THE POLITICS OF SECTIONALISM 1846—1861
SLAVERY IN THE TERRITORIES
From the late 1840s until 1861, northern and southern leaders attempted to fashion a
solution to the problem of slavery in the territories. Four proposals included:
Extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific
Popular sovereignty, allowing the residents of a territory to decide the issue
Protection of the property of slaveholders (meaning their right to own slaves) even if few
lives in the territory
B. The Wilmot Proviso
In August 1846, David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democrat, offered an amendment to an
appropriations bill, called the
, for the Mexican War.
Northern lawmakers, a majority in the House of Representatives (because the northern
states had a larger population than the southern states), passed more than 50 versions of
the proviso between 1846 and 1850. In the Senate, however, where each state had equal
representation, the proviso was consistently rejected and never became law.
C. The Election of 1848
Both Democrats and Whigs wanted to avoid identification with either side of the Wilmot
Proviso controversy, and they selected their 1848 presidential candidates accordingly.
The Democrats nominated Michigan senator Lewis Cass. In 1847, he suggested that
territorial residents, not Congress, should decide slavery’s fate. This solution,
, had a do-it-yourself charm: Keep the politicians out of it, and let the people
The Whigs were silent on the slavery issue. Reverting to their winning 1840 formula of
nominating a war hero, they selected General Zachary Taylor of Mexican War fame.
Taylor’s background disturbed many antislavery northern Whigs. These Conscience
Whigs, along with remnants of the old Liberty Party and a scattering of northern
Democrats, bolted their parties and formed the Free-Soil Party. The name reflected the
party’s vow to keep the territories free. They nominated former president Martin Van
Taylor was elected, giving the nation its first president from the Lower South.
D. The Gold Rush
John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant, contracted with James Marshall in late 1847 to build a
sawmill on his property at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers in central
California. Brannan would become the wealthiest man in California, provisioning miners
and staking claims.
Through 1849 and 1850, more than 100,000 hopefuls flooded into California naming
settlements of Hangtown, Gouge Eye, and Whiskeytown.
Young Levi Strauss experimented with trousers made of canvas that miners particularly
favored; two brothers, Henry Welles and William Fargo, offered banking, transportation,
and mail services for the newcomers.