Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

Start Free Trial

Wilmot Proviso Significance

What is the significance of the Wilmot Proviso?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Wilmot Proviso was a proposal by David Wilmot in 1846 that would have banned slavery in any territory that the United States gained from Mexico as a result of the war between the United States and Mexico; however, the entire Congress never passed this proposal. The proposal passed the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Wilmot Proviso was a proposal by David Wilmot in 1846 that would have banned slavery in any territory that the United States gained from Mexico as a result of the war between the United States and Mexico; however, the entire Congress never passed this proposal. The proposal passed the House of Representatives because the North had more representatives as its population was greater than that of the South. However, it didn’t pass the Senate because there was an equal number of free- and slave-states. The free states voted to pass it while pro-slavery states were against its passage.

This proposal was significant because it showed how divisive the issue of slavery was in the country. The North was against the spread of it while the South had no interest in banning the it. Banning the spread of slavery would have weakened the South’s desire to maintain slavery in the future, as there would have been many more free states that eventually would have joined the country from the land gained from Mexico if this proposal passed. The events surrounding the passage of this proposal foreshadowed the growing divisiveness of the issue of slavery that occurred in the United States in the 1850s that ultimately led to the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was the proposition for an American law that would ban slavery in any new territory acquired from Mexico during the Mexican War. The proviso fueled the conflict between the North and the South over the issue of power in Congress. Neither the North nor the South wanted the other to have more power in Congress. If a territory was added to either side, the balance of power would be tipped, and Southerners stood to lose their slavery-driven economy should the North have a majority in Congress. If the proviso passed, free territories would be added, thus growing the North's power and diminishing the South's. 

The Wilmot Proviso passed in the House of Representatives but not the Senate, and thus never became a federal legislation. Its effects however, were long-lasting, and it is seen as one of the events that resulted in the American Civil War. The proviso exacerbated sectional conflict as each side vied for leverage in Congress. A similar conflict had already occurred few decades earlier in 1819 with the Tallmadge Amendment. The Tallmadge Amendment sought to make the newly acquired territory of Missouri a free state. The question then was the same: would the new territory be a free state or a slave state? Like the Wilmot Proviso, the Tallmadge Amendment failed, but had the effect of increasing tension and contention between sides. Ultimately, that growing discord would become so great that the country was led to civil war.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The significance of the Wilmot Proviso is that it helped to make the North and the South more angry at each other at the time of the Mexican American War.  It did so by helping to cast the war as one that was about slavery.

Many in the North worried that the point of this war was to take more land that would (because it was in the South) become slave territory.  For this reason, they (a famous example of this is Henry David Thoreau) opposed the war.  The Wilmot Proviso helped to publicize this idea because it stated that no land taken from Mexico could become slave.

The Proviso did not pass, but it still served to make the North and South come into conflcit more.  This helped to bring on the Civil War.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team