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
Military service

 United States of America

Service/branch Seal of the United States Board of War.png Union Army
Years of service 1861
Rank Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Commands 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 the running mate of President Ulysses S. Grant, and he served from March 4, 1873 until his death on November 22, 1875.

Throughout his career, Wilson was known for championing unpopular causes including the abolition of slavery and workers' rights for both blacks and whites. Fellow Massachusetts Senator George F. Hoar believed Wilson to be the most skilled political organizer in the country. However, Wilson's personal reputation was somewhat damaged by a Congressional investigation revealing he had been involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal while serving in the Senate.

Early life[edit]

Henry Wilson was born in Farmington, New Hampshire on February 16, 1812 and named Jeremiah Jones Colbath.[1] One of several children, Wilson's father and mother were Winthrop and Abigail (Witham) Colbath.[1] His father named him after a wealthy neighbor who was a childless bachelor in the vain hope of receiving an inheritance. The Wilson family was impoverished and Winthrop worked as a laborer in a saw mill. [1] At the age of 10 Wilson was indentured to a neighboring farmer, and he worked hard farm labor for the next 10 years.[2] During this time two neighbors gave him books and Wilson enhanced his meager education by reading extensively on English and American history and biography. [3] At the end of his service he was given "six sheep and a yoke [two] of oxen." Wilson immediately sold his animals for $85, which was the first money he had earned in the 10 years he was indentured.[3] Wilson grew to detest his birth name, and having turned 21 had it legally changed to Henry Wilson, inspired either by a biography of a Philadelphia teacher[4] or a portrait of a minister named Henry Wilson from a book on English clergymen.[5]

Natick cobbler, resolved to end slavery, attended academies[edit]

Henry Wilson's shoeshop in Natick, Massachusetts

Walking more then one hundred miles, Wilson moved to Natick, Massachusetts in 1833 seeking employment or a trade. [3] He met a man and hired himself out in a 5 month contract to learn to make leather shoes called brogans. Wilson learned the trade in a few weeks, "bought his time", and went into the trade himself working several years having the intent to make enough money to study law. [3] Wilson had moderate success as a shoemaker which gave rise to his political nickname-the "Natick Cobbler". During this time period Wilson read extensively and joined the Natick Debating Society where he was an accomplished speaker. [3] Exhausted and physically broken from working as a cobbler, Wilson traveled to Virginia to regain his health. [3] In Washington D.C. Wilson heard debates on slavery and watched African American families seperated and sold into slavery. [3] Wilson strongly resovled to dedicate himself "to the cause of emancipation in America." [3] With his health returned Wilson attended several New Hampshire academies including Strafford, Wolfborough, and Concord. [3] Having spent his savings on education Wilson taught school to get out of debt. [3] Having only a few dollars Wilson started a shoe manufacturing company, lasting ten years, that employed over 100 workers. [3]

State representative, journalist, and military service[edit]

Wilson 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.

During his service in the Massachusetts House, Wilson took note 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.[6][7]

Unsuccessful office bids, delegate[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.

U.S. Senator[edit]

U.S. Senator Henry Wilson, photograph by Mathew Brady

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.

Civil War[edit]

Military chairmanships and Union military service[edit]

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.[8] In 1861 he raised the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which he briefly commanded (September 27 to October 29) -- an honor sometimes given to the individual responsible for organizing and equipping a new regiment. After the war he became an early member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

Greenhow controversy[edit]

A controversy that swirled around Wilson's name was that while Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs he may have revealed plans for the invasion of Virginia, which culminated 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. One Wilson biography suggests someone else -- Wilson's Senate clerk Horace White -- was also friendly with Mrs. Greenhow and could have leaked the invasion plan, although it is also possible that neither Wilson nor White did so.[9][10]

Advocated equal pay for Union African American soldiers[edit]

Wilson was an abolitionist. In the United States Senate, he advocated for equal pay for African-American soldiers.[11]

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.[12]

Vice President[edit]

Grant/Wilson campaign poster

Wilson's nomination to the Vice Presidency strengthened the 1872 Republican ticket. [13] Wilson was elected Vice President of the United States with renominated President Ulysses S. Grant to replace the controversial Schuyler Colfax and served from March 4, 1873 until his death. As Vice President, Wilson's years of Senate experience enabled him to perform as a "highly efficient and acceptable" presiding officer. [13]

Crédit Mobilier Congressional investigation and testimony[edit]

Wilson's election was marred by a Congressional investigation report that he was involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Wilson was one of several Representatives and Senators (mostly Republicans) who were offered bribes (and possibly took them) of shares in Crédit Mobilier. However, after initially denying involvement, Wilson later showed that he had paid for stock in his wife's name, and with her money. When the Wilsons later had concerns about the propriety of the transaction, Ames returned the purchase price and Wilson returned the dividends Mrs. Wilson had been paid, while also paying her the amount she would have received as dividends if she had kept the stock.[14][15] Wilson's reputation for integrity was somewhat damaged because of his initial denial, but not sufficiently enough to prevent him from becoming Vice President.[16]

On February 13, 1873 Vice President Elect Senator Wilson was called to give testimony before a Senate investigation committee into the Crédit Mobilier. [17] Wilson said he purchased $2,000 worth of Crédit Mobilier stock using his wife's money. [17] He advocated his wife buy the stock as if it was his own money. [17] The dividends received on the stock were $748.05. Wilson returned the money, a total of $2,814, including $66 dollars interest, when Wilson believed there was something wrong with the transaction. Wilson had failed to mention in an earlier testimony that he had paid $66 in interest. [17] Wilson said that he would never hold property in which he could legislate on as Senator. [17] Wilson said if anyone was to blame it was himself rather then his wife. [17]

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. Wilson's attendence in the Senate was irregular due to his ill health. [13] 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.[13] 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.[18] Two other former Vice Presidents died in the same year as Wilson including John C. Breckinridge, and Andrew Johnson. Wilson was the fourth Vice President to die in office preceeded by George Clinton, who served under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Elbridge Gerry, who served under James Madison, and William R. King who served under Franklin Pierce. [19]

Historical reputation[edit]

Henry Wilson's Grave - photograph by Jeff Newcum

According to historian George H. Haynes, during his nearly thirty years of public service Wilson championed unpopular causes at the expense of his personal ambition.[13] The causes Wilson supported included abolition of slavery, and the rights of workers, both black and white.[13] Wilson was not hesitant to sever ties with old wing politicians and form new coalitions, even though this gave him the reputation of being a "shifty" politician. [13] Workers, whom Wilson had sympathy for, found inspiration in his career, since he had himself risen from a worker's background. [13] Wilson supported free public schools and libraries. [13] In his state he supported tax exemptions for worker's tools and furniture and the removal of property tests for voting rights. [13] Massachusetts U.S. Senator George F. Hoar said Wilson was a "skilful, adroit, and practiced and constant political manager" and "the most skilled political organizer in the country" during his career.[13]

Books published[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).[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Haynes 1936, p. 322.
  2. ^ Haynes 1936, pp. 322-323.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Haynes 1936, p. 323.
  4. ^ Abbott, Richard H. (1972). Cobbler in Congress: The Life of Henry Wilson, 1812-1875. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. p. 6. 
  5. ^ Abbott, Richard H. (1972). Cobbler in Congress: The Life of Henry Wilson, 1812-1875. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. p. 6. 
  6. ^ Bolino, August C. (2012). Men of Massachusetts: Bay State Contributors to American Society. iUniverse. pp. 77–78. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "Visitors from Congress: Henry Wilson (1812-1875)". Mr. Lincoln's White House. The Lehrman Institute. Retrieved October 7, 2015. 
  10. ^ McKay, Ernest A. (1971). Henry Wilson: Practical Radical; A Portrait of a Politician. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press. p. 233. 
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ The Burlington Free Press. "Our Colored Soldiers." April 29, 1864: 2.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Haynes 1936, p. 324.
  14. ^ Indiana Historical Collections 33. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Commission. 1952. p. 405. 
  15. ^ Crawford, Jay Boyd (1880). The Credit Mobilier of America: Its Origin and History. Boston, MA: C. W. Calkins & Co. p. 126. 
  16. ^ McKay, Ernest A. (1971). Henry Wilson: Practical Radical; A Portrait of a Politician. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press. p. 233. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f New York Times (02-14-1873).
  18. ^ (Memorial Addresses; Life and Character of Henry Wilson, January 21, 1875. Washington Government Printing Office 1876)
  19. ^ HNN Staff (2002). "How Many Vice Presidents Died in Office?". Historical News Network. 
  20. ^ 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



  • Haynes, George H. (1936). Dumas Malone, ed. Dictionary of American Biography Henry Wilson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 322–325. 
  • 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)

New York Times[edit]

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 vice presidential nominee
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