1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wilson, Henry

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WILSON, HENRY (1812-1875), vice-president of the United States from 1873 to 1875, was born at Farmington, New Hampshire, on the 16th of February 1812. His name originally was Jeremiah J. Colbaith. His father was a day-labourer and very poor. At ten years of age the son went to work as a farm-labourer. He was fond of reading, and before the end of his apprenticeship had read more than a thousand volumes. At the age of twenty-one, for some unstated reason, he had his name changed by Act of the Legislature to that of Henry Wilson. At Natick, Massachusetts, whither he travelled on foot, he learned the trade of shoemaker, and during his leisure hours studied much and read with avidity. For short periods, also, he studied in the academies of Strafford, N.H., Wolfeborough, N.H., and Concord, N.H. After successfully establishing himself as a shoe manufacturer, he attracted attention as a public speaker in support of William Henry Harrison during the presidential campaign of 1840. He was in the state House of Representatives in 1841-42, 1846 and 1850, and in the Senate in 1844-45 and 1851-52. In 1848 he left the Whig party and became one of the chief leaders of the Free Soil party, serving as presiding officer of that party's national convention in 1852, acting as chairman of the Free Soil national committee and editing from 1848 to 1851 the Boston Republican, which he made the chief Free Soil organ. The Free Soil party nominated him for governor of the state in 1853, but he was defeated. For a short time (1855) he identified himself with the American or Know Nothing party, and afterwards acted with the Republican party. In 1855 he was elected to the United States Senate and remained there by re-elections until 1873. His uncompromising opposition to the institution of slavery furnished the keynote of his earlier senatorial career, and he soon took rank as one of the ablest and most effective anti-slavery orators in the United States. He had been deeply interested from 1840 until 1850 in the militia of his state, and had risen through its grades of service to that of brigadier-general. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War he was made chairman of the military committee of the Senate, and in this position performed most laborious and important work for the four years of the war. The Republicans nominated Wilson for the vice-presidency in 1872, and he was elected; but he died on the 22nd of November 1875 before completing his term of office.

He published, besides many orations, a History of the Anti-Slavery Measures of the Thirty-Seventh and Thirty-Eighth United States Congresses (1865); Military Measures of the United States Congress (1868); a History of the Reconstruction Measures of the Thirty-Ninth and Fortieth Congresses (1868) and a History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (3 vols., 1872-1875), his most important work.

The best biography is that by Elias Nason and Thomas Russell, The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson (Boston, 1876).