The imposing structure that stands at the corner of Wayne Street (Route 670) and Sugar Street in Bethany is familiar to most residents of the county as the Wilmot Mansion.
It was constructed in 1827 by John A. Gustin for his brother-in-law Randall Wilmot, a well-to-do merchant. The building was used as a tavern and it was here that David Wilmot, sponsor of the Wilmot Proviso lived from the age of 13 to 18. Randall Wilmot sold the Mansion in 1832 and it has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
David Wilmot was born and spent his early childhood just a short distance away on Old Wayne Street in a house that John A. Gustin built for Solomon Moore about 1811. Randall Wilmot purchased the house in 1814 and on January 20 of that year David was born to Randall and his wife Mary Grant Wilmot. The birthplace of David Wilmot has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974.
Life in Bethany was comfortable for young David Wilmot. He received his early education at the Beech Woods Academy and later attended the Cayuga Lake Academy in Aurora, New York.
In 1832 he moved to Wilkes-Barre and studied law under George W. Woodward, a native of Bethany. He was admitted to the bar in Bradford County in 1834 and in 1836 he married Anna Morgan. They had three children but all died in childhood. David had a successful law practice in Towanda and became involved in local politics.
He was a supporter of Andrew Jackson and was elected Democratic Representative from the 12th District of Pennsylvania in 1844. He served from 1845 to 1851 in the 29th, 30th and 31st Congresses.
The subject of slavery, always a sensitive issue, was hotly debated in the years leading up to the Civil War. Wilmot was not an abolitionist and did not object to slavery on a moral or ethical standpoint. He, like many others at that time, feared that extending slavery to the west would upset the balance between the slave states and free states and become a threat to national government and the Union.
On Aug. 8, 1846 an appropriations bill for $2 million to be used by President James Polk in negotiating a peace treaty with Mexico was introduced in the House of Representatives.
Page 2 of 2 - Wilmot added the following amendment: "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 the use by the Executive of the moneys here in 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."
This became known as the Wilmot Proviso which proposed to ban slavery in land gained from Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Although Wilmot claimed authorship of the proviso some sources claim the language of the proviso actually originated with Jacob Brinkerhoff of Ohio but because Wilmot’s standing in the Democratic party was better than Brinkerhoff’s, he was selected to present it. The House of Representatives passed the proviso by a vote of 83-64 but the Senate adjourned rather than approve the bill with the proviso.
In the next session of Congress it again passed in the House but the Senate passes a bill of its own without the amendment. In 1848 the Democrats rejected the Wilmot Proviso but a newly established Free Soil Party supported the Wilmot Proviso and nominated Martin Van Buren for president on a platform calling for “No more slave states and no more slave territory.”
The proviso actually was never passed but it is considered by many to be the first of several issues that eventually led to the Civil War.
David Wilmot was a member of the Free Soil Party before becoming one of the founders of the Republican Party.
In 1857 he was the first Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania but was defeated by William F. Packer. When Abraham Lincoln became president he appointed Simon Cameron as his Secretary of War and Wilmot took over Cameron’s unexpired term in the Senate. During this time the 37th Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
In 1863 Wilmot gave up his seat in the Senate and returned to Bradford County where he accepted Lincoln’s appointment to the United Sates Court of Claims. Wilmot died on March 16, 1868 in Towanda at the age of 44. He is buried in the Riverside cemetery in Towanda and the reverse side of his tombstone bears the last few lines of the Wilmot Proviso.