Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Henry Wilson (1873–1875)

Henry Wilson was born on February 16, 1812, in Farmington, New Hampshire. He was born Jeremiah Jones Colbath, but legally changed his name when he was twenty-one years old. Wilson grew up very poor, and when he was ten years old, his father hired him out as an apprentice to a local farmer. He lived and worked with the farmer until 1833 and only very occasionally attended school. He was, however, a voracious reader and a hard worker.

When he finished his apprenticeship, he left New Hampshire and moved to Natick, Massachusetts, where he became a shoemaker. After learning the trade, Wilson started his own shop, which eventually grew into a shoe factory, and he grew wealthy. In 1840, he married Harriet Malvina Howe, and they had one son.

Interested in social and moral reforms, Wilson turned his attention to politics. He first won office in the Massachusetts state legislature in 1840 as a member of the Whig Party but left the party in 1848 because he did not think it had a strong enough stand against slavery. He was a committed abolitionist and a member of the temperance movement; he also worked to improve the lives of workers. Wilson joined the Free Soil Party, and from 1848 until 1851, he edited the Boston Republican, a newspaper with ties to the party. For a short time, he was also affiliated with the American or Know-Nothing Party but soon left it because of its anti-immigrant stances.

Wilson joined the Republican Party in 1855, the same year the state legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate. In Washington, D.C, he served in the Senate until he stepped down to become vice president in 1873. He was a renowned speaker but also known for traveling around his home state listening to his constituents. During the Civil War, he helped recruit volunteers from Massachusetts to join the Union Army, and as chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, he helped organized the war effort and equip the Union Army. He continued his fight against slavery and pushed President Abraham Lincoln to free slaves; he was also a strong supporter of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. In 1862, he sponsored legislation to free slaves in Washington, D.C. After the war ended, Wilson aligned himself with the Radical Republicans and fought President Andrew Johnson to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves.

In the 1872 election, the Republican Party chose Wilson to run with President Ulysses S. Grant, after Vice President Schuyler Colfax announced his retirement in 1870. During the campaign, the party billed the ticket as the "Galena Tanner" and the "Natick Shoemaker," after Grant's previous job as a tanner and Wilson's as a shoemaker, to help the ticket appeal to the average working man. Grant easily won reelection, and Wilson became vice president.

Like most vice presidents of the era, Wilson had little influence in the Grant administration. In ill health and grief stricken due to the deaths of his wife and only son, Wilson spent much of his time in office writing a three-volume work, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. Wilson had a stroke in 1873. He suffered another stroke and died shortly afterwards on November 22, 1875.