Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
MR. WILSON LEAVES NEW
HAMPSHIRE. - HARD WORK AT NATICK. - DEBATING SOCIETY. - VISIT TO WASHINGTON. - STRUGGLES FOR AN EDUCATION. - MR. WILSON AS A MANUFACTURER.
IN December, 1833, Mr.
Wilson packed up his slender wardrobe, bade his friends farewell, and
set out on foot for the town of Natick. He had but little money in his
pocket; and he resolved to make the journey with as little expense as
possible. On the first day he travelled as far as Durham, where he
obtained lodging with a farmer; the next night he reached Salisbury, on
the Merrimack River; and in the morning following visited Newburyport,
where, to ease his blistered feet, he purchased for twenty-five cents a
pair of slippers, in which he more comfortably pursued his way. Arriving
at night at Saugus, he found entertainment in a private family; and his
waking dreams were of the famous city of Boston, which he was to see,
for the first time, on the morrow. The two points of special interest to
him were Bunker Hill, whose story had so often thrilled his imagination;
and the office of "The North-American Review," which had sent forth so
many learned articles to instruct him, and to lighten the burden of his
toil at Farmington.
Rising early, and paying
twenty-five cents for his lodging, he recommenced his journey, and in a
few hours stood upon the celebrated spot where Warren fell. His quick
eye swept over the whole scene; his imagination pictured forth the first
grand action on behalf of freedom in America. It was to him. an
On leaving this memorable
spot, he inquired the way to the office of "The North-American Review,"
which he found to be at 141 Washington Street, and something less than
lie anticipated. "Can so rnuch good," thought he, "come out of
Nazareth?" and so, having seen what he considered worthy of
consideration in the city, he inquired the way to Natick. Some one
misdirected him, and sent him, by a detour of several miles, through the
town of Dedliam. On arriving about midnight at his point of destination,
he stopped at the old tavern on the turnpike in the western part of the
village, and found, on examining his exchequer, that he had spent just a
dollar and five cents in travelling the whole distance of about a
hundred miles from Farmington to Natick. Such Spartan-like endurance and
economy were no mean elements in the training of the future statesman.
Natick, which in the
Nipmuck language signifies "a place of hills," is seventeen miles
south-west of Boston, and, as the name would indicate, has its full
share of scenic beauty. From the summits of Fiske and Pegan Hills the
eye enjoys enchanting prospects, sweeping from Fiske lull over the
waters of Cochituate Lake and the handsome buildings of the village;
while from Pegan it follows the meanderings of Charles River through the
valleys of Needham and of Dedham, and rests upon the distant spires of
Boston and the monument on Bunker Hill.
In passing through the
southern section of the town, Washington once remarked, "Nature seems to
have been lavish of her beauties here." It was at the point where the
celebrated John Eliot had an Indian church, and taught, beneath the
shade of an outspreading, oak, the principles of the gospel to the
At the time of Mr.
Wilson's arrival, the town contained about a thousand people, mostly
farmers; and at the central village there was a Congregational church,
of which the Rev. Erasmus D. Moore, who became an earnest friend and
counsellor of Mr. Wilson, was the pastor. There was then no lawyer in
the place, nor any need of one. There was but little culture,
enterprise, or aspiration. Less than eight hundred dollars annually were
appropriated to the support of public schools; and the buildings in
which they were taught were rude and comfortless.
But that branch of
industry for which this town has since become so celebrated had already
gained a foothold here. A few enterprising men had begun to manufacture
shoes, yet on a very limited scale and capital, for the Southern market.
Division of labor, machinery, and those various arts and appliances
which render this business at the present day so lucrative, had found no
entrance into the workshop.
Then, instead of working
on a single part, each workman made the entire shoe. it was called a
"brogan," and was sold by wholesale at the rate of about a dollar per
pair. The process of making was slow; the teaming to Boston was
expensive; and hence the business was not specially remunerative nor
inviting. Mr. Wilson was, however, glad to find employment. Any thing
was better than the exhausting drudgery of the farm he left, which
afforded him very little leisure either for recreation of the body, or
cultivation of the mind. He hired himself at once to Mr. William P.
Legro, who agreed, for the consideration of five months' labor, to teach
him the art of making shoes. With. his knife and hammer he set to work
with several laborers in a little shop in the western part of the town
to learn his trade; but, ere many days had passed, perceived that he had
bargained away his time incautiously; and therefore he agreed with his
employer, for the consideration of the sum of fifteen dollars, to
release him from his obligation. At the end of seven weeks, he began
working for himself. Anxious to obtain money for an education, he now
applied himself to shoemaking with unflinching assiduity. The very first
day after leaving Mr. Legro, he made eight pairs of shoes; and very soon
outsped the fastest workman in rapidity of execution, making sometimes
two shoes to his one. He used to labor sixteen hours a day; and ''not
unfrequently," says one of his cornpanions, "he worked all night and two
days in succession without sleep."
"He is a very good young
man; we like him much," said Mrs. William Perry, with whom he boarded "
but he keeps us all awake by his continual pounding through the night."
Once he determined to
make fifty pairs of shoes without taking any sleep. This usually
required the labor of a week; but his hand and eye, as we have said, are
quick, and therefore he attempted this surprising feat. Forty-seven
pairs and a half he actually made without reposing when he found, in
spite of his resistance, sleep at length would overpower him in the
interim between the raising and striking of the hammer on the shoe in
hand; and so, reluctantly, he yielded to its influence.
There is something
touching in this scene, the youth, smitten "by the wild delight of
knowing," sunk in sleep over that last shoe. Was it not an earnest of
that indomitable energy he has since exhibited in the halls of Congress?
On the 19th of April,
1835, Mr. Wilson heard for the first time the eloquence of Edward
Everett in his masterly oration on the battle of Lexington, and was
inspired by it with fresh ardor to obtain an education: he also went on
foot to Boston to hear Daniel Webster on the presentation of the vase at
the Odeon, and listened with admiration to the voice of that
distinguished statesman. His aspirations were awakened; but what hopes
had he - an unknown, friendless shoemaker- any right to entertain? He
returned to his hard toil, to think and to work on even to the very
limit of his power.
In the summer of 1835 the
Boston and Worcester Railroad was opened through the central village of
Natick. The coming of the locomotive engine gradually broke up the old
modes of thinking and of manufacturing. It brought in life, light,
enterprise. New firms were soon established, new buildings erected, and
new societies organized. Among these was one, which, although limited as
to the number of its members, had, nevertheless, a lasting influence
over the intellectual character of the community. It bore the name of
"The Natick Debating Society." It was formed in the winter of 1835, and
originally had but thirteen members. Prominent among these were Henry
Wilson, Alexander W. Thayer (now United-States consul at Trieste),
George M. Herring, J. B. Mann, Dr. James Whitney, and Willard A. Wight.
The design of the association was to discuss, either in speaking or in
writing, the current literary, scientific, or political questions of the
day. The meetings were held in the old schoolhouse in the village,
generally once, and sometimes twice, a week. They were continued until
1840, when the society was merged in the Natick Lyceum.
To this little assembly
of disputants Mr. Wilson resorted when the arduous toils of the day were
ended; and here he engaged most heartily in discussing the various
questions of the times, especially that of slavery, which was then,
through mobs, and acts of violence, to some extent, receiving the
attention of the public. Here, in this debating society, he learned to
"think upon his feet;" to arrange his thoughts in logical order; to
detect and expose the sophistry of all; to settle questions by solid
argument based on fact instead of theory. Here he acquired skill in
parliamentary practice, and in a measure qualified himself for a seat in
the deliberative assemblies of the state and nation. This debating club
was his political training-field: in it he went through the drill for
coming conflict. To it he owes, in some degree, that cleverness and that
steadiness in debate for which he is distinguished. His associates were
not unfrequently surprised to see him exhibit such familiarity with the
history of his country; and although he trembled when he spoke, and
sometimes deviated from the principles of Lindley Murray's Grammar, they
felt and said that he had power to command the attention of his
fellow-men oil broader field, and to render signal service to his state
On evening he had spoken
but indifferently on a certain question, and incurred the ridicule of
his opponents. This aroused him; and, rising again, he broke into a
strain of eloquence which electrified his hearers. They proposed that
the question should be taken up again at the next meeting; and he then
discussed it in a style so masterly, that his opponents ever afterwards
made their attacks with more consideration, and admitted that "the fire
and the force" to do great things were slumbering in his soul.
As to himself, so to the
other members, this society proved to be of signal service. Almost every
person who belonged to it has attained distinction in his chosen sphere
of life, and now exercises healthful influence over the destinies of his
fellow-men. Some have been senators some have written useful books; some
adorn the liberal professions: all are intelligent, honorable, and
progressive men. May not this debating club be cited as an example
deserving the attention of the working-people of our country?
On coming to live at
Natick, Mr. Wilson felt at once the need of books. There were no
libraries in the place like those he left at Farmington, whereby he
might gratify his appetite for reading; and he had not the means to
purchase what he wanted.
There was, however, an
old town-library of about two hundred volumes, then in the keeping of
Deacon William Coolidge, a man of great simplicity of manner, heart, and
doctrine. His wife was of the same spirit, pious, kind, obliging. Of the
old Puritanic style of people they were models; rigorous in opinion, yet
indulgent in respect to those who disagreed with them, and ever ready to
encourage such as had an aspiration for improvement. In order, then, to
gain access to the books in this old library, and to enjoy the society
of these good people, Mr. Wilson prevailed on them to receive him as a
boarder in their family. Here he found generous sympathy, wise religious
counsel, and a happy home. With them he attended church and social
meetings; by them he was treated as a son. Amongst his firmest friends
at this period Mr. Wilson doubtless reckons Deacon William Coolidge and
the Rev. E. D. Moore, who ever took the liveliest interest in his
welfare; who clearly saw, that, though he was the son of toil, he was
the son of genius also; and, by kind advice, encouraged him to bring out
the manhood of his nature.
By his incessant labor in
the workshop, supplemented by his literary toil at night, Mr. Wilson's
health became so much impaired, that it seemed to him imperative that he
should take some relaxation. The laws of health were not well understood
by him, and he had continued working on unseasonably, until his strength
gave out, his color fled, and hemorrhage of the lungs commenced. He 1had
laid by several hundred dollars, with which he hoped to acquire such an
education as would enable him to enter on the practice of the law. But,
his health continuing to decline, his medical adviser recommended, that,
before commencing on his studies, he should make a journey to the South.
He therefore, in the month of May, 1836, set out for Washington. The
changing scenes, the rest from toil, the thought that he was soon to
look upon the Capitol and the lawmakers of the nation, was the very
medicine which he needed.
Passing through Maryland,
he for the first time saw slaves of both sex's toiling half-naked in the
fields, and expressed his opinion to a gentleman in the cars that
slavery was an evil. The gentleman replied to him with some severity,
that "he could not be permitted to express such sentiments in the State
The thought was
startling, that, in a land of freedom, his own tongue was fettered as
was the bondman's body.
On arriving at
Washington, May 1, he entered the Capitol, listened to the stormy
debates in Congress, and saw the petitions of the philanthropic men and
women of the country against the traffic in human flesh and sinews laid
upon the table. He saw Mr. Pinckney's infamous resolution against the
right of petition forced through the House of Representatives under the
pressure of the previous question, and Mr. Calhoun's Incendiary
Publication Bill pass one of its stages in the Senate by the casting
vote of Mr. Van Buren, the vice-president. He saw the subserviency of
Northern politicians to the domination of the South. He grasped at once
the commanding question of America. Mr. Wilson remained at Washington
until about the middle of June, boarding on Capitol Hill, and sitting at
table with Senator Morris of Ohio, who fearlessly opposed the advocates
of human servitude.
He visited Williams's
notorious slave-pen on the corner of Seventh and B Streets; he saw the
poor people sold, manacled, separated, and marched away to toil and
suffering beneath the whip of unfeeling taskmasters at the South. His
sympathies for the bondmen, his indignation against the cruel system of
human traffic carried on hard by the Capitol of a nation boastful of its
freedom, were re-awakened, so that he then and there determined, that,
come weal or woe, the powers which God had given him should thenceforth
be devoted to the destruction of an institution so revolting to every
instinct of humanity, so inconsistent with the declaration of our
national independence, and so antagonistic to the whole teaching and
spirit of the gospel.
This is the key to Mr.
Wilson's political career; and by it his public acts must be
interpreted. To this principle of human freedom, deeply embedded in his
heart and running through every fibre of his intellectual character, he
has held, through all the political changes in the state and nation,
with unflinching steadiness: so that, as one has truly said, "He floated
into power upon the wave of principle; while others timorously declined
to take that wave, and now lie strewn as wrecks along the barren strands
of compromise and expediency."
Alluding to this
memorable visit to Washington, the scenes then witnessed, and the
resolution formed, Mr. Wilson, in an address at Philadelphia, 1803,
observes, - "I saw slavery beneath the shadow of the flag that waved
over the Capitol. I saw the slave-pen, and men, women, and children
herded for the markets of the far South; and at the table at which sat
Senator Morris of Ohio, then the only avowed champion of freedom in the
Senate of the United States, I expressed my abhorrence of slavery and
the slave-traffic in the capital of this democratic and Christian
republic. I was promptly told that Senator Morris might be protected in
speaking against slavery in the Senate; but that I would not be
protected in uttering such sentiments. I left the capital of my country
with the unalterable resolution to give all that I had, and all that I
hoped to have, of power, to the cause of emancipation in America; and I
have tried to make that resolution a living faith from that day to this
[applause]. My political associates from that hour to the present have
always been guided by my opposition to slavery in every form, and they
always will be so guided. In twenty years of political life I may have
committed errors of' judgment; but I have ever striven 'to write my
name,' in the words of William Leggett, 'in ineffaceable letters on the
abolition record.' Standing here to night in the presence of veteran
antislavery men, I can say in all the sincerity of conviction, that I
would rather have it written upon the humble stone that shall mark the
spot where I shall repose when life's labors are done,' he did what he
could to break the tatters of the slave,' than to have it recorded that
he filled the highest stations of honor in the gift of his countrymen."
On returning home from
Washington, Mr. Wilson, having then about seven hundred dollars in cash,
went to Strafford in New Hampshire, and, on the first day of July, began
upon a course of study in the academy at that place, then under the
tuition of Mr. Dickey. He was induced to go to Strafford because it was
near his early home, and also because one of his early friends, W. W.
Roberts, a young man of remarkable ability, was then a student there.
These two scholars were of congenial tastes and aspirations; and the
death of Mr. Roberts in his first year at Dartmouth College was an event
of which Mr. Wilson speaks to this day with sorrow and regret.
In delightful sympathy
with this fine scholar, Mr. Wilson made the most of his time and
privileges at this academy, such a course of study as would enable him
to engage in teaching school in the coming winter. At time close of the
scholastic term, he, at the public exhibition, spoke in the affirmative
on the question, "Ought slavery to be abolished in the District of'
It demanded courage in
New England even then to express such views on slavery as he was known
to entertain. To be called an abolitionist was a reproach which few
could bear. The antislavery student met the question boldly, presenting
cogent arguments for the immediate emancipation of the bondmen at the
seat of government.
"That man," said some of
the good people who then heard the speaker, "will make a minister."
It is remarkable that he
himself, after a struggle of a quarter of a century, should have
introduced the measure into Congress which realized the aspirations he
expressed in his first effort on the stage of the academy, in the first
public speech he ever made. In February, 1872, it so happened that Mr.
Wilson addressed the citizens of Strafford assembled on the very same
spot where he made his maiden speech in 1836 ; and some were present who
remembered it, and congratulated him on the fruition of his hopes.
Anxious to avail himself
of the instruction of Miss Eastman, daughter of his benefactress at
Farmington, Mr. Wilson entered, in the autumn, the academy at
Wolfborough, on Winnipiseogee Lake; and, pursuing his studies here one
term with unabated zeal, he engaged and taught in the winter one of the
district schools in that delightful town. The schoolhouse was situated
on Mink Brook, and was about a mile and a half from the village. This
term of teaching served to bring his literary acquisitions into
practice, and to fix the rudiments of learning indelibly in memory. His
leisure moments were devoted to the prosecution of his studies. The Rev.
Thomas P. Beach, afterwards imprisoned at Newburyport for disturbing a
religious meeting, was of signal service to him while a resident of this
town. In the spring following (1837), Mr. Wilson commenced study at the
academy in Concord, then under charge of the Rev. T. P. D. Stone, a
gentleman of ability, who had given much attention to the art of
elocution. Here Mr. Wilson's principal recitations were in Euclid's
"Geometry," Newman's "Rhetoric," "Mental Philosophy," Butler's
"Analogy," and "The Geography of the Heavens." These and kindred
branches he pursued with the same untiring assiduity he had manifested
in the workshop when toiling for money for his education. Study with him
meant business; and, with his quick perceptions and retentive memory, he
soon left his fellow-students far behind. His special forte was
extemporaneous speaking and debate; and here he found in Mr. Stone an
excellent instructor. When in debate, he seemed to hold the whole
history of the country in his memory; and woe to his opponent who had
not power to wield the same effective weapon!
The principles advocated in "The Liberator" were now slowly gaining
favor with the young men of New Hampshire, and a State antislavery
convention was held by them this year at Concord. Mr. Wilson was chosen
a delegate to this body; after here he made an earnest and able speech
on behalf of human freedom, characterizing slavery as an infraction of
the laws of God and man, a national dishonor, and an impediment to the
peace and progress of the people.
While pursuing his
studies at Concord in the summer term of 1837, a gentleman in
Farmington, to whom he had loaned the money he had earned by such
incessant toil at Natick for the expenses of an education, failed, and
left him penniless. This was a. bitter disappointment. He must give up
his cherished plans; the workshop must again be his academy, and hard
toil his teacher.
At this crisis in his
affairs he found a sincere friend in Mr. Samuel Avery of Wolfsborough,
who kindly offered to board him on credit just as long as he might wish
to attend the academy in that town. Accepting his friend's proposal, he
returned to the academy at Wolfsborough, where he spent the autumn of
1837, closing in with study just as if his final opportunity for it had
come. At the expiration of the term he started once more for the town of
Natick, and, on his arrival, had less money than when first he came to
it on foot four years before. His integrity and ability had, however,
gained him many friends; and he was at once appointed teacher of the
centre district school for the ensuing winter, He taught successfully;
for he had tact to govern, information to impart, and glowing words to
render it acceptable. To inspire is to instruct; and this he could not
fail to do. The meetings of the debating club he faithfully attended,
and as faithfully employed the evenings not so spent in study. On
finishing his school, and paying off his debts, he had twelve dollars
left; and on this capital he began to manufacture shoes for the Southern
market. In this business he continued steadily employed, except when
public duties drew him away, for ten consecutive years. At first he
occupied Mr. David Whitney's shop; but afterwards removed to one on
Central Street, where his dwelling-house now stands.
During the ten years
which cover Mr. Wilson's business-life, the town of Natick made
remarkable advancement in respect to population, wealth, and enterprise.
Division of labor, and machinery to some extent, were introduced into
the manufactories, and goods of a better quality and finish were sent
forth. In these improvements, as well as in the general prosperity of'
the village, Mr. Wilson took an active part. He attended the social
gatherings of the people, identified himself with them in their joys and
sorrows, and lent a helping hand, as well as word, to every scheme for
the promotion of the public good.
As a business-man lie was upright, courteous, fair, and manly, ever
taking sides and sympathizing with the working-people. He paid his
laborers promptly; he encouraged them with friendly words, and made them
feel that they, as well as he himself, had rights to be respected. He
had their confidence and esteem; for every one of them knew that Mr.
Wilson would share with him his very last dollar before seeing him come
to real want. In one year (1847) Mr. Wilson manufactured a hundred and
twenty-two thousand pairs of' shoes, employing a hundred and nine
workmen; and the whole number of pairs of shoes made by him while
engaged in business was six hundred and sixty-four thousand. In general,
he sold these shoes to Southern dealers, who sometimes visited him at
Natick to make their purchases. One of them once wrote to him, that,
having failed in trade, he was unable to pay him more than fifty cents
on a dollar. On looking over his creditor's assets, and seeing that they
included several slaves that would be put into the market, the honest
manufacturer immediately sent him word that he could not consistently
take any money coming from the sale of his fellow-men; and thus, by his
adherence to his principles, he lost seven or eight hundred dollars in
Generous and obliging to
a fault, Mr. Wilson never stooped to questionable means for making
money; nor was he, either by his taste or temperament, well adapted to
the turns and tricks of trade. He had no wish, no faculty, to hoard up
gold. He went into the shoe-business by necessity: his thought was
running along another plane. His aspiration was to transact business on
a broader scale; to grapple with questions that bore upon the vital
interests of the working-men throughout the country. Hence he closed the
manufacture of shoes without much gain or much regret, and entered on
that broader sphere of action, for which Nature, by her liberal gifts,
had evidently intended him.
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