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The man who elected Lincoln: Bradford County honors David Wilmot

Isabela Weiss
Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko presents plans for the David Wilmot Freedom Center to attendees on Saturday.

Over the sound of the orchestra, a crowd gathered outside of Bradford County Courthouse on Saturday to celebrate the legacy of a man who altered the course of the Civil War.

“So, how did this congressman from Towanda happen to try to change our nation?”

That’s Bill Lewis, a historian from Wilkes-Barre, speaking over the microphone. He’s telling the story of David Wilmot – a pioneer of anti-slavery legislation. On Aug. 8, 1846, Wilmot introduced a slavery-banning amendment to a bill used to acquire new territories following the Mexican-American War. While the amendment failed, historians like Lewis cite Wilmot for inciting the Civil War.

“A fire had been started that would burn up until the end of the Civil War, nearly 20 years later. A fire that was started as what was known as the Wilmot Proviso,” said Lewis.

That proviso would later be used nearly word for word in the 13th Amendment, according to Lewis. Before his provision became law, Wilmot helped create the Republican Party, of which he served as convention chairman. However, as Lewis explained at Saturday’s event, Wilmot gave his position up to aid a larger campaign.

“When it became apparent that Wilmot was needed to lobby delegates from across the country to support Abraham Lincoln, he immediately left his role as chair, and worked to get Lincoln delegate votes. It is said that Wilmot’s hotel room was one of the key places that uncommitted delegates were taken and were convinced to vote for the man from Illinois,” Lewis said.

Henry Farley, Bradford County Historical Society President and Mayor of Sayre Borough, hailed Bradford’s little-known, yet impactful congressman.

“He’s paramount [to Pennsylvania] and the things that happened to this country. The fact that he helped to get Abraham Lincoln elected – y’know, I don’t think people have any idea…from this little town in rural Pennsylvania that this came from here,” said Farley.

Bradford County Commissioners closed the event with an unveiling of the plans for a new sheriff’s building named in Wilmot’s honor as the ‘David Wilmot Freedom Center.’ A copy of the Wilmot Proviso will be inscribed on the side of the building. The music you heard in today’s story was provided by Sanphy’s Academy of Music and Arts.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.