Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bethany, Wayne County
Wilmot had a long and successful career as a politician. When serving in Congress, he penned the Wilmot Proviso that helped end slavery.
Born in 1814 in Bethany, Pennsylvania, David Wilmot worked tirelessly as a politician. Wilmot’s gift as an orator propelled his political career. He successfully ran for the House of Representatives in 1844. In 1846 Wilmot proposed legislation that would ban slavery and involuntary servitude in territories annexed after the Mexican War. Though his proposal did not pass in the Senate, the Wilmot Proviso, as it was called, polarized the North and the South. Wilmot’s contribution to the abolitionist’s movement is his greatest legacy.
David Wilmot was born January 20, 1814, in Bethany, Pennsylvania, into a reasonably affluent, fifth-generation family. Mary Grant Wilmot, Wilmot’s mother, died November 14, 1820, when he was six. Wilmot’s father, Randal, soon remarried to Marry Carr. Marry Carr Wilmot raised David and gave birth to five other children: Jane, Lois, Maria, Edward and Celinda. Wilmot enrolled in Beech Woods Academy. He proved to be a promising student. Charles Going points out Wilmot’s bravado in his biography, David Wilmot, Free-Soiler: A Biography of the Great Advocate of the Wilmot Proviso; his principal, in a letter to Randal Wilmot, remarked that, “your son learns more in one day then any other pupil does in three.” At the age of 18, David entered the law school of George W. Woodward in Wilkes-Barre. His studies there shaped his moral and political beliefs and gave him the staunch abolitionist views that would later drive his political career.
Wilmot began practicing law in 1834 with a leader in the Bradford County Bar, Simmon Kinney in Towanda, Pennsylvania. Soon after, he began his political career as an orator. In 1835 Wilmot was asked to represent the Democrats of Bradford County in the Van Buren-Harrison campaign. In his first speech, Wilmot enthusiastically expressed his support for Van Buren. His political career expanded further in 1838 when he served as secretary of the Congressional Convention. A public meeting in 1840 elected Wilmot to work with a small committee to pressure the state legislature to finish the North Branch canal. The next year, Victor E. Piollet selected the young politician to be the assistant superintendent of the North Branch canal. This was Wilmot’s first major political office.
In the early ’40s, friends and colleagues urged Wilmot to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. With their encouragement and support, in 1844 Wilmot ran a successful campaign. As a representative, Wilmot worked on two committees: one helped to establish the Smithsonian Institute, which strove to increase and broaden the education of young men, and the second investigated the veracity of Daniel Webster’s charges made against C.J. Ingerson.
Wilmot’s greatest legacy sprang from a bill he introduced in 1846. This legislation, later termed the Wilmot Proviso, called for a ban of slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory annexed after the Mexican War. The House passed the bill, but the Senate voted it down. Though the bill was not adopted, its proposal left a tremendous legacy in American politics. In the next several years, the proviso was proposed repeatedly. The bill, however, was never adopted. Its presence in Washington added energy to the abolitionist movement and further polarized the North and the South against each other.
Wilmot actively pursued politics for the remainder of his life. From 1861-63 Wilmot served in the United States Senate, filling the remainder of the term of Simon Cameron, who had resigned to take over the War Department in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. In 1863 Wilmot became judge of the US Claims Court. His work with the Claims Court, however, was brief. Beginning in December of 1866, Wilmot’s health declined and his attendance at trials became less frequent. David Wilmot died on a Monday morning, March 16, 1868, in Towanda, Pennsylvania.
Speech of Mr. Wilmot, of Pennsylvania, on His Amendment Restricting Slavery from Territory Hereafter Acquired: Delivered in the House of Representatives of the US, Feb. 8, 1847. Washington, DC: J. & G. S. Gideon, printers, 1847.
The California Question: speech of Hon. David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania: in the House of Representatives, Wednesday, July 24, 1850. Washington, DC: Buell & Blanchard, printers, 1856.
Slavery in the Territories: Speech of Hon. D. Wilmot, of Pennsylvania, in the House of Representatives, May 3, 1850, in Committee of the Whole on the State of the Union, on the President’s Message Transmitting the Constitution of California. Washington: Congressional Globe Office, 1850.
Going, Charles Buxton. David Wilmot, Free-Soiler: A Biography of the Great Advocate of the Wilmot Proviso. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1924.