Wilmot, David

Born: 1814-01-20 Bethany, Pennsylvania

Died: 1868-03-16 Towanda, Pennsylvania

David Wilmot was a U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and federal judge. Son of a well-to-do merchant, Wilmot spent his youth in rural Pennsylvania. He completed preparatory studies in an academy in Aurora, New York. Wilmot read law in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and in 1834, he earned admission to the bar in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He settled permanently in Towanda, Pennsylvania, where he opened a law practice. In November 1836, Wilmot married Anne Morgan, with whom he had three children. Wilmot’s interest in politics soon surpassed his commitment to the law, and he became active in the Bradford County Democratic Party. A devotee of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, Wilmot was disappointed when delegates to the Democratic National Convention denied Van Buren the presidential nomination in 1844, but Wilmot nonetheless canvassed on behalf of James K. Polk. Wilmot won election, as a Democrat, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1844, serving in that body from March 1845 to March 1851. In August 1846, Wilmot lead a congressional revolt against the Polk administration, introducing an amendment to President Polk’s request for $2 million to negotiate peace with Mexico and barring slavery from all territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso, as the amendment came to be known, failed in the U.S. Senate, but established Wilmot as a leading anti-slavery politician. Wilmot subsequently distanced himself from Polk and his followers, drawing closer to the Barnburner faction of the party and Van Buren. During the presidential election of 1848, Wilmot joined the Barnburners in bolting the Democratic Party and helped establish the Free-Soil Party. Winning reelection in 1848 with a combination of Free-Soil and Democratic voters, Wilmot issued his “White Man's Proviso,” making it clear that his opposition to the expansion of slavery centered less on the plight of enslaved persons than on preserving the territories for free white labor. In 1850, Wilmot and his family were living in Bradford County, where he owned $3,000 in real estate. Wilmot and his Free-Soil allies could do little to prevent the Compromise of 1850, which repudiated the Wilmot Proviso, and Pennsylvania Democrats denied Wilmot’s renomination for the House. Upon conclusion of his time in the U.S. House, he returned to Bradford County. He served as presiding judge of the thirteenth judicial district from 1851 to 1861. Wilmot supported Franklin Pierce and the Democrats in the election of 1852, but opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act prompted Wilmot to abandon the Democratic Party. He joined with other disaffected Democrats to help establish the Republican Party. One of the founders of the party, Wilmot chaired the platform committee at the first Republican National Convention, and he campaigned vigorously for John C. Fremont in the presidential election of 1856. Wilmot ran unsuccessfully, as a Republican, for governor of Pennsylvania in 1857. By 1860, Wilmot claimed $3,500 in real estate, with a personal estate valued at $7,000. At the Republican National Convention in 1860, Wilmot supported Abraham Lincoln for president. Lincoln briefly considered Wilmot for a cabinet position, but instead selected fellow Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron to the cabinet. In February 1861, Wilmot attended the peace conference in Washington, DC, called to address the Secession Crisis. In March 1861, the Pennsylvania Senate elected Wilmot, as a Republican, to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy left by Cameron’s resignation. Wilmot served in the Senate from March 1861 to March 1863; he was not a candidate for reelection in 1862. At the conclusion of his term in the Senate, President Lincoln appointed Wilmot judge of the U.S. Court of Claims, a position he held until his death.

Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 2069; Charles Buxton Going, David Wilmot: Free Soiler (New York: D. Appleton, 1924), 19; Frederick J. Blue, “Wilmot, David,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 23:553-54; U.S. Census Office, Seventh Census of the United States (1850), Towanda, Bradford County, PA, 12; U.S. Census Office, Eighth Census of the United States (1860), Towanda, Bradford County, PA, 24; Gravestone, Riverside Cemetery, Towanda, PA.