Free Soil or Slave State: California Gold and The Wilmot Proviso


The Mexican War ends. The issue of Free Soil or Slave State in new territories arises. California Gold and The Wilmot Proviso.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Adds Territories

When the Mexican War ended the United States found itself in possession of vast stretches of unsettled and lawless territory that included present-day California, New Mexico, and Arizona. These territories were acquired on February 2, 1848, by the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

California Gold Rush Begins

The year of 1848 was also a historical year in that gold was discovered in California on January 24. Soon Americans by the thousands, mainly from the Northern states, began flocking to these western gold fields. In just a few months, following this discovery of gold, some 80,000 people had settled in the mining region.

California Requests Statehood

Soon, California became a wild and lawless region. It was clear that an established government was needed to maintain order in these settlements. California, therefore, asked to be admitted to the Union. In addition, California desired to be admitted as a “free state”–one which would not permit slavery.

Admitting California as a free state presented a unique situation: The United States had entered the war with Mexico largely to satisfy the South. The South wanted new territory, which could be divided into slave states.

Throughout the South protest meetings were held against California being admitted as a free state. Equally in protest were the Northern states, insisting that slavery should not be extended.

The Wilmot Proviso

Civil war seemed to threaten much earlier than it actually occurred. Prior to the Mexican War, controversies over slavery had begun to invade America and expedite the ever widening split in politics. Northern congressmen in 1846, led by David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democrat, anticipating the winning of the Mexican War and the territory that the United States would gain as a result, introduced the Wilmot Proviso. Its main purpose was to ban the extension of slavery into territories that would be acquired from Mexico.

Although the measure passed the House of Representatives by a large majority, it did not pass the Senate. However, Congress was now deeply divided. Extreme Southerners contended that “Every citizen of the United States has the right to go to any part of the country he pleases,” and in doing so had the right to take his property, which for some Southern citizens included their slaves.

The backers of the Wilmot Proviso retorted that: “We will have no more slave states.” They insisted that: “All territory must come in free.”

Popular Sovereignty Demanded

And yet a third voice in the contention advocated Congress had no right to “meddle in this matter, one way or the other.” What this contention desired was “Popular Sovereignty,” meaning that the people who lived in, or moved into, these new territories, should decide for themselves as to whether any given area should allow slavery or not.

The creation of the Free Soil party two years later deepened the rift, not only in Washington, but also throughout the entire country. Also adding to the rift was, in December of 1848, President James K. Polk’s recommendation that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific. This extension would have permitted slavery in such places in California as Bakersfield, Los Angeles, and San Diego.


  1. Comptons, The Complete Reference Collection. CD Rom, 1997, The Learning Company, Inc.
  2. Montgomery, D. H. The Leading Facts of American History. Ginn and Company, Boston and New York, 1890.