10/29/13 - acrimony in washington

In today's selection -- from Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents Series: The 13th President, 1850-1853 by Paul Finkelman. When Republicans recently tried to modify Obamacare with the threat of blocking government spending, Democrats acted shocked. However, the tactic of trying to gain a legislative advantage by blocking spending is one of the most frequently used tactics in American history. In fact, the Constitution was intentionally designed to make the passage of new legislation difficult -- and gave the House authority over revenues as part of this. In 1846, an event arose that brought about one of the most divisive issues in American history and ultimately resulted in the Civil War. That event was the victorious war against Mexico, which gave the United States the Rio Grande boundary for Texas, ownership of California and a large area comprising New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. Together this comprises 24% of the today's continental United States. The issue? Whether slavery would be allowed to expand into those territories. From the outset, it created a climate of acrimony and gridlock in Congress almost unrivaled in American history. Northern Democrats and Whigs (the party of young Abraham Lincoln in the period before the creation of the Republican Party) opposed the expansion of slavery. One of the first acts that resulted from the acquisition of this huge new territory was the Wilmot Proviso. In this proviso, a northern, anti-slavery Democrat named David Wilmot tried to block a $2 million spending bill desired by pro-slavery President James Polk by tying it to a requirement that slavery be banned from the new territories. The result was gridlock:

"Most Whigs had opposed Texas annexation [in 1845] because it would lead to a war with Mexico. When it did, they opposed the war as an unnecessary conflict started by an overly belligerent, warmongering president. Like the Democrats, the Whigs believed in America's destiny, but their notion of greatness did not center on territorial expansion, especially if it could only be achieved by aggressive war. Whigs believed that internal development and economic growth would be far better for the nation than going to war over the vast stretches of desert that constituted Texas, New Mexico, and what was then known as Upper California. ... Many northern Whigs considered the war part of a larger pro-slavery scheme to grab more land to spread human bondage across the con­tinent. ...

"Opposition to slavery was growing in the North, and pro-war Democrats there feared that in the next elec­tion they would be defeated by a coalition of Whigs, Liberty Party voters, and antislavery Democrats for spreading slavery into the West. The issue came to a head at the end of the congressional session in August 1846. Polk had asked for $2 million to finance peace negotia­tions with Mexico and facilitate the acquisition of Mexican territory. Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, a first-term Democrat who had previously been completely loyal to Polk, proposed a rider to the appro-priations bill -- the Wilmot Proviso -- declaring that 'as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.'

"Northerners dominated the House of Representatives (where seats were allocated on the basis of population), and with almost unanimous northern support -- from Whigs and Democrats -- the proviso easily passed in that body. In the Senate, southerners were consistently able to stop the proviso."


Paul Finkelman


Millard Fillmore


Times Books


Copyright 2011 by Paul Finkelman


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