Wilmot on the Proviso

David Wilmot, visiting again

I began yesterday with the Wilmot Proviso and intended today to continue with a Southern response to it. Then, in the course of reading, I came upon insight into Wilmot’s motives that speaks broadly to the character to antislavery politics in the North.

So I’ve transcribed some passages from Wilmot’s speech of February 8, 1847, straight from images of the Congressional Globe pages. Wilmot, in the style of the time, goes on at length so I’ve been a little more aggressive than I would usually be in pruning him down.

First in his own defense:

Is there any complexion of Abolitionism in this, sir? I have stood up at home, and battled, time and again, against the Abolitionists of the North. I have assailed them publicly, upon all occasions when it was proper to do so.

Abolitionists remained a radical fringe and thus the accusation Wilmot rejects has a hint of red-baiting about it. Even during the war a majority of the North only accepted emancipation as a weapon with which to defeat the South and afterwards abolition to secure that victory.

Then Wilmot lays out his case:

I demand that this Government preserve the integrity of free territory against the aggressions of slavery — against its wrongful usurpations. Sir, I was in favor of the annexation of Texas. … I was willing to take Texas as she was. … Slavery existed in Texas — planted there, it is true, in defiance of law; still it existed. … True it was held out to the North, that at least two of the five States to be formed out of Texas would be free. Yet, sir, the whole of Texas has been given up to slavery. … here was an empire larger than France given up to slavery. Shall further concessions be made by the North?

This [Mexican] law prohibits slavery in California and New Mexico. But the South contend, that in their emigration to this free territory, they have the right to take and hold slaves, the same as other property. … Shall the South be permitted, by aggression, by invasion of the right, by subduing free territory and planting slavery upon it, to wrest these provinces from northern freemen and then them to the accomplishment of their own sectional purposes and schemes? This is the question.

As Wilmot also states in the speech, the convention runs that on annexation of new territory that territory’s previous laws remain unless specifically voided. Thus stood Mexico’s abolition of slavery and thence comes Wilmot’s reference to planting slavery in Texas in defiance of law.

And what did Wilmot really think about slavery qua slavery?

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Wilmot probably spoke for the Northern mainstream. Most antislavery politicians might have personally found slavery disgusting and immoral, but their driving political objections involved its competition with free labor and the great perceived power of slaveowning aristocrats. They did not envision a nation where the races lived together, peaceful and equal, but rather a lily-white republic where slavery proved no obstacle to the advancement of the white man.

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