The life of Henry Wilson, second Vice President under President U.S. Grant, was a real American success story. Born in poverty, he worked his way up the economic ladder until he became a wealthy man. He then entered politics, and again became a success. After three terms in the U.S. Senate, he was nominated and elected Vice President of the United States.
He was born Jeremiah Jones Colbath on February 16, 1812 in Farmington, New Hampshire. His lazy, drunkard father named him after a local man of wealth, hoping for immediate financial gain or eventual inheritance. Of course, neither of these came to pass. Wilson hated the name, and changed it as soon as he came of age. He chose the name Henry Wilson either inspired by a biography of a Philadelphia teacher named Henry Wilson or by the portrait the Rev. Henry Wilson that appeared in a book on English clergymen.
At the age of ten, Wilson’s father apprenticed him to a local farmer for a period of eleven years. According to the contract, Wilson was to be allowed at least one month of formal schooling each year if there was no work to be done. Wilson was rarely able to attend school for more than a few days at a time. He made up for this lack of formal education by reading every book he could find. He was determined to improve his situation in life, and spent all his free time trying to improve himself, mainly through reading. At the age of nineteen, he took a pledge of abstinence from alcohol, and never drank alcohol again.
In 1833, Jeremiah Jones Colbath reached the age of twenty-one and was freed from his apprenticeship. After changing his name to Henry Wilson, he headed to Boston, and settled in the town of Natick just outside Boston. He learned the trade of shoemaking, and became a cobbler. On a vacation to Washington, Wilson came into his first contact with slaves working the fields and the slave warehouses and auctions. Wilson determined to do all he could to end slavery, and from that time on was active in the antislavery movement. Years later, while a member of the U.S. Senate, he took great pride in introducing legislation that ended slavery in the federal District of Columbia.
After his trip to Washington, Wilson returned to Natick. Even though it was in the midst of the economic depression created by the Panic of 1837, Wilson’s factory was a great success. Rather than make shoes himself, he hired contract workers and supervised their work. He produced a much larger quantity of shoes at a lower cost, and made a fortune.
Now wealthy, Wilson moved his family into a large and elegant home. He had married Harriet Malvina Howe in 1840. She had been a student of his during his brief tenure as a teacher when he was getting started in the shoe making business. A great help to him throughout his career, she died in 1870 and did not get to see him elected Vice President.
Wilson had harbored political ambitions ever since his trip to Washington. Now, with wealth and success, he entered politics. Wilson supported the great reform movements of his day such as temperance (he had taken the oath at 19 years of age), educational reform, and especially anti-slavery. Although he came from a poor and working background, he might have been expected to join the Democratic Party, which was the party of the workingman. But Wilson joined the upper class Whig Party because they favored the reforms he considered so important. The Whigs, seeking to expand their political base and attract new members and voters, took great advantage of Wilson’s working-class background. His nickname of the “Natick Cobbler” made him an appealing candidate, and he was the Whig nominee for a number of offices. In 1841-1842, Wilson served as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and he served in the Massachusetts Senate from 1844-1846, and again from 1850-1852.
In 1848, he was one of the founders of the short-lived Free Soil Party. In 1852, he served as president of the national Free Soil Party convention when it met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He ran later that year for a seat in Congress on the Free Soil ticket, but was defeated. With the demise of the Free Soil Party, Wilson joined the American, or Know-Nothing, Party. He joined this party because of its potential to oppose slavery rather than because he favored its anti-immigrant philosophy. In 1854, he changed to the Republican Party, and ran for governor of Massachusetts, but was again defeated. Later that year, the Know-Nothings, combined with the Free Soilers and some Democrats in the legislature, elected him to the U.S. Senate. This caused some Republicans to charge that he had thrown the gubernatorial election to the Know-Nothings in exchange for the U.S. Senate seat. This charge did not prevent him from later being elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican.
In 1848, Wilson purchased a newspaper, the Boston Republican, which he personally edited. He sold the paper in 1851. In 1853, he was a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. During this time, he also joined the Massachusetts militia and rose to the rank of brigadier general. Proud of this accomplishment, Wilson used the title of “General Wilson” for the rest of his political career.
In 1854, Wilson ran as the candidate of the new Republican Party for the U.S. Senate and won. He served in the U.S. Senate from January 31, 1855 until he resigned on March 4, 1873 to become Vice President of the United States. He took a leave from the Senate at the start of the Civil War to personally organize a regiment of soldiers from Massachusetts, the 22nd Massachusetts, an infantry regiment that served through the entire conflict. Wilson led them to Virginia in October 1861, where it continued training. By the time the regiment entered combat in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, Wilson had returned to the Senate.
In the Senate, Wilson served as chairman of the important Committee on Military Affairs. He tended to side with the strongly anti-slavery wing of the Republican Party which often brought him into conflict with the policies of President Lincoln. After the war, he was a supporter of Radical Reconstruction and voted to remove Andrew Johnson from office in the impeachment trial in 1868.