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The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
Chapter II.


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 inspiration.

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 aborigines.

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 and nation.

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 of Maryland."

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' Columbia?"

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 this failure.

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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