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The Political Crisis of the 1840s Previous Next
Digital History ID 3269


The question of slavery burst into the public spotlight one summer evening in 1846. Congressman David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democrat, introduced an amendment, known as the Wilmot Proviso, to a war appropriations bill. The proviso forbade slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. Throughout the North, thousands of working men, mechanics, and farmers feared that free workers would be unable to successfully compete against slave labor. "If slavery is not excluded by law," said one Northern congressman, "the presence of the slave will exclude the laboring white man."

Southerners denounced the Wilmot Proviso as "treason to the Constitution." President Polk tried to quiet the debate between "Southern agitators and Northern fanatics" by assuring moderate Northerners that slavery could never take root in the arid southwest, but his efforts were to no avail. With the strong support of Westerners, the amendment passed the House twice, but was defeated in the Senate. Although the Wilmot Proviso did not become law, the issue it raised--the extension of slavery into the western territories--continued to contribute to the growth of political factionalism.

Growing sectional tensions were also evident in the founding of the Free Soil party in 1848. This sectional party opposed the westward expansion of slavery and favored free land for western homesteaders. Under the slogan "free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men," the party nominated ex-President Martin Van Buren as its Presidential nominee in 1848 and polled 291,000 votes. This was enough to split the Democratic vote and throw the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor.

Up until the last month of 1848, the debate over slavery in the Mexican cession seemed academic. Most Americans thought of the newly acquired territory as a wasteland filled with "broken mountains and dreary desert." William Tecumseh Sherman summed up prevailing sentiment when he said he would not trade two eastern counties for all the Far West. Then in his farewell address, President Polk electrified Congress with the news that gold had been discovered in California--and suddenly the question of slavery was inescapably important.

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