Wilmot, David, “Wilmot Defends His Proviso,” America; Great Crises in Our History Told by its Makers, Vol. VII, The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861, (Chicago: Veterans of Foreign Wars, 1925), 82-83. Google Books, accessed Mar. 18, 2021.
 Going, Charles Buxton. David Wilmot, Free-Soiler: A Biography of the Great Advocate of the Wilmot Proviso (NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1924),438. Google Books, Accessed Mar. 18, 2021.
 Potter, The Impending Crisis, 73,88. Craven, The Coming of the Civil War, 244.
 Greeley, Horace. Proceedings of the First Three Republican Conventions of 1856, 1860, and 1864 (Minneapolis: Harrison and Smith, Printers, 1893), 42. Internet Archive, accessed Mar. 18, 2021.
 Ibid. 86.
 Going, David Wilmot, 613.
 Bedford Inquirer, April 3, 1868 pg. 1 Vol 41, no. 14. Chronicling America: America’s Historic Newspapers Online. (Accessed Mar. 18, 2021).
 The Jeffersonian, pg. 2 April 2, 1868 Stroudsburg PA. Chronicling America: America’s Historic Newspapers Online (Accessed Mar. 18, 2021).