Henry Wilson

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This article is about the vice president of the United States. For other persons of the same name, see Henry Wilson (disambiguation).
Henry Wilson
Henry Wilson, VP of the United States.jpg
18th Vice President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1873 – November 22, 1875
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by Schuyler Colfax
Succeeded by William A. Wheeler
United States Senator
from Massachusetts
In office
January 31, 1855 – March 4, 1873
Preceded by Julius Rockwell
Succeeded by George S. Boutwell
Chairman of the
Senate Committee on Military Affairs
In office
March 4, 1861 – March 4, 1873
Preceded by Jefferson Davis
Succeeded by John A. Logan
Personal details
Born Jeremiah Jones Colbath
(1812-02-16)February 16, 1812
Farmington, New Hampshire
Died November 22, 1875(1875-11-22) (aged 63)
Washington, D.C.
Nationality American
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Harriet Malvina Howe Wilson
Religion Congregationalist
Signature
Military service
Allegiance United States Union
Service/branch United States Union Army
Years of service 1861
Rank Union army col rank insignia.jpg Colonel
Commands Massachusetts 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Battles/wars American Civil War

Henry Wilson (born Jeremiah Jones Colbath; February 16, 1812 – November 22, 1875) was the 18th Vice President of the United States (1873–1875) and a Senator from Massachusetts (1855–1873). Before and during the American Civil War, he was a leading Republican, and a strong opponent of slavery. He devoted his energies to the destruction of the "Slave Power" - the faction of slave owners and their political allies which anti-slavery Americans saw as dominating the country.

He was considered a "Radical Republican". After the Civil War, he supported the Radical program for Reconstruction. In 1872, he was elected Vice President as running mate with President Ulysses S. Grant, and served from March 4, 1873 until his death on November 22, 1875.

Early life[edit]

Jeremiah Jones Colbath was born in Farmington, New Hampshire on February 16, 1812. His impoverished father named him after a wealthy neighbor who was a childless bachelor in the vain hope of receiving an inheritance. The boy grew to hate the name, and when he came of age he had it legally changed to Henry Wilson, inspired either by a biography of a Philadelphia teacher or a portrait of a minister named Henry Wilson from a book on English clergymen. Henry Wilson moved to Natick, Massachusetts in 1833 and became a shoemaker (which gave rise to his political nickname—the "Natick Cobbler"). He attended several local academies, and also taught school in Natick, where he later engaged in the manufacture of shoes. He was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives between 1841 and 1852, and was owner and editor of the Boston Republican newspaper from 1848 to 1851.

Henry Wilson's shoeshop in Natick, Massachusetts.

During his service in the Massachusetts House, Wilson was made aware that participation in the state militia had declined, and that it was not in a state of readiness. In addition to undertaking legislative efforts to provide uniforms and other equipment, in 1843 Wilson joined the militia himself, becoming a Major in the 1st Artillery Regiment, which he later commanded with the rank of Colonel. In 1846 Wilson was promoted to Brigadier General as commander of the Massachusetts Militia's 3rd Brigade, a position he held until he was elected to Congress in 1852.[1][2]

U.S. Congress[edit]

In 1852, Wilson was an unsuccessful candidate for US Representative. He was a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1853 and was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Massachusetts in 1853. In 1855 he was elected to the United States Senate by a coalition of Free-Soilers, "Americans" (Know-Nothings), and Democrats to the vacancy caused by the resignation of Edward Everett. He was reelected as a Republican in 1859, 1865 and 1871, and served from January 31, 1855 to March 4, 1873, when he resigned to become Vice President.

He was Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia and the Committee on Military Affairs. In that capacity, Wilson passed on over 15,000 nominations that Lincoln submitted during the course of the War, and worked closely with him on legislation affecting the Army and Navy.[3] In 1861 he raised and briefly commanded the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from September 27 to October 29. After the war he became an early member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

A controversy that swirled around Wilson's name since 1861 was that he (while Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs) may have revealed plans for the invasion of Virginia culminating in the First Battle of Bull Run to southern spy (and Washington society figure) Rose O'Neal Greenhow. Wilson (although married) had seen a great deal of Mrs. Greenhow, and while with her may have told her about the plans followed by Major General Irvin McDowell, which may have been part of the intelligence Mrs. Greenhow got to Confederate forces under Major General Pierre Beauregard. If so this information may have led to the Northern rout in that battle. However, in his most recent biography, an alternative (a Northern clerk named Horace White) was suggested as the real leak.

Wilson was an abolitionist. In the United States Senate, he advocated for equal pay for African-American soldiers.[4]

A Vermont newspaper portrayed Wilson's position:

Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, in a speech in the U. S. Senate on Friday, said he thought our treatment of the negro soldiers almost as bad as that of the rebels at Fort Pillow. This is hardly an exaggeration.[5]

Grant/Wilson campaign poster

Vice President[edit]

Wilson was elected Vice President of the United States on the Republican ticket with President Ulysses S. Grant to replace the controversial Schuyler Colfax and served from March 4, 1873 until his death. His election was marred by the report that he was involved in the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal. Wilson was one of several major Republican (and Democratic) Representatives and Senators who were offered bribes (and possibly took them) of shares in Crédit Mobilier. Wilson was cleared by the Senate inquiry, but his reputation was stained.

Wilson was erroneously identified as the namesake of the Wilson desk during President Richard Nixon's administration. Questions about the desk's history arose after it was mentioned in Nixon's "Silent majority" speech.

Henry Wilson's Grave - photograph by Jeff Newcum

Declining health and death[edit]

Wilson suffered a serious stroke in 1873. Although partly paralyzed, he fought to actively perform his duties as presiding officer over the United States Senate. He suffered what was believed to be a minor attack on November 10, 1875, and was taken to the Vice President's Room to recover. Over the next several days, his health appeared to improve and his friends thought he was nearly recovered. However, on November 22 at 7:20 am, Wilson died from a second stroke while working in the United States Capitol Building. He was interred in Old Dell Park Cemetery, Natick, Massachusetts.[6]

Henry Wilson, photograph by Mathew Brady

Books[edit]

Among Wilson's published works are: History of the Anti-Slavery Measures of the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Congresses, 1861-64 (1864); History of the Reconstruction Measures of the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congresses, 1865-68 (1868); and an exceedingly valuable, although partisan, publication, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, (three volumes, 1872–77).[7]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Bolino, August C. (2012). Men of Massachusetts: Bay State Contributors to American Society. iUniverse. pp. 77–78. 
  2. ^ Nason, Elias; Russell, Thomas (1876). The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson: Late Vice-President of the United States. B. B. Russell. p. 52. 
  3. ^ 371. Herndon, William H. and Jesse Weik. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (Editors) Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln (1998), § 444, p. 561.
  4. ^ p. 1805-6, United States. Congress. The Congressional Globe: Containing the Debate and Proceedings of the First Session of the Thirty-eight Congress. Edited by John C. Rives. Washington, DC: Congressional Globe Printing Office, 1864.
  5. ^ The Burlington Free Press. "Our Colored Soldiers." April 29, 1864: 2.
  6. ^ (Memorial Addresses; Life and Character of Henry Wilson, January 21, 1875. Washington Government Printing Office 1876)
  7. ^ Myers, John L. "The Writing of History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America," Civil War History, June 1985, Vol. 31 Issue 2, pp 144-162

References[edit]

  • Ernest McKay, Henry Wilson, Practical Radical: Portrait of a Politician, (Port Washington, NY, London: National University Publications: Kennikat Press, 1971), ISBN 0-8046-9010-3
  • Myers, John L. "The Writing of History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America," Civil War History, June 1985, Vol. 31 Issue 2, pp 144–162
  • Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 2 vols. (Boston: J. R. Osgood and Co., 1873–77)

External links[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
Julius Rockwell
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Massachusetts
January 31, 1855 – March 4, 1873
Served alongside: Charles Sumner
Succeeded by
George S. Boutwell
Political offices
Preceded by
Schuyler Colfax
Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States
1872
Succeeded by
William A. Wheeler
Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1873 – November 22, 1875
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Charles Sumner
Persons who have lain in state or honor
in the United States Capitol rotunda

November 25–26, 1875
Succeeded by
James Garfield