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Henry Wilson

Henry Wilson

U.S. Vice President Henry Wilson (1812-1875) was effective in helping to shape the Republican party's antislavery measures and politics.

Henry Wilson, born on Feb. 16, 1812, in Farmington, N.H., was originally named Jeremiah Jones Colbath (he changed his name by act of legislature in 1833). Of a poor family, at 10 he was indentured to a farmer. Such was his hunger for self-improvement that he studied grammar and read widely in books on history and literature.

Free at 21, and with $85 in hand, Wilson became a shoemaker in Natick, Mass. He was debilitated by overwork and in 1838 went south for a change in climate. His view of slavery in Washington, D.C., and Virginia filled him with enduring libertarian sentiments. He became a successful shoe manufacturer. In 1840 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a Whig, and the "Natick cobbler" became a force in state politics.

Wilson's keen faith in free enterprise and scorn of slavery made him a likely representative of those Northerners who feared what they saw as abolitionist excesses but who were unwilling to countenance slavery expansion. Wilson's most striking achievement was to provide a "halfway house" for Northerners in the disintegrating Whig party while the Republican party was being built. In 1854 he joined the nativist American party and attempted to influence it on the slavery issue. But when his pleas were rejected, he led his contingent out of the convention. Elected by the Massachusetts Legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1855, he advocated all legal measures to curb slavery.

During the Civil War, Wilson served as the influential and responsible chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and worked earnestly for emancipation measures. He joined other Radical Republicans to oppose President Andrew Johnson's program for bringing the seceded Southern states peaceably back into the Union at the expense of the newly freed Negroes. Wilson's services gained him the vice-presidential office when Ulysses S. Grant won the 1872 election.

Wilson prepared pedestrian but useful accounts of congressional debates and acts during the Civil War and Reconstruction crises. His most ambitious work was his three-volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (1872-1877), which reflected the simplistic but forthright viewpoint of the Northern workers and farmers. A sick man during his last several years, he was stricken with apoplexy in the Capitol and died in the Vice President's Room on Nov. 22, 1875.

Further Reading

Wilson's life is covered in Ernest McKay, Henry Wilson: Practical Radical (1971). Another biography is the sympathetic work by the Reverend Elias Nason and Thomas Russell, The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson (1872; repr. 1969). See also George F. Hoar, Autobiography of Seventy Years (2 vols., 1903). □

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Wilson, Henry

Henry Wilson, 1812–75, American politician, Vice President of the United States (1873–75), b. Farmington, N.H. At 21 he legally changed his name from Jeremiah Jones Colbath, and as Henry Wilson he apprenticed himself to a cobbler at Natick, Mass. Wilson became successful as a shoe manufacturer and as a Whig politician, serving as a state legislator for most of the years from 1841 to 1852. His strong abolitionist convictions led him to leave the Whigs in 1848, when he helped organize the Free Soil party. Elected (1855) to the U.S. Senate by the Know-Nothing legislature, Wilson finally joined (1856) the Republican party because of its clear opposition to slavery. He was a leading radical Republican for the rest of his career. During the Civil War he was chairman of the Senate committee on military affairs. The "Natick cobbler," as he was called, was elected Vice President on the ticket headed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, but he died before completing his term. Wilson wrote the History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (3 vol., 1872–77), the first major history of the coming of the Civil War.

See biographies by E. McKay (1971) and R. H. Abbott (1972).

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