Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
POPULARITY WITH THE PEOPLE.
- FORMATION OF THE FREE-SOIL PARTY. - COURSE IN THE STATE LEGISLATURE. -
ADDRESS OF WELCOME TO GOV KOSSUTH.
IN the autumn of 1847 Mr.
Wilson declined being a candidate for the legislature; but through his
generous sympathies, temperate habits, and uprightness as a man, his
intelligence and sagacity as a legislator, and his steady adherence to
the principles of human freedom and the interests of the working
classes, he was still gaining the respect and confidence of the people.
Even those who looked contemptuously upon him as rising from the
workshop of' a shoemaker were obliged to admit his eminent ability as a
speaker and leader. His bold, direct, and logical speech, in the House
of the last year, on slavery, had turned the thoughts of the
abolitionists to him as their legislative champion.
The laboring-people, from
whom he had sprung, and of whose opinions he was, perhaps, the best
exponent in the State, were proud of his success, and entertained for
him increasing admiration and esteem. They held even then - for in this
country they have always had the clearest vision of impending crises -
that we were on the eve of great political events, and that he would be
the man for the occasion.
On the death of John
Quincy Adams in February, 1848, and the consequent vacancy in the House
of Representatives, a Whig convention was held in Dedham to select a
candidate to supply his place. The three leading men for whom that body
had a preference were Henry Wilson, William Jackson, and Horace Mann.
After the third balloting, Mr. Wilson withdrew his name in favor of Mr.
Mann, who was nominated. The convention then, by an unanimous vote,
appointed Mr. Wilson delegate to the Whip, National convention to be
held in Philadelphia in the ensuing month of June. He supported Mr.
Webster for president in that convention in account of his principles in
favor of liberty; yet he had misgivings in regard to this statesman's
position on this question, which were sadly realized in 1850. He had
previously declared in public and in private, that if Gen. Taylor should
receive the vote of the Whig party in that convention, unpledged to the
Wilmot Provison, he not only would not support him, but would do all in
his power to defeat him. The convention nominated Gen. Taylor for the
presidency. Mr. Wilson, and his colleague Mr. Charles Allen, denounced
the action of the convention, and, retiring from it, held a meeting of a
few Northern men, and appointed a committee, who, with others, called
the Buffalo Convention, where Mr. Van Buren received the nomination.
Returning home, Mr.
Wilson and his associates held a convention in the city of Worcester on
the 28th of June. It was large and enthusiastic. The subserviency of the
Whig party to the interests of the South was fully discussed, and its
inadequacy and unwillingness to meet the demands of freedom and the
progressive spirit of the age were most eloquently set forth. For the
vindication of free labor, for the maintenance of freedom in the
Territories, for resistance to the aggressive policy of the South, which
the Northern Whigs and Democrats, though to some extent in words
opposing, still accepted in acts, the organization of' the Free-soil
party was begun. "A few days after," Mr. Wilson said, "I called on Mr.
Webster at his own request; and he expressed his cordial assent to the
principles of the convention." Untiring in his endeavors to arouse the
North to a sense of the nation's injustice towards the slave, Mr. Wilson
in September purchased "The Boston Republican," which he edited with
signal ability from the autumn of 1848 to January, 1831, defending
steadily the principles of freedom, and holding an advanced position in
civil, social, and political reform, it was the chief organ of the
Free-soil party, of which he was the acknowledged leader; and it was
continued one year as a daily paper. The articles of agreement between
Mr. Wilson and the publishers of the paper are dated Boston, Nov. 11,
1848: "The subscribers, Henry Wilson of the first part, William S.
Damrell of' the second part, and Curtis C. Nichols of the third part,
have this day formed a co-partnership, to be known as the firm of
Wilson, Damrell, and Co., for the purpose of publishing 'The Daily
Republican,' 'Semi-weekly Republican,' and Weekly Emancipator and
Republican.'" The political creed of the paper was, "No extension of
slavery over the Territories; no more slave territory to be added to the
Union; no more slave States to be admitted into the Union; no compromise
with slavery must he made." Mr. Wilson wrote most of the original
articles, including the book-notices, for the paper; but was sometimes
assisted by Mr. William S. Robinson and other political and literary
friends. On retiring from the paper, he found that he had lost something
like seven thousand dollars in the enterprise; yet it had been of
essential service to the Free-soil party, and he cheerfully submitted to
the pecuniary damage. It was an effective educator of the people in
respect to the cardinal doctrines involved in that irresistible conflict
between free and slave labor which is now forever settled on this
Appointed chairman of the
Free-soil State Committee in 1849, he most industriously labored, by the
circulation of pamphlets and by delivering addresses in various sections
of the State, as well as through the columns of "The Republican," for
the advancement of the party. Four years he spent in this capacity; and
they were years of ceaseless vigilance and toil: yet by these exertions
he was not only deepening the antislavery sentiment of the State, but
also gaining wisdom and experience for sterner effort and severer
conflict. When heaven has something great and good for any man to do, it
prepares and proves him for the occasion.
In 1850 Mr. Wilson was
again a member of the lower branch of the State Legislature, where he
labored with his accustomed zeal and energy. The Free-soil members gave
him their votes for the speakership; but he was not elected. He had been
urged by his own party and the Democrats in union to become a candidate
for the Senate but he preferred a seat in the more popular body, as
haying broader influence.
It was during the session
of this legislature that Mr. Webster made his 7th-of-March speech on Mr.
Clay's resolutions in the Senate of the United States. The sentiment of
the North was deeply wounded by it. Mr. Wilson fearlessly declared to
the House that the people would repudiate that speech and those who
should indorse it and that, at the next election, the deserters from the
cause of freedom would surely find themselves deserted. His words,
though meeting the defiance of many of the leading Whigs, proved true.
By the famous coalition of the Free-soil and the Democratic parties, the
Whig party of Massachusetts, once so strong and so triumphant, was
defeated. This coalition, Mr. Wilson, for the most part, organized.
Calling together the State Committee and about seventy members of his
own party at the Adams House in Boston in the summer of 1850, he
declared to them that Mr. Webster's speech and Mr. Fillmore's timid
administration could be condemned; that a member of the Free-soil party
could be sent to the United States Senate to take the place of Mr.
Webster (made secretary of state) for the long term, and a member of the
Democratic party for the short term; and that thus antislavery men could
be brought to control the policy of the State. After a long and animated
discussion, the meeting refused to form the coalition: but Mr. Wilson
and his friends laid the scheme before the people, who accepted it, and,
through the legislature, elected George S. Boutwell as governor; and the
General Court, after a long and bitter contest and many ballotings, in
1851, sent Charles Sumnor to the United-States Senate for the long term,
choosing also Robert Rantoul, a Democrat, for the other term.
Many causes - such as the
persistent labors of antislavery men through public addresses and the
press, the general awakening of the people to the insolent aggressions
of the Southern demagogues, and the course of Mr. Webster - conspired to
aid this triumph of the friends of freedom but all admitted that it was
largely due to the sagacity, the organizing power, and the unremitting
activity, of Mr. Wilson. Perhaps no political movement had ever so
aroused the people of Massachusetts, or had been so significant of her
advance in liberal ideas. Hard and insulting names were freely bestowed
upon the leader; but he had no time nor wish to strike "back-blows."
The agency which he had
in the election of Mr. Sumner to the Senate is recognized in the
following frank avowal: -
CRAGIE HOUSE, CAMBRIDGE,
April 25, 1851.
MY DEAR WILSON, I have
this moment read your remarks of last night, which I think peculiarly
happy. You touched the right chord. I hope not to seem cold or churlish
in thus withdrawing from all the public rnanifestations of triumph to
which our friends are prompted. In doing so, I follow the line of
reserve which you know I have kept to throughout the contest; and my
best judgment at this moment satisfies me that I am right.
You who have seen me
familiarly and daily from the beginning to the end will understand me,
and, if need be, can satisfy those, who, taking counsel of their
exultation, would have me mingle in the display. But I shrink from
imposing any thing more upon you.
To your ability, energy,
determination, and fidelity our cause owes its present success. For weal
or woe, you must take the responsibility of having placed me in the
Senate of the United States.
I am prompted also to
add, that, while you have done all this, I have never heard from you a
single suggestion of a selfish character, looking in any way to any good
to yourself: your labors have been as disinterested as they have been
effective. This consideration increases my personal esteem and
gratitude. I trust that you will see that Mr. B.'s resolves are passed
at once as they are, and the bill as soon as possible. Delay will be the
tactics of the enemy.
The Hon. HENRY WILSON.
This coalition sent Mr.
Wilson to the State Senate for the session of 1851 by a majority of
twenty-one hundred votes; and he was then made president of that body.
On taking the chair the first day of January, he made the following
appropriate address: "Senators, I tender to you my sincere and grateful
thanks for this expression of your confidence. In return, I promise to
bring to the chair an earnest determination to perform its duties with
fidelity and impartiality. Conscious of a want of experience, I solicit
your indulgence. I feel that I occupy this place under the disadvantage
of having been preceded by some of the most eminent men who have
illustrated the legislative history of the Commonwealth. Relying,
however, on your friendly co-operation, I enter upon the performance of
the task to which your partiality has called me. My hope is, that we
shall so conduct our deliberations as not only to secure harmony among
ourselves, but also to sustain those great principles which are
conducive to the glory and the prosperity of the Commonwealth. Having
done this, we shall give back to the people the power they delegated to
us, with the proud consciousness of having done something to advance the
ideas of freedom and progress,something to promote the renown of the
republic, and to cement that union which makes us one people."
Eighteen years before, he
was a friendless youth, homeless and penniless, seeking the privilege to
toil for his daily bread; but through untiring industry, undeviating
steadiness to principle, through an unshaken confidence in human
progress, and self-denying sacrifice for the relief of the oppressed, he
raised himself, against persistent ppposition, to this honorable post.
It is the fortune of but few men to make such advancement in so brief a
period; yet his success, so nobly merited and won, may serve as an
encouragement to those, who, under adverse circumstances, are aspiring
PER VIRTUTEM AD GLORIAM.
On the 21st of January,
1851, the anniversary of the twentieth year of the existence of "The
Liberator" was held in Cochituate Hall; when Mr. Wilson thus again
expressed his views and hopes upon "the irrepressible conflict:" -
"Sir, allusion has been
made to-night to the small beginning of the great antislavery movement
twenty years ago, when 'The Liberator' was launched upon the tide. These
years have been years of devotion and of struggles unsurpassed in any
age or in any cause. But, notwithstanding the treachery of public men, I
venture to say that the cause of liberty is spreading throughout the
whole land, and that the day is not far distant when brilliant victories
for freedom will be won. We shall arrest the extension of slavery, and
rescue the government from the grasp of the slave-power; we shall blot
out slavery in the national capital; we shall surround the slave States
with a cordon of' free States; we shall then appeal to the hearts and
consciences of men; and in a few years, notwithstanding the immense
interests combined in the cause of oppression, we shall give liberty to
the millions in bondage. (Hear, hear.) I trust that many of us will live
to see the chain stricken from the limbs of the last bondman in the
republic; but, sir, whenever that day shall come, living or dead, no
name connected with the antislavery movement will be dearer to the
enfranchised millions than the name of your guest, William Lloyd
Garrison." (Prolonged applause.)
During this session of
the Senate, Mr. Wilson took a leading part in obtaining an act for a
third convention for revising the Constitution of the State; in carrying
the homestead Exemption Bill, which reserved to the family of the
insolvent debtor five hundred dollars from the hands of creditors; in
the fiercely-contested election of Mr. Sumner, carried in April over Mr.
Winthrop; and in securing the act for the re-organization of' the board
of overseers of Harvard University, by which they were to be chosen by
joint ballot of both branches of' the legislature, so that all sects and
parties might be represented by their most competent men.
On the 15th of May he
vigorously defended the peoples of the Free-soil party, claiming it to
be a Union Constitutional organization, and in forcible terms rebuked
the course of Mr. Webster.
At the close of the
session (May 23, 1851), it was ordered that the "thanks of the Senate be
presented to the Hon. Henry Wilson for the able, impartial, and
satisfactory manner in which he has discharged the duties of the chair."
In reply, he said, -
expression of your approbation excites in my bosom the liveliest
emotions of gratitude. The uniform courtesy and kindness you have all,
individually and collectively, extended to me through this protracted
session, and the kind words now spoken, give me the most ample assurance
that this vote is no formal or unmeaning compliment. Be assured,
gentlemen, be assured, I shall ever fondly cherish the recollections of
your many acts of kindness, until the heart upon which they are
indelibly engraved ceases to beat forever."
"Knowledge of human
nature," said one of the daily journals of this season, and the art of
winning the confidence of' men, are among the chief element'; of
political efficiency; and, in addition to these, Gen. Wilson possesses a
more powerful element of success in the whole-souled devotion with which
he supports the cause of freedom."
He was this year chosen
vice-president of the Legislative Temperance Society, and industriously
availed himself of every occasion to promote the temperance cause.
Appointed delegate to the
National Convention of the Free-soil party, held at Pittsburg, Penn., in
1852, he was elevated to the chair of that body, when he made an
eloquent address: he was also made chairman of the National Free-soil
Committee, in which capacity he served with fidelity and acceptance.
During this year he was supported by the Free-soil men of the Eighth
District for a seat in Congress, but failed of an election by less than
a hundred votes, although there was a heavy majority against his party
in that district. He was also urged by his political associates and by
many Democrats to become candidate for the gubernatorial chair: but, in
a public letter, he peremptorily declined a nomination.
Again he was a member
(1852), and was again elected president of the Massachusetts Senate by
sixteen out of twenty-seven votes. During the session, he assisted
vigorously in obtaining the act for a constitutional convention, and for
a law prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors; on behalf of which
he made a strong speech in February, wherein he said, "Heretofore we
have tried to regulate the sale of ardent spirits. This bill will stop
He was appointed chairman
of the legislative committee to welcome President Fillmore to
Massachusetts, and also to extend a reception to Gov. Louis Kossuth, the
distinguished Hungarian exile to our State. In company with twenty-one
senators, he met this noble advocate of freedom and humanity on his
arrival at Springfield, April 26, 1852; and, in the presence of a vast
multitude of people who had gathered to greet the heroic opponent of
Austrian despotism, gave him a cordial welcome to the hospitalities of
Massachusetts in the following eloquent and appropriate words: -
"Gov. Kossuth, in the
name and in behalf of the government, I bid you welcome to the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to the hospitalities of the authorities,
and the sincere and enthusiastic greetings of the people. I welcome you,
sir, to a Commonwealth which recognizes the unity of mankind, the
brotherhood of men and of nations, a Commonwealth where the equality of
all men before the law is fully established; where 'personal freedom
secured in its cornpletest individuality, and common consent recognized
as the only just origin of fundamental laws.'
"Welcome, sir, to the
soil consecrated to the tears and prayers of the Pilgrim exiles, and by
the first blood of the Revolution. Welcome to the halls of counciI,
where Otis and Hancock and the Adamses breathed into the nation the
breath of life; to the field of battle, where Warren and his comrades
fell fighting for freedom and the rights of man, and where the peerless
chieftain to whose tomb you have just made a pilgrimage first marshalled
the armies of the republic. Welcome to the native State of Franklin, who
pleaded the cause of his country to willing and unwilling cars in the
Old World as you are pleading the cause of your country in the New
World. Welcome to the acquaintance of a people who cherish your cause in
their hearts, and who pronounce your name with affection and admiration.
Welcome to their free institutions, - institutions of religion and of
learning and of charity, reared by the free choice of the people for the
culture of all and the relief of all, institutions which are the fruits
of freedom such as you strove to give to your fatherland, for which
crime you are this day a homeless and persecuted exile.
"To-day you are the guest
of Massachusetts. Sir, the people of Massachusetts are not
man-worshippers. They will pay you no unmeaning compliments, no empty
honors. But they know your history by heart. Your early consecration to
freedom; your years of persecution and imprisonment; your sublime
devotion to the nationality and elevation of your country; the matchless
eloquence and untiring industry with which at home you combated the
Austrian despotism, with which in exile you have pleaded the cause of
Hungarian liberty, the cause of universal democratic freedom and of
national right; the lofty steadiness of your purpose, and the stainless
purity of your life, - these have won their sympathy, and command their
profoundest admiration. Descendants of Pilgrim exiles, we greet you
warmly. Sons of Revolutionary patriots, we hail you as the exiled leader
of a noble struggle for ancient rights and national independence. We
receive you as th representative of Hungary, as the champion of
republicanism in Europe. We welcome you as we would welcome your gallant
people into the sisterhood of republics, into the family of nations.
The people of' this
Commonwealth, sir, watched the noble struggle of your nation with
admiration and with hope. They felt that the armies which you organized
and sent into the field were fighting the battles, not of Hungary alone,
but of the world, because they were fought for freedom and for progress.
Your victories were our victories; and when, by the treachery of' Gorgey,
Hungary fell before the armed intervention of Russia, they felt, and
still feel, that the czar had not only violated the rights of' Hungary,
but had outraged the law of nations and the sentiment of the civilized
world. On this subject the message of his Excellency the governor, and
the resolutions pending before the legislature, utter the sentiments of
the people of Massachusetts.
"The wave of re-action
has swept over Europe. The high hopes excited by by the revolutions of
1848 are buried in the graves and in the dungeons of' the martyrs of
freedom are quenched in the blood of' the subjugated people. The iron
heel of absolutism presses the beating hearts of the nations. The voice
of freedom is heard only in the threatening murmurs of the down-trodden
masses, or in the sad accents of their exiled leaders. But all is not
lost. God lives and reigns. The purest, the noblest, the most powerful
impulses of the great heart of humanity are for right and liberty.
Glorious actions and noble aims are never wholly lost. The
'Seed of generous
Though seeming on the desert cast,
Shall rise with flower and fruit at last.'
"When you quit the shores
of the republic you will carry with you the prayers of Massachusetts
that the days of your exile may be few, and the subjugation of your
people brief; that your country may speedily assume her proper high
position among the nations; and that you may give to her counsels in the
future, as you have given in the past, the weight of your character and
the power of your intellect to guide her onward in the career of
progress and of democratic freedom.
"Again, sir, in the name
of the government and people of Massachusetts, I welcome you to our
hearts and to our homes. I welcome you to such a reception as it becomes
a free and democratic people to give to the most illustrious living
leader and champion of freedom and democracy." [In a letter of Mr.
Sumner to Mr. Wilson, dated Senate chamber, April 29, 1852, he says,
"Seward has just come to my desk; and his first words were, 'What a
magnificent speech Wilson made to Kossuth! I have read nothing for
months which took such hold of me.' I cannot resist telling you of this,
and adding the expression of my sincere delight in what you said. It was
eloquent, wise, and apt. I am glad of this grand reception.
Massachusetts does honor to herself In thus honoring a representative of
Mr. Wilson afterwards in
an appropriate manner welcomed the illustrious exile to the Senate, and
was highly gratified with the brief interviews which he held with him;
for their opinions on the great questions of civil liberty were in
harmony, and their experience in endeavoring to maintain it brought them
into immediate personal sympathy. Mr. Wilson presided over the
deliberations of the Senate with dignity, impartiality, and acceptance.
But once only was a question raised on his decision during the time he
occupied the chair, and then but five voted against him. At the close of
his State senatorial career in the spring of 1832, he took leave of his
associates in an appropriate address; and a gold watch was presented to
him by his friends in token of his faithfulness and courtesy as the
It bears this
"HON. HENRY WILSON, FROM
MEMBERS OF THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE, 1852."
During the sessions of
the legislature in 1850-1-2, he was absent from his seat but one day,
and that was to attend the funeral of a friend. As was said of Mr.
Adams, one might as soon expect to see a pillar of the Capitol absent
from its place as Mr. Wilson from his seat.
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