Henry Wilson was a fervent abolitionist of slavery who served as the 18th Vice President of the United States, from 1873 to 1875, in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Born in New Hampshire to a deprived family, Wilson started working at the age of 10 as a farm-laborer. Later, he learned about the shoemaking trade and enjoyed reading in his free time. After successfully establishing himself as a shoe manufacturer, Wilson came across slavery debates and decided to devote his life towards its abolition. Thereafter, he became a public speaker and was elected to the Massachusetts legislature as a Whig. In 1848, he left the Whig party and became one of the chief leaders of the Free Soil party, later joining the Know-Nothing party, and finally became a part of the Republican Party. In 1855, Wilson was elected to the United States Senate and won re-elections thrice, retaining the seat until 1873. A dominant opponent of slavery during his senatorial career, he established his reputation as an able and one of the most effective anti-slavery orators in the United States.He was also extremely involved in the militia of his state and subsequently rose through its grades of service, becoming the brigadier-general. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he chaired the military committee of the Senate and contributed remarkably after the war years. Later, Wilson was elected for vice presidency on the Republican ticket and was inaugurated at the office in March 1873. Unfortunately, two years later, Wilson suffered a stroke while working at his office and died before completing his term
Childhood & Early Life
Henry Wilson was born as Jeremiah Jones Colbath on February 16, 1812, in Farmington, New Hampshire, to Winthrop Colbath Jr., a laborer, and his wife, Abigail Witham. At the age of 10, he started working as a farm laborer and later changed his name to Henry Wilson.
In 1833, Wilson moved to Natick, Massachusetts and learned the art of shoe making. Alongside, he received little education from the Strafford, Wolfeboro, and Concord academy but never graduated.
Subsequently, he established himself as a small-scale shoe manufacturer and also taught in a school in Natick. Later, upon coming across slavery discussions and witnessing slave auctions on a trip to Washington D.C., Wilson was shaken and resolved to dedicate his life towards their emancipation.
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Later, he attracted attention as a public speaker during the presidential elections of 1840. The following year, he was elected as a Whig to the Massachusetts legislature, where he served until 1852.
During this time, he also observed the decline of state army and joined the militia in 1843. Subsequently, he rose to the rank of Colonel and in 1846, he was appointed the Brigadier General as commander of the Massachusetts Militia's 3rd Brigade, a capacity in which he served until 1852.
From 1848 to 1851, he served as the editor of the Boston Republic newspaper. Also during this period, he became upset at the uncertainty of Whig Party on the issue of slavery and contributed in the formation of Free-Soil Party.
In 1852, he was unsuccessful as a candidate for the U.S. Congress and the following year, Wilson ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Massachusetts. In 1853, he served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention.
In 1854, he joined the Know-Nothing Party and the following year, he was elected to U.S. Senate by a coalition of Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, and Democrats. Wilson switched to the newly organized Republican Party after a few years.
As a member of the Republican Party, he was re-elected to the Senate in 1859, 1865 and 1871, serving as a United States Senator from Massachusetts until 1873. From 1861 to 1873, he also worked as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.
While serving in the senate, Wilson became a member of the radical wing of the Republican Party, advocating for the rights for the freed Negroes. In 1861, he raised and briefly commanded the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
In 1872, Wilson was cleared by the Senate inquiry under the corruption charges in the Credit Mobilier scandal investigation. Subsequently, he was nominated for vice presidency on the Republican ticket with President Ulysses S. Grant and was elected.
In March 1873, Wilson was inaugurated at the office of Vice President of the United States, a post he retained until his death in 1875.
Wilson was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery and while serving as a U.S. Senator during the American Civil War, he pushed for the destruction of the group of slave owners and their political allies. As a Radical Republican, he supported federal laws protecting the rights of emancipated slaves during the Reconstruction Era.
Wilson wrote several books on the war times and ReconstructionEra in the United States. One of his most remarkable works is ‘History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America’, which was published in 3 volumes, between 1872 and 1877.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1840, he married Harriet Malvina Howe, one of his students at the school.The couple remained together for 30 years until Harriet’s death in 1870.
In 1873, Wilson suffered a serious stroke and was partially paralyzed but remained active in performing his duties over the next few years.
He died on November 22, 1875, after having another stroke, while working in the United States Capitol Building in Washington D.C. He was interred in Old Dell Park Cemetery, Natick, Massachusetts.