Wilmot Proviso

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The Wilmot Proviso, one of the major events leading to the Civil War, would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War or in the future, including the area later known as the Mexican Cession, but which some proponents construed to also include the disputed lands in south Texas and New Mexico east of the Rio Grande.[1]

Congressman David Wilmot first introduced the Proviso in the United States House of Representatives on August 8, 1846 as a rider on a $2 million appropriations bill intended for the final negotiations to resolve the Mexican–American War. (In fact this was only three months into the two-year war.) It passed the House but failed in the Senate, where the South had greater representation. It was reintroduced in February 1847 and again passed the House and failed in the Senate. In 1848, an attempt to make it part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed. Sectional conflict over slavery in the Southwest continued up to the Compromise of 1850.



After an earlier attempt to acquire Texas by treaty had failed to receive the necessary two-thirds approval of the Senate, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas by a joint resolution of Congress that required simply a majority vote in each house of Congress. President John Tyler signed the bill on March 1, 1845 in the waning days of his presidency. As many expected, the annexation led to war with Mexico. After the capture of New Mexico and California in the first phases of the war, the political focus shifted to how much territory would be acquired from Mexico. Key to this was the determination of the future status of slavery in any new territory.

Both major political parties had labored long to keep divisive slavery issues out of national politics. The Democrats had generally been successful in picturing those within their party attempting to push a purely sectional issue as extremists that were well outside the normal scope of traditional politics.[2] However, midway through Polk’s term, Democratic dissatisfaction with the administration was growing within the Martin Van Buren, or Barnburner, wing of the Democratic Party over other issues. Many felt that Van Buren had been unfairly denied the party’s nomination in 1844 when southern delegates resurrected a convention rule, last used in 1832, requiring that the nominee had to receive two-thirds of the delegate votes. Many in the North were also upset with the Walker tariff which reduced the tariff rates; others were opposed to Polk’s veto of a popular river and harbor improvements bill, and still others were upset over the Oregon settlement with Great Britain where it appeared that Polk did not pursue the northern territory with the same vigor he used to acquire Texas. Polk was seen more and more as enforcing strict party loyalty primarily to serve southern interests.[3]

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