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Coming of the Civil War, The Wilmot Proviso

agrarian republic, Missouri Compromise line, Wilmot Proviso, President Zachary Taylor, President Polk

Both the North and the South saw the issue of slavery in the territories as a simple question of right and wrong, but the issue traveled through elaborate twists and turns from 1846 through the beginning of the Civil War.

Many Northern Democrats in Congress were disappointed with President James K. Polk (1845-1849). Some represented market–oriented constituencies that supported a moderately protective tariff and federal internal improvements. Polk was a Southerner and an old Jacksonian, and he opposed both of those measures. Northern Democrats also disliked Polk’s willingness to compromise with the British on expansion into Oregon, while he went to war with Mexico over Texas. It looked to many Democratic Northerners as though the Democratic Party was less interested in the expansion of the agrarian republic than in the expansion of slavery.

Among these Democrats was Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania. In 1846, during the war with Mexico, he proposed what became known as the Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery from all territory taken from Mexico. In subsequent years the proviso was repeatedly attached to territorial legislation. In the House, combinations of Northern Whigs and Democrats passed it several times, but the proviso was always stopped in the Senate. The Wilmot Proviso would become the principal plank in the platform of the Republican Party.

President Polk and his cabinet favored extending the Missouri Compromise line west to the Pacific, a solution that would allow slavery in the New Mexico Territory and in Southern California, but ban it from Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Northern California. Neither the North nor the South favored Polk’s solution. In 1849 President Zachary Taylor proposed allowing the residents of individual territories to decide the question of slavery for themselves—a solution that became known as popular sovereignty. Again, there was too little support. While the Wilmot Proviso stood as the extreme Northern position, John C. Calhoun, a senator for South Carolina, staked out an extreme position for the South. Slaves, he said, were property, and masters could carry their slaves into any territory of the United States.

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