Wilmot, David

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Wilmot, David

David Wilmot was a lawyer, judge, U.S. senator, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1845 to 1851 the Pennsylvania Democrat served in the House where he drew national attention for his 1846 proposal. The Wilmot Proviso banned the expansion of Slavery into the territories newly acquired from Mexico. Wilmot's disenchantment with slavery and the Democratic Party's support of it eventually led him to help form the Republican Party.

Wilmot was born on January 20, 1814, in Bethany, Pennsylvania. He studied the law with an attorney and became a member of the Pennsylvania bar in 1834. He established a law practice in Towanda and was soon recognized as an able lawyer.

However, politics drew Wilmot's interest. He became active in the Democratic Party and in 1845 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Wilmot strongly supported President james k. polk and the Mexican War that began in 1845. When President Polk requested a congressional appropriation of $2 million to purchase land from Mexico, however, Wilmot vehemently objected to suggestions that slavery could be established in the newly acquired areas. He introduced the Wilmot Proviso to ban the spread of slavery but could not secure passage by both houses of Congress.

Wilmot left Congress in 1851, disenchanted with the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California into the Union as a free state but gave the Utah and New Mexico territories the right to determine the slavery issue for themselves at the time of their admission to the Union. Most disturbing to Wilmot were the new powers given to the federal government to enforce the fugitive slave act (9 Stat. 462).

Wilmot served as a Pennsylvania state judge from 1851 to 1861. In 1854 he, along with disaffected members of the Democratic and Whig parties, helped form the Republican Party. The Republican Party was antislavery and adopted the Wilmot Proviso language as part of its platform. Wilmot became a prominent member of the party and was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served the 1861–63 term.

A strong defender of the Union, Wilmot supported President Abraham Lincoln in the early years of the U.S. Civil War. Lincoln appointed Wilmot a judge of the U.S. Court of Claims in 1863, a post he served until 1868.

"Democracy is a principle of eternal justice."
—David Wilmot

Wilmot died on March 16, 1868, in Towanda, Pennsylvania.

Further readings

Going, Charles. 1924. David Wilmot, Free-Soiler: A Biography of the Great Advocate of the Wilmot Proviso. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1966.


Compromise of 1850; Republican Party; "Wilmot Proviso" (Appendix, Primary Document).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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