The Natick Cobbler – Henry Wilson, Part 3

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Henry Wilson, 18th Vice President of the United States

During the 1872 campaign, Wilson made a strenuous speaking tour covering 10,000 miles and giving ninety-six campaign speeches. This tour ruined his health. In May 1873, Wilson suffered a stroke, but recovered for the most part. He lost control of some facial muscles, and spoke thickly when he was tired. He spent the summer in Massachusetts recovering his strength, but did not heed his doctor’s advice that he take it easy and rest. He traveled to Washington in December for the opening of the new Congress, but by January his poor health had forced him to return to his home in Massachusetts to recuperate. He used this time to write a massive history of the rise and fall of slave power, and record his own heroic role in the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

His poor health prevented Wilson from taking any major role in the government, but did not prevent him from expressing his concerns over the direction of civil rights. He decried the decline of Republican support for the rights of the freedmen and called on his former allies in the cause to speak out against efforts to limit the rights of blacks in the South. He even spoke out against Grant for his poor appointments and his attempt to seek a third term.

In the spring of 1875, Wilson made another speaking tour of the South, leading many to believe that he was presenting himself as a candidate for the 1876 presidential nomination. He was convinced that Republicans could build the party in the South by appointing a southern ex-Whig to the cabinet and offering economic aid to the South. These policies were later adopted by President Hayes.

That fall, Wilson consulted Dr. William Hammond about pains in the back of his head and trouble sleeping. The doctor advised rest, but later said that Vice President Wilson did not comply with his wishes “as fully as desirable.” Dr. Hammond saw Wilson again in November and noted “vertigo, thickness of speech, twitching of the facial muscles, irregularity of respiration, and the action of the heart, slight difficulty in swallowing, and intense pain in the back of the head and nape of the neck.” Dr. Hammond also observed that Wilson’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 traveled to Washington for the opening of the new Congress, but promised his doctor he would not work too hard. Wilson 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.” In the nineteenth century, many members of Congress lived in hotels and boardinghouses where the plumbing left much to be desired. Accordingly, Congress provided luxurious bathing rooms in the basement for members of Congress. In these bathing rooms, members of Congress could soak in large marble tubs, get a massage, and get a haircut.

On November 10, 1875, Wilson went to the basement for a soak. Soon after leaving the baths, he was struck by paralysis and was carried to a bed in his vice-presidential office just off the Senate floor. Within a few days, he was well enough to receive visitors and seemed to be recovering. When he awoke on November 22, he was informed that Senator Orris Ferry had died. Wilson, mourning the passing of his generation, said, “that makes eighty-three dead with whom I have sat in the Senate.” A few moments later, he rolled over and quietly died. He was sixty-three years old. His body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, and his funeral service was conducted in the Senate chamber, with the Vice Presidential chair decorated in black crepe.

In 1885, the Senate placed a marble bust of Wilson in the room where he died. The Senate also placed a plaque there, with an inscription that reads “In this room, HENRY WILSON, Vice President of the United States and a Senator for Eighteen Years, Died November 22, 1875.”

The son of a farm worker who never attended school for more than a year, Henry Wilson worked his way up to wealth and power, and served his country in a crucial period of its history. He used his power and position for the benefit of those who had no power. He was an early advocate of abolition of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, women’s suffrage, regulation of business, and prohibition. His was a true American success story.