INTRODUCTION. - MR. WILSON'S
FAMILY, BIRTH, BOYHOOD,
APPRENTICESHIP, AND EDUCATION.
ONE of the essential
benefits of liberal institutions is the opportunity afforded by them for
developing the mental energies of the masses of the population. Freedom
is the fostering mother of the intellect and intelligence of the entire
The voice of civil
liberty, like that of Christianity, is, "Ho! every one that thirsteth,
come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money; and whosoever will,
let him come." Hence America is the best country in the world for men to
"Sometimes," remarked an
intelligent Japanese, "we express our feelings in Japan: opinions we
Here we entertain
opinions; we express them freely; and, through the clashing of opinions,
make advancement. Our destiny is placed in our own hands; and every man
is rated, as he ought to be, according to his worth. There is the goal,
the prize: the track is clear, and the best champion wins.
Thus from the bosom of
the people came up Washington, Jackson, Clay, and Lincoln; and thus
arose the legislator whose career we now attempt to trace.
Henry Wilson is the son
of Winthrop and Abigail Colbath; and was born in Farmington, N.H., on
the sixteenth day of February, 1812. His father was the son of Winthrop
Colbath; and was born in that town on the seventh day of April, 1787;
and died in Natick, Mass., on the tenth day of February, 1860. His
mother was born on the twenty-first day of March, 1785; and died on the
eighth day of August, 1866. They rest side by side in the cemetery at
Natick, where the son has erected marble headstones to their memory.
The Colbath family,
originally, as supposed, from Argyleshire in Scotland, emigrated to the
north of Ireland in the troublesome times of James the First; thence to
America, and settled at Newington, N.H., early in the eighteenth
At the time of Mr.
Wilson's birth, his parents were living in a small cottage on the right
bank of the Cocheco River, about one mile south of the "Dock," as the
village of Farmington was then called. The site of the cottage is on a
gentle eminence commanding a pleasant prospect of the river and
Farmington, which is in
Strafford County, and about thirty-five miles north-east from Concord,
and seventeen north-west from Dover, contained, at this period, about
twelve hundred inhabitants; and they were mostly engaged in agricultural
pursuits. They earned their livelihood by the sweat of the brow. They
had but slender educational advantages; and their style of speech, of
dress, of building, and of life in general, was plain and unpretending.
They generally spun and wove their own garments from wool of their own
raising. They stored their barns with hay in summer, their cellars with
apples and cider in the autumn. They spent the long winter evenings
around the ample fireplace in shelling corn, making brooms, cracking
nuts, singing songs, and telling stories of the times gone by.
Mr. Winthrop Colbath was
a poor day-laborer, engaged for many years in running a saw-mill on the
river below his house. He was rather tall, good-looking, agile, brave,
and quick at repartee. His wife was handsome, fond of reading, sensible,
and industrious. Her eyes were very keen and piercing. For his father
and mother Mr. Wilson ever entertained and cherished the most
affectionate and kind regard.
Like other indigent and
hard-working people of New England, Mr. Wilson's parents saw the value
of the public school, and early introduced their bright-eyed son to the
tuition of Mistress Guy, who quickly taught him how to read and spell,
from Perry's "Spelling-Book" and "The Primer," in the old wooden
He was a studious and
obedient pupil, improving well the opportunities he had for learning in
The school-books at that
time in Farmington were Welch's and Adams's "Arithmetics," "The English
Reader," "The American Preceptor," and "The Columbian Orator." Over
these this boy spent many an hour in the long seats of the unpainted
district schoolhouse and whatever entered his retentive memory remained
as in a vice, - fixed and unchangeable.
When he was about seven
years old, his father built a small house in front of an old grove of
pines, just where the Cocheco River makes a beautiful bend to the right,
and to this place removed his little family. Nothing now remains to
indicate the spot except the cellar, and some peach and cherry trees
growing in the enclosure.
When he was eight years
old (1820), a little incident took place which had some influence upon
his future course of life. Mrs. Anstress (Woodbury) Eastman, wife of the
Hon. Nehemniah Eastman, and sister of the lion. Levi Woodbury, seeing
him pass her house, called him to her, gave him some clothes of which he
was in need, and inquired if lie knew how to read. "Yes, pretty well,"
he answered her. "Come, then, and see me at my house to-morrow," she
replied with kindness. Early the next morning lie presented himself
before the lady ; when she said to him, "I had intended to give a
Testament to some good boy that would be likely to make a proper use of
it. You tell me you can read: now take this book, and let me hear you."
lie read a chapter in the Testament.
"Now carry the book home
with you," said she, "read it entirely through, and you shall have it."
Gladly he accepted the
condition; for a book he had never owned, and to him it was a golden
treasure. He hurried home to read it. After seven days he called again
at Mrs. Eastman's house, and said to her that he had read time book from
beginning to end.
"It cannot be!" said Mrs.
Eastman with surprise.
"But let me try you." So,
calling him to her side, she carefully examined him till she was fully
satisfied that he had read the Testament entirely through, and fairly
won the prize he coveted.
Mr. Wilson has publicly
declared that the reading of this Testament, which he still keeps,
together with the subsequent examination, was the starting-point in his
The times, especially for
the working-men, were very gloomy at this period. The war with England
had unpoverished the country. Money was scarce; wages were low. Want and
sickness entered the Colbath family. Three of the little children died,
and were buried in the field opposite the house. In reference to these
days of trial, Mr. Wilson once, in public, said, "I was born in poverty:
Want sat by my cradle. I know what it is to ask a mother for bread when
she has none to give."
So, in his reply to Mr.
Hammond, who had characterized working-men as "the mud-sills of
society," he thus touchingly alluded to these early days of trial.
"Poverty cast her dark
and chilling shadow over the home of my childhood, and Want was there
sometimes an unbidden guest. At the age of ten years, to aid him who
gave me being in keeping the gaunt spectre from the hearth of the mother
who bore me, I left the home of my boyhood, and went to earn my bread by
This active boy, nurtured
in adversity, had a vigorous constitution: above all, he had an
inspiration; and a boy with an inspiration is far better than a boy with
a great fortune.
In the summer of 1822 he
was bound by indenture to a hard-working farmer of' the neighborhood to
serve him on his farm until the age of twenty-one. By the terms of the
indenture, he was to have one month's schooling in the winter, food and
raiment, with six sheep and a yoke of oxen to be delivered to him at the
expiration of his time of service. He went to live with Mr. Knight upon
the seventh day of August, being then a little more than ten years old,
and began at once the hard work of the farm. As he increased in age, his
toil became more steady and severe. In summer he swung the scythe, or
handled the sickle, till the evening stars appeared: in winter he cut
timber in the forest.
But while thus laboring
uncomplainingly, and developing by incessant toil his physical system,
he was also turning every moment he could save from house and farm work
to the improvement of his mind. He read with intense avidity whatever
books came in his way; and he remembered what he read.
"I believe," says Walter
Scott, "one reason why such numerous instances of erudition occur among
the lower ranks is, that, with the same powers of mind, the poor student
is limited to a narrow circle for indulging his passion for books, and
must necessarily make himself master of the few he possesses ere he call
This poor boy had, at
first, no books except his Testament and the text-books of the district
school. He read them over and over again, committed many parts of them
to memory, and longed for more. Mrs. Eastman, as a kind of guardian
angel, still watched over him. She noticed his regard for books: she
kindly made selections for him from her husband's library, and lent him
volume after volume. This was a godsend to him. Every moment he could
now steal from toil was spent in reading. This was his pastime and his
recreation. Some of the happiest moments of his life were spent in
running, when work was over, to the dwelling of his benefactress for
another book. By the light of the kitchen-fire —for he had no money to
purchase oil - he went through volume after volume; sometimes reading
on, unconscious of the flight of time, until the morning broke. In this
way he perused the leading works of the British and American statesmen
and historians, the fascinating pages of Irving, Cooper, and Scott, all
the then published numbers of "The North-American Review," and many
other current publications of the day.
Judge Whitehouse of
Farmington also lent him many books, and directed him in his course of
reading. It was fortunate that he met with such intelligent guides, and
that the best works in English and American literature thus fell into
his hands; for it is the quality rather than the quantity of the
material received into the mind that yields valuable increase.
So industriously had this
hard-working boy availed himself of these means of culture, that, at the
expiration of his time of service (February, 1833), he had read, and
then held in mind, nearly a thousand volumes of history, biography,
philosophy, and general literature. Thus he bore away from that hard
farm more solid information, and a heart better prepared to toil and to
achieve, than many bear away with the diploma from the university.
To the interests of his
employer he was ever faithful. His eye was quick, his judgment clear;
his health was good; his habits were correct; and hence his services
On closing them he
received the promised compensation, - six sheep and a yoke of oxen, all
of which he sold immediately for the sum of eighty-four dollars cash. So
poor had he been up to this period, that he had never possessed two
dollars; and a single dollar would cover every penny he had ever spent.
Having now arrived at the
age of twenty-one, he, by an act of the legislature, had his name
changed from Jeremiah Jones Colbath to Henry Wilson. This was done by
the advice of the family he had lived with, and with the approval of his
The question now before
Mr. Wilson was, "How shall I obtain a livelihood, and assist my father
and his family?" He set himself at once to seek employment; and the
struggles which it cost him to obtain it will forever keep alive his
sympathies for the working-people.
He hired himself for
several months in Farmington; but the compensation was so trivial, that
he soon resolved to leave his native town, and find work elsewhere. He
packed up his clothes and visited several places, seeking for it, but in
vain. He himself shall tell the story. Addressing the citizens of Great
Falls last February, he said, -
"I know what it is to
travel weary miles, and ask my fellow-men to give me leave to toil. I
remember, that, in 1833, I walked into your village from my native town,
and went through your mills, seeking employment. If anybody had offered
me eight or nine dollars a month, I should have accepted it gladly. I
went down to Salmon Falls, I vent to Dover, I went to Newmarket, and
tried to get work, without success; and I returned home weary, but not
discouraged, and put my pack on my back, walked to the town where I now
live, and learned a mechanic's trade. I know the hard lot that toiling
men have to endure in this world; and every pulsation of of my heart,
every conviction of my judgment, puts me on the side of the toiling men
of my country, ay, of all countries. I am glad the working-men in Europe
are getting discontented and want better wages. I thank God that a man
in the United States to-day can earn from three to four dollars in tell
work easier than he could, forty years ago, earn one dollar, working
from twelve to fifteen hours. The first month I worked after I was
twenty-one years of age, I went into the woods, drove team, cut
mill-logs, rose in the morning before daylight, and worked hard until
after dark at night; and I received for it the magnificent sum of six
dollars! - and, when I got the money, those dollars looked as large to
me as the moon looks to-night."
Unsuccessful in obtaining
employment in New Hampshire, Mr. Wilson finally determined to seek his
fortune in the State of Massachusetts. He had heard of the prices paid
for making shoes in the enterprising town of Natick: hence he resolved
to go there, and to try a new vocation. He had learned to endure
hardship without murmuring. His hand and eye were well trained; his head
was clear; his heart was honest; his store of knowledge large; he had a
sound mind in a sound body. His purpose was to work: what, then, could
be expected of him but success?