He was not learned, he was not eloquent, he was not logical in a high sense, he was not always consistent in his political actions, and yet he gained the confidence of the people, and he retained it to the end of his life.
—Senator George Boutwell
Long before public opinion polling, Vice President Henry Wilson earned recognition as a master at reading the public's mind. During his eighteen years in the United States Senate, Wilson traveled relentlessly through his home state of Massachusetts. A typical day would find him visiting shops and factories around Boston. Then he would board the night train to Springfield, where he would rouse some political friend at 2 a.m. and spend the rest of the night talking over current issues, departing at dawn to catch the early train to Northampton or Greenfield. "After a week or two spent in that way," his friend George F. Hoar observed,
never giving his own opinion, talking as if he were all things to all men, seeming to hesitate and falter and be frightened, so if you had met him and talked with him you would have said . . . that there was no more thought, nor more steadiness of purpose, or backbone in him than in an easterly cloud; but at length when the time came, and he had got ready, the easterly cloud seemed suddenly to have been charged with an electric fire and a swift and resistless bolt flashed out, and the righteous judgment of Massachusetts came from his lips.
Such systematic sampling of public opinion enabled Wilson to represent the prevailing sentiments of his constituents and to make remarkably accurate political prognoses. This skill helped him build political alliances and parties and win elections. It also added an element of opportunism to Wilson's political maneuvering that brought him distrust, even from his political allies. Yet he did not simply follow the winds of public opinion whichever way they blew. Throughout his long political career, Wilson remained remarkably consistent in his support for human freedom and equality of rights for all men and women regardless of their color or class.
The Rise of Jeremiah Jones Colbath
Henry Wilson's life resembled a Dickens novel. Like Pip, David Copperfield, and Nicholas Nickleby, he overcame a childhood of hardship and privation through the strength of his character, his ambition, and occasional assistance from others. He was born Jeremiah Jones Colbath on February 16, 1812, in Farmington, New Hampshire. His shiftless and intemperate father named the child after a wealthy bachelor neighbor in vain hope of inheritance. The boy grew to hate the name, and when he came of age had it legally changed to Henry Wilson, inspired either by a biography of the Philadelphia school teacher Henry Wilson or by a portrait of the Rev. Henry Wilson in a volume on English clergymen. The Colbaths lived from hand to mouth; "Want sat by my cradle," he later recalled. "I know what it is to ask a mother for bread when she has none to give."
When the boy was ten years old, his father apprenticed him to a nearby farmer, binding him to work until his twenty-first birthday. The apprenticeship supposedly allowed one month of school every year, so long as there was no work to be done, but he rarely had more than a few days of school at any time. Lacking formal education, he compensated by reading every book in the farmhouse and borrowing other books from neighbors. He read copiously from history, biography and philosophy. Also as part of his self-improvement efforts, at age nineteen he took a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol, which he maintained thereafter. In 1833 he reached twenty-one and was freed from his apprenticeship. Long estranged from his parents, the newly renamed Henry Wilson set out for new horizons. He hunted for employment in the mills of New Hampshire and then walked one hundred miles from Farmington to Boston. Just outside of Boston he settled in the town of Natick, where he learned shoemaking from a friend.
The ambitious young cobbler worked so hard that by 1836 his health required he get some rest. Gathering his savings, Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the federal government. His attention was caught instead by the sight of slaves laboring in the fields of Maryland and Virginia and of slave pens and auctions within view of the Capitol Building. He left Washington determined "to give all that I had . . . to the cause of emancipation in America," he said. Wilson committed himself to the antislavery movement and years later took pride in introducing the legislation in Congress that ended slavery in the District of Columbia. Home from his journey, he enrolled briefly in three academies and then taught school for a year, falling in love with one of his students, Harriet Malvina Howe. They were married three years later, in 1840, when she turned sixteen.
From Shoemaker to Politician
Although he harbored political aspirations, Wilson returned to the shoemaking business. Even during the economic recession that swept the country in the late 1830s, he prospered. Abandoning the cobbler's bench himself, he hired contract laborers and supervised their work, vastly increasing his production. As a factory owner, Wilson was able to build a handsome house for his family and to devote his attention more fully to civic affairs.
An active member of the Natick Debating Society, Wilson became swept up in the leading reform issues of his day, temperance, educational reform, and antislavery, and these in turn shaped his politics. Although the Democratic party in Massachusetts appealed to workers and small businessmen like Wilson, he was drawn instead to the more upper-crust Whig party because it embraced the social reforms that he supported. At a time when the Whigs were seeking to expand their political base, Wilson's working-class background and image as the "Natick Cobbler" appealed to the party. During the 1830s and 1840s, the Whigs ran him repeatedly for the state legislature, and he won seats in its upper and lower houses. Unlike many other Whigs, Wilson mingled easily in the state's factories and saloons. He gathered political lieutenants around the state and invested some of his shoemaking earnings in the Boston Republican, which he edited from 1848 to 1851. He also joined the Natick militia, rising to brigadier general and proudly claiming the title "General Wilson" through the rest of his long political career.
As a self-made man, Henry Wilson felt contempt for aristocrats, whether Boston Brahmins or southern planters. "I for one don't want the endorsement of the `best society' in Boston until I am dead," he once declared, "—for it endorses everything that is dead." He reserved even greater contempt for aristocratic southerners who lived off the labor of their slaves, swearing that slavery must be ended. "Freedom and slavery are now arrayed against each other," he declared; "we must destroy slavery, or it will destroy liberty." Although the Whigs promoted numerous reforms, as a national party they included many southerners who supported slavery. In Massachusetts, the party split between "Cotton Whigs," with political and economic ties between the New England cotton mills and the southern cotton plantations, and the "Conscience Whigs," who placed freedom ahead of patronage and profits. Sensing the changing tides of public opinion, Wilson predicted that, if antislavery supporters in all the old parties could bind together to form a new party, they could sweep the northern elections and displace southerners from power in Washington. In 1848 he abandoned the Whigs for the new Free Soil party, which nominated Martin Van Buren for president on an antislavery platform.
A Residue of Distrust
The Free Soil party proved to be premature. Wary voters defeated Wilson in his campaigns as the Free Soil candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852 and governor in 1853. Sadly disappointed in 1853 at the defeat of a new state constitution for which he had labored long and hard, Wilson responded by secretly joining the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, also known as the American or Know-Nothing party—an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, nativist movement. Given the collapse of the established parties, the Know-Nothings flourished briefly, offering Wilson an unsavory opportunity to promote his personal ambitions—despite the party's conflict with his political ideals of racial and religious equality. At the same time, Wilson called for the creation of "one great Republican party" in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which threatened to open the western territories to slavery. In 1854, he ran as the Republican candidate for governor, but his strange maneuvering during and after the campaign convinced many Republicans that Wilson had sold them out by throwing the gubernatorial election to the Know-Nothings in return for being elected a U.S. senator by the Know-Nothings in the Massachusetts legislature, with the aid of Free Soilers and Democrats. Although Wilson identified himself as a Republican, his first Senate election left a residue of distrust that he would spend the rest of his life trying to live down.
In the Senate, Henry Wilson was inevitably compared with his handsome, dignified, scholarly senior colleague from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner. An idealist and fierce foe of slavery, Sumner laced his speeches with classical allusions and gave every indication that he would appear quite natural in the toga of a Roman senator. Henry Wilson would have seemed ludicrous in Roman garb or in attempting to match Sumner's grandiloquent addresses. Listeners described Wilson instead as "an earnest man" who presented "the cold facts of a case" without relying on flamboyant oratory. George Boutwell, who served with him in Massachusetts and national politics, judged Wilson an especially effective speaker during elections and estimated that during the course of Wilson's career he spoke to more people than anyone else alive. Boutwell concluded of Wilson:
He was not learned, he was not eloquent, he was not logical in a high sense, he was not always consistent in his political actions, and yet he gained the confidence of the people, and he retained it to the end of his life. His success may have been due in part to the circumstance that he was not far removed from the mass of the people in the particulars named, and that he acted in a period when fidelity to the cause of freedom and activity in its promotion satisfied the public demand.
Despite their different backgrounds and personalities, Wilson and Sumner agreed strongly on their opposition to slavery and pooled their efforts to destroy the "peculiar institution." Even when people distrusted Wilson's wily political maneuvering or disdained his plebeian roots, they gave him credit for showing backbone in his fight against slavery. Massachusetts returned him to the Senate for three more terms, until his election as vice president.
Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee
During the 1850s, Wilson fought from the minority. When the southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861 and the Republicans moved into the majority, Henry Wilson assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, a key legislative post during the Civil War. In the months that Congress stood in recess, impatient Radical Republicans demanded quick military action against the South. In July 1861, at the war's first battle, along Bull Run creek in Manassas, Virginia, Wilson rode out with other senators, representatives, newspaper reporters, and members of Washington society to witness what they anticipated would be a Union victory. In his carriage, Senator Wilson carried a large hamper of sandwiches to distribute among the troops. Unexpectedly, however, the Confederates routed the Union army. Wilson's carriage was crushed and he was forced to beat an inglorious retreat back to Washington.
Defeat at the "picnic battle," sobered many in the North who had talked of a short, easy war. In seeking to assign blame for the debacle, rumors spread that Wilson himself might have tipped off the enemy through his friendly relationship with a Washington woman, Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow. When she was arrested as a Confederate spy, "the Wild Rose" held a packet of love letters signed "H." But the letters were not in Wilson's handwriting, and Mrs. Greenhow knew many other senators, members of Lincoln's cabinet, and other highly placed sources of information.
Wilson went back to Massachusetts to raise a volunteer infantry, in which he wore the uniform of colonel. However, once the regiment reached Washington, he resigned his commission and returned to his Senate seat. Wilson also served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General George McClellan, who commanded the Union armies. When he reported to the general's camp, he was ordered to accompany other officers on a horseback inspection of the capital's fortifications. As the Boston newspaper correspondent Benjamin Perley Poore observed, "Unaccustomed to horsemanship, the ride of thirty miles was too much for the Senator, who kept his bed for a week, and then resigned his staff position." Still, this brief association made Wilson more sympathetic to McClellan than were other Radical Republicans in Congress. The Radicals established a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, in part to bypass Wilson's Military Affairs Committee in scrutinizing and attacking the various officers of the Union army. Wilson at first defended the army, arguing that Democratic generals were opposed to the Republican administration but not to the war. Over time, he grew disheartened by the protracted war and impatient with McClellan's overly cautious military tactics. However, he made it a point, as committee chair, to avoid public criticism of the military operations of any general.
Wilson and the Radicals
Henry Wilson soon stood among the inner circle of Radical Republicans in Congress beside Charles Sumner, Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens, and Henry Winter Davis. He introduced bills that freed slaves in the District of Columbia, permitted African Americans to join the Union army, and provided equal pay to black and white soldiers. Wilson pressed President Lincoln to issue an emancipation proclamation and worried that the final product left many people still enslaved in the border states. Known as one of the most persistent newshunters in Washington, Wilson brought knowledgeable newspaper reporters straight from the battlefield to the White House to brief the president. Despite his intimacy with Lincoln, Wilson considered him too moderate and underestimated his abilities. The senator was once overheard denouncing Lincoln while sitting in the White House waiting room. He hoped that Lincoln would withdraw from the Republican ticket in 1864 in favor of a more radical presidential candidate.
Following Lincoln's assassination, Wilson initially hoped that the new president, his former Senate colleague Andrew Johnson, would pursue the Radical Republican agenda for reconstruction of the South. He was deeply disappointed in Johnson's endorsement of a speedy return of the Confederate states to the Union without any protection for the newly freed slaves. When the Thirty-ninth Congress convened in December 1865, Wilson introduced the first civil rights initiative of the postwar Congress. His bill aimed at outlawing the Black Codes and other forms of racial discrimination in the former Confederacy but, deemed too extreme by the non-Radical Republicans, it was defeated. Wilson also proposed that the Constitution be amended to prohibit any effort to limit the right to vote by race.
Johnson's more lenient policies for Reconstruction and his veto of the Freedmen's Bureau bill and other congressional efforts to protect black southerners eventually drove moderate Republicans into an alliance with the Radicals. Over time, Wilson saw his objectives added to the Constitution as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. He supported the use of federal troops to enforce congressional Reconstruction, to permit freedmen to vote, and to establish Republican governments in the southern states. When Johnson stubbornly resisted the Radical programs, Wilson endorsed efforts to impeach the president. He accused the president of "unworthy, if not criminal" motives in resisting the will of the people on Reconstruction and cast his vote to remove Johnson from office. However, seven moderate Republican senators broke ranks with their party, and the Radicals failed by a single vote to achieve the two-thirds necessary to remove the president.
Prior to the presidential election of 1868, Henry Wilson made an extended speaking tour throughout the southern states. Many journalists interpreted this effort as a means of promoting himself as a presidential candidate. In fact, Wilson supported U.S. Grant, the hero of Appomattox, for president and sought the vice-presidential nomination for himself. Always a political mechanic bent on building coalitions, Wilson felt certain that the southern Republican party could survive only if it became biracial. "I do not want to see a white man's party nor a black man's party," he told a black audience in New Orleans. "I warn you to-night, as I do the black men of this country everywhere, to remember this: that while a black man is as good as a white man, a white man is as good as a black man. See to it while you are striving to lift yourselves up, that you do not strive to pull anybody else down." By urging southern blacks to take a conciliatory, nonviolent approach toward those who had so recently enslaved and oppressed them, Wilson stunned his Radical Republican colleagues in Congress. "Wilson is a ______ fool!" wrote Ohio Senator Ben Wade. Nevertheless, southern delegates to the Republican convention generally supported Wilson's candidacy.
On the first ballot for vice president at the Chicago convention, Ben Wade led with Wilson not far behind. That ballot marked Wilson's peak, and he lost support steadily on subsequent ballots. When House Speaker Schuyler Colfax gained strength, Wilson's delegates switched to Colfax, giving him the nomination. Grant's election brought expectations that Wilson might be named to the cabinet, but the senator asked that his name be removed from consideration, citing his wife's critically ill health—she died in 1870. Still, Wilson remained an influential and frequently consulted senator throughout Grant's first term.
Grant's Second Vice President
By Grant's inauguration in 1869, Massachusetts boasted the most powerful delegation in Congress. Wilson chaired the Senate Military Affairs Committee, while Sumner chaired Foreign Relations. In the House, four Massachusetts representatives chaired committees, including Appropriations and Foreign Affairs. Commenting on the state's two senators, Massachusetts Representative George F. Hoar noted that, while Sumner was a man of great learning, great principle, and great ego, "Wilson supplied almost everything that Sumner lacked." Wilson was the more practical politician, with his finger on the public pulse. He recognized the value of party organization and "did not disdain the art and diplomacies of a partisan." Wilson also combined practical politics with a strong inclination for reform. He spoke out for civil rights for the freedmen, voting rights for women, federal aid to education, federal regulation of business, protection of women, and prohibition of liquor. Hoar judged that no other man in the Senate, "not even Sumner, had more influence over his colleagues" than did Henry Wilson.
During Grant's first term, the imperious Sumner challenged the new president and defeated his plans for incorporating Santo Domingo into the United States. President Grant retaliated by goading the Senate Republican caucus to remove Sumner as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee (Wilson spoke in defense of retaining Sumner's chairmanship). A wounded Sumner opposed Grant's renomination in 1872, raising concerns that he and his allies might bolt to the Liberal Republican-Democratic fusion ticket headed by the eccentric newspaper editor Horace Greeley. After Vice President Schuyler Colfax released word that he did not intend to stand for a second term, many Republican leaders calculated that selecting Wilson for vice president would outflank Sumner and strengthen Grant with workers and with the "old anti-slavery guard." Saluting the working-class origins of their ticket, Republican posters showed idealized versions of Grant, "the Galena Tanner," and Wilson, "the Natick Shoemaker," attired in workers' aprons.
Just as the presidential campaign got underway in September 1872, the New York Sun published news of the Crédit Mobilier scandal, offering evidence that key members of Congress had accepted railroad stock at little or no cost, presumably to guarantee their support for legislation that would finance construction of a transcontinental line. On the list were the names of Grant's retiring vice president, Colfax, and his new running mate, Henry Wilson. Newspaper correspondent Henry Van Ness Boynton sent the New York Times a dispatch reporting that Senator Wilson had made a "full and absolute denial" that he had ever owned Crédit Mobilier stock. In truth, Wilson had purchased the stock in his wife's name but had later returned it. Called to testify before a House investigating committee, Boynton recounted how he had gone to see Wilson to ask if he would deny the charges against him and that Wilson had given him an absolute denial, knowing that he would file the story that night. Wilson did not contradict the reporter. "General Boynton is a man of character and truth," he told the committee, "and I should take his word." Although the committee cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing in taking the stock, it concluded that the information Wilson had given the Times had been "calculated to convey to the public an erroneous impression."
The Ravages of Ill Health
The Crédit Mobilier scandal did not dissuade voters from reelecting Grant and making Henry Wilson vice president. Wilson helped the ticket by embarking on an ambitious speaking tour that took him some ten thousand miles to deliver ninety-six addresses, ruining his health in the process. In May 1873, the sixty-one-year-old Wilson suffered a stroke that caused him to lose control of his facial muscles and to speak thickly whenever fatigued. Although doctors ordered him to rest, the advice went against his nature. A friend wrote, "You know he was never still for five minutes, and it is more difficult for him than for most persons to sit quietly and dream away the time." After spending the summer recuperating in Massachusetts, Wilson traveled to Washington in December for the opening of the new Congress, but by January his poor health forced him to return home once again. Instead of presiding over the Senate, he spent his time writing a multi-volume history of the rise and fall of the slave power, memorializing his own role in the great events of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Wilson's ill health kept him from playing any role of consequence as vice president but did not suppress his political concerns and ambitions. He lamented that a "Counter-Revolution" was overtaking Reconstruction and urged his old antislavery veterans to speak out against efforts to limit the rights of the freedmen. Wilson blamed the decay of Reconstruction on the Grant administration. According to Representative James Garfield, the vice president had asserted that "Grant is now more unpopular than Andrew Johnson was in his darkest days; that Grant's appointments had been getting worse and worse; that he is still struggling for a third term; in short that he is the millstone around the neck of our party that would sink it out of sight." Yet Wilson could not bring himself to admit that his own involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, as well as the involvement of other members of Congress in the many other scandals of the era, had dimmed the moral fervor of the antislavery movement and congressional Reconstruction, thus undermining public confidence in an active federal government. For the rest of the nineteenth century, political trends moved away from Wilson's cherished reforms. A new generation of genteel reformers advocated limited government, civil service reform, and other administrative solutions and abandoned support for the voting and civil rights of the freedmen, women's rights, and other social reforms that Wilson esteemed.
In the spring of 1875, Vice President Wilson made a six-week tour of the South, raising suspicions that he intended to "advertise himself" for the presidential nomination the next year. He returned home optimistic about the chances that the Republicans could build political and economic ties to conservative southerners by appointing a southern ex-Whig to the cabinet and by offering economic aid to southern business (policies later adopted by the next president, Rutherford B. Hayes). Although Grant desired a third term, Wilson's friends felt sure that the vice president could win the presidential nomination and election.
Wilson's great ambition went unfulfilled. That fall, he consulted Dr. William Hammond, complaining of pain in the back of his head and an inability to sleep. "I enjoined rest from mental labor," the doctor noted, but the vice president replied that he could not comply with those wishes "as fully as desirable." Dr. Hammond saw Wilson again in early November and noted "vertigo, thickness of speech, twitching of the facial muscles, irregularity of respiration, and the action of the heart, slight difficulty of swallowing, and intense pain in the back of the head and nape of the neck." He observed that the vice president's "hands were in almost constant motion and he could not sit longer than a few seconds without rising and pacing the floor, or changing to another chair." Wilson insisted that he must travel to Washington for the new Congress but promised his doctor not to work too hard. He told a friend that "he would at least be able to preside at the opening of the Senate, and perhaps through most of the session."
During the nineteenth century, many members of Congress lived in boardinghouses and hotels where the plumbing left much to be desired. To accommodate them, the Capitol provided luxurious bathing rooms in its basement for the House and Senate. There members could soak in large marble tubs, enjoy a massage, and have their hair cut and beards trimmed. On November 10, 1875, Wilson went down to soak in the tubs. Soon after leaving the bath, he was struck by paralysis and carried to a bed in his vice-presidential office, just off the Senate floor. Within a few days, he felt strong enough to receive visitors and seemed to be gaining strength. When he awoke in his Capitol office on November 22, he was informed that Senator Orris Ferry of Connecticut had died. Wilson lamented the passing of his generation, commenting "that makes eighty-three dead with whom I have sat in the Senate." Shortly thereafter, he rolled over and quietly died, at age sixty-three. His body lay in state in the Rotunda, and his funeral was conducted in the Senate chamber, the vice-presidential chair arrayed in black crepe.
In his memory, the Senate in 1885 placed a marble bust of Wilson by the sculptor Daniel Chester French in the room where the vice president died. There the Senate also installed a bronze plaque, with an inscription written by his old friend and colleague, George F. Hoar:
In this room
Vice President of the United States
and a Senator for Eighteen Years,
Died November 22, 1875
The son of a farm laborer, never at school more than twelve months, in youth a journeyman shoemaker, he raised himself to the high places of fame, honor and power, and by unwearied study made himself an authority in the history of his country and of liberty and an eloquent public speaker to whom Senate and people eagerly listened. He dealt with and controlled vast public expenditure during a great civil war, yet lived and died poor, and left to his grateful countrymen the memory of an honorable public service, and a good name far better than riches.