The striped lands are those that would have been affected by the Wilmot Proviso
The striped lands are those that would have been affected by the Wilmot Proviso

The Wilmot Proviso


The Wilmot Proviso is an amendment to Congress's 2 million dollar appropriation of funds to settle the dispute over lands acquired from Mexico. If passed, the Proviso would have banned slavery in any Mexican territory won by the U.S. in the Mexican-American War. The Wilmot Proviso forced political parties to "reveal their hands" and take a position on an issue that both the North and South had been avoiding: slavery. Although the Proviso passed twice in the House of Representatives in 1846 and 1847, where northerners outnumbered southerners, it was turned down in the Senate where the South had equal representation and therefore enough political influence to stop the bill from passing. The Wilmot Proviso was in fact never passed, but even this proposal in itself brought to light the deep contrast in opinion between the North and the South on the issue of slavery.

Important Figures

David Wilmot, (1814-1868)

House of Representatives member of Pennsylvania at age 33. Creator of the Wilmot Proviso and talented politician. Wilmot was a Democrat in the House and envisioned the west coast as a truly free place, although he was not an extroardinarily strong abolitionist. Until this proposal Wilmot was liked by southern politicians and held an influential place in 1840's politics at a considerably young age.

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James K. Polk, (1795-1849)

President of the United States from 1845-1848. Nominated a Democrat, Polk hoped his expansionist policies would eclipse divisions in political parties the U.S. as well as sectionally, but was known to favor southerners and many political figures longed for a chance to overturn his decisions.
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Politicians and Congress members on both sides had seemed to abandon their political parties in lieu of who they represented geographically. Democrats from the north that disagreed with President Polk, including David Wilmot, saw this as an opportunity to oppose him and supported the Proviso. Democrats from the south strongly opposed this bill in hopes that more slave states would mean more influence in Congress. James K. Polk was among these southern Democrats who were in favor of slavery. The Whig Party, headed by Zachary Taylor, was torn apart over the issue of slavery. Taylor, who later became President in 1849, was against slavery politically even though he owned slaves. He opposed having slavery in the lands acquired from Mexico. The Whig Party was now clearly split sectionally when it came to their views of slavery. A group of Whigs broke away and formed the Free-Soil Party under Martin Van Buren. The Free-Soil Party was strongly against slavery. Henry Clay and the remaining Whigs in the South supported slavery. On top of this there were abolitionists who were outright against slavery regardless of their affiliation such as Hannibal Hamlin and Preston King. With political parties in turmoil, the issue became more and more sectionalistic.

Predominant Views on Slavery of Each Political Party

For Slavery
Against Slavery
  • Southern Democrats
  • Southern Whigs
  • Northern Democrats
  • Free-Soil Party
  • Northern Whigs
  • Abolitionists


Although Southerners ultimately defeated the bill wherever it appeared, many were upset by how the votes were cast. Support for the Proviso came from the free states in the North, while opposition came from the slave states in the South. It did not seem to matter who the Democrats, Whigs, Republicans, Free-Soil party members were. The argument over The Wilmot Proviso made apparent that slavery was a sectional issue more than it was related to political affiliation. This became an increasingly worrisome problem for the South, whose land owners may lose their predominantly slave work force. In the following years leading up to the Civil War, southern politicians became more and more contentious to preserve slavery where it was legal in the United States.