Sometimes the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential events can have tremendous historical significance–a minor Central European Arch Duke’s assassination igniting World War I, for instance. So it is with The Wilmot Proviso, a 71-word, one paragraph bill in the US House of Representatives.
Introduced by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot in 1846 as part of the debate on appropriations for the cessation of the Mexican-American War (and treaty negotiations), the Proviso would have banned slavery in any territories acquired from Mexico as a result of America’s victory in that war. In less than two years, with the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, America’s territorial holdings would now stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Canada to the present-day Mexican border–vast territories that could set the balance of power (political and economic) between slave-holding and non-slave holding states.
Though introduced by Wilmot, the text was actually written by Rep. Jacob Brinkerhoff, a congressman from Ohio, and along with Wimot one of Congress’ Free Soil Party members, a group of former Democrats who left their party over moral and economic objections to slavery (the Free Soilers were one of several factions to start the Republican Party in the years immediately preceding the Civil War). It was agreed among Congress’ Free Soilers that whoever had the best chance of successfully introducing the bill should do so–and when the opportunity presented itself, Wilmot (who was, at the time, a rising star in Congress) did.
The Bill passed the House, narrowly, only to languish in the Senate. As I discussed in Essays 45 and 46 of this 90-day study, Sen. John C. Calhoun (back in the Senate for only a year at this point), was both intimately familiar with the terms being negotiated in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and had been a key defender of slavery’s persistence throughout his political career.
Like Calhoun’s Speech on the Oregon Bill, the Wilmot Proviso sits squarely in the middle of the two decades of serious maneuvering and outmaneuvering of pro and anti-slavery forces in the US Congress. Nearly a decade earlier, Calhoun had strenuously argued against former President John Quincy Adams attempts to merely hear petitions from the American people to Congress on the issue of slavery. But now, for the very first time in American history, Congress was actually going to take a vote on whether or not slavery ought to be permitted somewhere on United States’ soil!
It was, at the point in time, the capstone of a tremendous amount of hard work, sacrifice, and political maneuvering by America’s growing an strengthening abolitionist movement.
That it never passed the Senate, in any forms, is actually immaterial to the Proviso’s historic significance. The bill itself, and the ideas it embodied, then became the subject of intense push-back and examination by pro-slavery forces. What would the impact be on the political and economic balance between slave states and non-slave states? Was the concept advanced by Adams, Brinkerhoff, Wilmot and others even constitutional? Did the federal government have the power to restrict private property ownership, assuming that slaves were private property?
Those questions would be answered a decade later in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision. Scott, a slave bought by an officer in the US Army, was brought into the free territory of Illinois–and by virtue of this, Scott asked that the federal government declare him to be free. In one of the bleakest moments in Supreme Court jurisprudence, however, the High Court declared that Scott was was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.
But the court also focused squarely on the issues raised by The Wilmot Proviso–namely, whether the federal government had the power to regulate slavery in territory that it had acquired subsequent to the nation’s creation (the heart of the proviso itself). The court ruled that such a pronouncement was flatly unconstitutional.
But despite the High Court’s miscarriage of justice (it may have been the first, but it certainly wasn’t the last), the questions raised by The Wilmot Proviso would ultimately be settled by the two sides of that political conflict–in the bloodiest manner possible.
Read the Wilmot Proviso here: http://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4112
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, and host of The Broadside, a weekly internet radio show, which can be found on Blogtalkradio.com.