DAVID WILMOT HELPED END SLAVERY IN AMERICA
Many Bradford County residents are familiar with the name David Wilmot. Passers-by see the sign on Towanda's York Ave. and also some know he is buried in Riverside Cemetery, but how many really know much about him and why he is considered "one of the County's most famous sons of all time?" Files at the Bradford County Historical Society Museum reveal much information concerning both his private and political life.
At the Proviso Centennial Celebration held in the court house in 1946, then Attorney-General James H. Duff (later Governor) and Dr. S. K. Stevens, State Historian were the main speakers. President of the Bradford County Historical Society, Leo E. Wilt was chairman for the event.
Prior to the program, the Towanda High School band led by Frederick Watson, paraded to the court house in its first appearance of the 1946-47 school term and played two numbers. Rev. Paul M. Brown, pastor of the Methodist Church gave the invocation. The welcome was given by Burgess W. J. Litzelman.
The first speaker, Dr. S. K. Stevens, related that the State Historical Commission had plans to soon put attractive markers at the site of David Wilmot's birth place in Bethany, PA, at the home on York Ave., where he once lived and near his burial place in Riverside Cemetery. Dr. Stevens stated that David Wilmot's leadership in the anti-slavery crusade started a chain of events that led to the end of slavery in this country. His proviso was included in the platform of the Republican party which elected Lincoln as President and also included in the 13th Amendment to the Federal Constitution abolishing slavery.
Mr. Duff, in his speech, traced David Wilmot's career from the time he was admitted to the bar at age 20, through his years in Congress and his part in the organization of the Republican party in both Bradford County in PA and the United States. The meeting closed with a benediction by Rev. David R. Bluhm, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church.
David Wilmot was born in Bethany, Wayne County on Jan. 20, 1814, the son of Randall and Mary Grant Wilmot. His mother died when he was six years old. He-attended Beech Woods Academy, Bethany and Cayuga Lake Academy, Aurora, NY. He married Anne Morgan in Bethlehem, PA on Nov. 28, 1836 and the couple had three children: Clarence Grant Wilmot, described as an intelligent, handsome boy, was accidentally poisoned at the age of ten, while at a boarding school near Waverly, NY; another son, David, lived to be only seven months old. The third son, Thomas Morgan Wilmot, instead of relying on his father's fame, became a teacher and taught a few terms in district schools of Bradford County but was described in the Register-journal newspaper in 1891, as being erratic and eccentric, "His idiosyncrasies causing his father no end of mortification and sorrow."
At the age of 18, David Wilmot left school and on May 15, 1832 entered the law office of George W. Woodward at Wilkes-Barre. He was admitted to practice law in Luzerne County on Aug. 5, 1834 and in Bradford County on Sept. 8, 1834. In December of that year, he announced his law partnership with Simon Kinney.
He had an early interest in forensic events and was "speaker of the day" at several programs and political meetings and was referred to as the "boy orator."
On Nov. 30, 1839, he became associate editor of the Towanda "Banner and Democrat." This association ended in Jan. of 1841.
During 1840, Mr. Wilmot gave several addresses to political gatherings and in 1841, he was appointed to his first political office as assistant superintendent of the Tioga line of the North Branch Canal.
In 1842, he was urged to seek nomination for Congress, but instead he worked for the nomination of H. H. Read.
The "New York Globe," in 1843 portrayed Mr. Wilmot as "corpulent, with a full red face, as fair and smooth as a woman's." "The personal appearance of Mr. Wilmot does not strike very favorably at first; he looks too much like a Great Boy, but as soon as he speaks, that impression vanishes." "His voice is rich, full, melodious." "He is called the most eloquent man in Bradford County and application would make him one of the first lawyers of the state."
"Mr. Wilmot has the dignified bearing of a gentleman, converses charmingly and it is a luxury to hear him laugh, but he is an inveterate chewer of tobacco-his hair hangs loosely about his eyes - his is almost slovenly in his dress and not overly pious in his language. "He is evidently more ambitious to shine as a politician than as a jurist, and may figure yet somewhere."
On Mar. 4, 1844, as a delegate and one of the vice-presidents of the state convention in Harrisburg, he worked for the Pennsylvania endorsement for Van Buren for the presidency.
On Aug. 17, 1844, he was invited by letter, by the Democratic party to become a candidate for Congress, was nominated on Sept. 10, 1844 and on Oct. 8, 1844 elected to Congress. He took his seat in the House of Representatives on Dec. 1, 1845 at the first session of the 29th Congress.
The "Harrisburg Reporter" described Wilmot's debut in Congress as "Having obtained the floor at a late hour when reporters were worn with fatigue and most of them absent, Mr. Wilmot's light hair and complexion and full face gave him somewhat of a youthful appearance, and being from a district in the remote interior, there was but little expected from him among the members as an orator; but when they heard his clear, musical and commanding voice, and saw his dignified and impressive manner, they ceased their side tete-a-tete and began to cluster closely around him." "There was a fervid eloquence in his swelling voice that was truly thrilling. When he closed, there was a general rush of the members to congratulate him and shake him by the hand."
Polk was President and the country was at war with Mexico. Slavery was a big issue then, even though the Civil War was several years in the future. The President asked Congress for an appropriation of $2,000,000 to be used in negotiating peace with Mexico. It was anticipated that California and New Mexico would be added to the Federal Union. When the measure advocated by Polk was presented. David Wilmot, who represented the district that included the counties of Bradford, Tioga and Susquehanna, tossed in his famous Proviso with a short speech on Aug. 8, 1846. The "Wilmot Proviso" passed the House several times in 1846-47 but was rejected by the Senate. The House and Senate eventually passed the appropriation bill with the Proviso attached. This forced the issue of slavery that reached major proportions 15 years later with the start of the Civil War.
THE PROVISO: Provided 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 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.
Mr. Wilmot was elected to a second term in Congress on Oct. 13, 1846 and took his seat at the opening of the Thirtieth Congress and in the -autumn of 1848 was elected for a third term in Congress.
A letter written in Washington in 1849 to the "Bradford Reporter" indicated clearly Mr. Wilmot's stand on questions of slavery in the District of Columbia and negro suffrage. On Dec. 3, 1849, he took his seat in the Thirty-First Congress under the party designation of "Free-Soil." The Proviso had formed the basis of the Free-Soil party and was largely instrumental in forming the Republican party in 1854.
In 1857 a governor and other state officers were to be elected and many leaders thought it was time to have a complete Republican organization. They turned naturally toward the most distinguished anti-slavery leader in the State, David Wilmot. At the time of the convention, it became evident that unless Mr. Wilmot positively refused, he would be made the candidate of the party. Wilmot sent Judge Laporte, a trusted friend, to Harrisburg with a letter declining the nomination if it was thought best that some other person should be named as the candidate. He also sent a declaration of principles on which he would make the contest if nominated. When they arrived, the delegates were in favor of him and he was given unanimous nomination. Upon receiving notice, he resigned as judge and canvassed the state, but the battle was hopeless from the start. He was defeated by William F. Packer, the Democratic candidate. In December of that year, Governor Pollock appointed him president judge of his old district and the next year he was again elected by the people. He had first become judge of the 13th Judicial District of the Commonwealth, which was composed of Bradford, Susquehanna and Sullivan counties, on Nov. 18, 1851.
Political animosity made by the gubernatorial contest among his political opponents lead to an organized effort to depose him as a judge. When Wilmot first came to Towanda, it was reported that he was a pro-slavery Democrat and when a lecturer from Philadelphia came to the area, David Wilmot was one of the persons who nearly had him mobbed. Wilmot broke away from the Democrats in protest against slavery and was active in the founding of the Republican party - a meeting in Reading followed by a state convention in Pittsburgh, and this in turn was followed by the first national convention of the Party in Philadelphia in June 1856. Democrats opposed to the extension of slavery were known as "Barn-burners."
After the formation of the new political party, the old time Democrats were bitter against the seceders and Wilmot as leader of the Republican party in Bradford County was a special target. In 1858 his enemies started a movement to legislate the 13th district out of existence when they realized that the Judge would be re-elected. They secured several members of the bar to sign a petition claiming that Judge Wilmot was biased in his appointments and made political speeches. They wrote a letter to a lawyer in a nearby county, but the letter got into Wilmot's hands and the plot was exposed. A bill was introduced in the Legislature to attach Bradford County to the judicial district of Luzerne. Judge Wilmot appeared before the Judicial Committee and gave such a masterly defense and reply to the accusations of his enemies that the bill was defeated.
At the Chicago Republican Convention in 1860, Wilmot was delegate at large and was temporary chairman of the body which nominated Mr. Lincoln for president. Seven candidates were nominated for President of the United States with Pennsylvania again divided and with "much wrangling and excitement." David Wilmot pleaded long and strong for the switch to the candidate from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and finally was successful in obtaining pledges of the majority. For this valiant work, he was later to receive personal thanks of Lincoln during a visit to Springfield and in 1861 was offered a position in Lincoln's cabinet.
Republicans of Philadelphia gave Wilmot the name of "Lion of the North" due to his personal influence that brought powerful aid to the support of freedom in the north. In March of 1861 David Wilmot was elected by the Pennsylvania legislature to fill the unexpired term in the U.S. Senate of Simon Cameron, who went into Lincoln's cabinet and in Sept. of that year newspaper accounts tell of Wilmot's illness which was to become chronic. On June 9, 1862, Wilmot voted for the 13th amendment which made the principles of the Wilmot Proviso a part of the Constitution.
After having failed to be re-endorsed for the Senate in 1863, Wilmot was commissioned by Lincoln as a judge in the newly created Court of Claims at Washington.
David Wilmot died at his home in Towanda on March 16, 1868. Henry Mercur, Wilmot's "trusty and valued friend" was administrator of his will. His cow was to go to his wife, along with $16,000. His watch was to go to his son, asking him to wear it. The painting of himself and his books also were to go to his son.
A bronze tablet, erected by John W. Mix, a member of the Bar of Bradford County to honor David Wilmot was unveiled in the Court House on Sept. 12, 1921. Included in the distinguished gathering that met in the rotunda were relatives of Mr. Wilmot. Judge A. C. Fanning gave a "most eloquent address." The inscription: In commemoration of the Distinguished Services of DAVID WILMOT, Born Bethany, Pa., Jan. 20, 1814. Admitted to the Bar of Bradford County Sept. 8, 1834. Member of Congress 1845-51. President Judge of Bradford County 1851-61. U. S. Senator 1861-63. Judge, U.S. Court of Claims 1863-68. Died at Towanda March 16, 1868. Author of the "Wilmot Proviso": "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory except for crime, whereby the party shall first be duly convicted." THIS TABLET IS PRESENTED by JNO. W. MIX, ESQ. A Member of the Bar of Bradford County from 1863 to 1919. This tablet is located on the left wall near the front entrance of the Court House.
Compiled by the Bradford County Historical Society
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