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The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
Chapter VII.


MR. WILSON AT HOME. - THE STATE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. - HIS PART IN IT. - SPEECHES. - RESULT OF THE CONVENTION.

IN May, 1852, the Rev. Elias Nason was settled as pastor of the Congregational church at Natick, where he continued until the autumn of 1858. During his pastorate at Natick he found in Mr. Wilson a firm and cordial friend, ever prompt and liberal in the support of the institutions of religion and of benevolence, and ever aiding with heart and hand in the promotion of the welfare of the community. On the sabbath he was usually in his seat in church, and an attentive listener. He was always frank and open in the expression of his opinions upon every subject, whether political, social, or religious; and he loved to have other people speak with the same freedom. Plain and unaffected in his manner and his dress, he associated freely with the working-people; and the very humblest found a welcome at his open door. In the social circle the sight of his fresh and smiling countenance was indeed a benediction.

He pursued his studies with untiring energy, sometimes reading or writing - as he had once labored in the shop - fifteen or sixteen hours in succession. When he commenced upon a theme, he loved to finish his investigations ere he left it; and this often carried his labors far into the night: yet still he came forth as bright the following day as if he had spent the night in repose. His physical as well as mental system always seemed to be in splendid working-order. By looking at his clear complexion and his vigorous frame, one had an argument for temperance more eloquent than any orator could present. In his reading he was rapid and select. He chose the best, - of foreign writers, Macaulay, Hallam, Carlyle, De Tocqueville; of American, Sparks, Bancroft, Prescott, Everett. History was his favorite reading; yet now and then he spent an hour with Emerson's "Essays," Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Jane Eyre," and "David Copperfield."

In his interviews with his pastor he often expressed his profound sympathy for the slave and for the working-people, and said that his brightest hope was that he might do something in his life towards breaking the fetters of the bondman. Constitutional and civil liberty, he frequently asserted, came from the principles of the New Testament: by those principles every human being ought to be a freeman, and on those principles aggression against the slave-holding system must be made. His forecast as to the turn of the impending contest seems surprising; and, on being asked in 1867 how he came to be so "good for guessing," he replied, ''By looking, not at one point only, but on the whole field of action."

Though not then a communicant of the church, he held the church in high regard; complaining only now and then that the clergy moved too tardily in matters of reform.

"Men" misunderstand my motives, and malign my character," he often said "but I have no time nor wish to strike back-blows. I desire to advance upon the line of right and duty, and to make every one as happy as I can along the way."

This course of action gave him a cheerful spirit, and made others cheerful in his presence. His home, enlivened by the smile of an amiable wife and sprightly boy, was happy; and surrounded by affectionate friends and neighbors, who well knew his worth, and were proud of his advancement, he was considered as one of the most useful and most enviable men in that community.

When his pastor left Natick, Mr. Wilson, with a tear in his eye, came up to him, and said, "I am a poor man; but take this in remembrance, and I wish it were a hundred times as much."

On the fourth day of May, 1853, the convention for the revision and amendment of the Constitution of the State assembled in the State House, Boston. This instrument, framed in 1780, was revised in 1820; and through successive changes in legislation, and the progress of' liberal ideas among the people, evidently needed re-examination, and, in respect to some of its articles, improvement. The act of the legislature for holding this convention was obtained by a hard struggle on the part of time progressive members; and, to form it, some of the ablest legislators in the State as Rufus Choate, George S. Boutwell, Benjamin F. Butler, George S. Hillard, N. P. Banks, and Benjamin F. Hallett were elected. Mr. Wilson was chosen by the town of Natick, and also by the town of Berlin. "On Monday last," he pleasantly said in the convention, "I visited the people of that town for the first time in my life (perhaps, if they had known me better, they would not have elected me); and I told the people that I would serve them to the best of my ability, if they desired it; but, under the circumstances, I should be under great obligations to them if they would allow me to resign as delegate from their town: and I obtained their unanimous vote to that effect." He was appointed chairman of the committee for the best mode of proceeding in the business of the convention, and also chairman of the committee on that part of the Constitution relating to the Senate. He set himself at work in this body with his usual zeal and industry: he took a leading part in its debates, and made many able and effective speeches. During the whole session, running through ninety days, he was not absent from his seat more than thirty minutes; and every paper, every motion, every speech, received the attention of his observant eye or ear. True to the sentiments he had so frequently expressed, his voice was always heard in the defence of equal rights, of the cause of human freedom, and of the working-people. He met the conservative element in the convention courteously, but fearlessly; and by standing firmly to his point, and supporting himself by quick appeals to the principles of equity, to present need or past experience, he often gained the victory.

On being asked one day why he ventured, ignorant as he was of law, to meet on certain legal questions gentlemen eminent for their knowledge of the law, his characteristic answer was, "Such men in things by their abstractions and their technicalities; whereas by using common sense, and looking at things fairly, fearlessly in the face, we generally come out right."

During the illness of Mr. Banks, the speaker of the convention, he was appointed to the chair, and presided ably over the deliberations. Among his speeches in this body, that in favor of election by the majority instead of the plurality vote, that against an elective judiciary, that against the limitation of the State credit, as also that in opposition to the tax qualification of the voter, may be cited as evincing marked ability. In regard to the admission of colored persons into the military service of the State, he nobly said, "The first victim of the Boston massacre, on the 5th of March, 1770, which made the fires of resistance burn more intensely, was a colored man. Hundreds of colored men entered the ranks, and fought bravely on all the fields of the Revolution. Graydon of Pennsylvania, in his Memoirs, informs us that many of the Southern officers disliked the New-England regiments because so many colored men were in their ranks. At Red Bank they received the commendation of their commander for their gallant conduct. A colored battalion was organized for the defence of New Orleans, and Gen. Jackson publicly thanked them for their courage and conduct. When the country has required their blood in days of trial and conflict, they have given it freely, and we have accepted it; but in times of peace, when their blood is not needed, we spurn and trample them under foot. I have no part in this great wrong to a race. Whenever and wherever we have the power to do it, I would give to all men of every clime and race, of every faith and creed, freedom and equality before the law. My voice and my vote shall ever be given for the equality of all the children of men before the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States."

His remarks on the death of his friend Francis R. Gourgas, which occurred on the twelfth day of July, are beautiful as they are just: "The death of a member of this convention," said he, "could not but be received with mournful sadness by us all. But., sir, he who has fallen was a friend of many years. In 1842, eleven years ago, it was my privilege to meet him upon the floor of this House. Then I formed a personal acquaintance with him, an acquaintance which ripened into a personal friendship which has been continued from that day to this. I have ever found him a man

'Of soul sincere,
In action faithful, and in honor clear.'

"During the last five years, it has been my peculiar fortune to meet him on many occasions connected with public affairs; and, sir, I can truly say, that, among all my acquaintances and friends, I know of no one among the living who excelled him in ripe and sound judgment, in discretion and prudence. He was a man of inflexible purpose, of integrity undoubted. He entertained his own opinions with the tenacity of sincere conviction; and at the same time, in carrying out those opinions, he always exercised the greatest prudence, discretion, and wisdom. It was his fortune, years ago, to enter upon the duties of editor of a leading political journal in the town of Concord. In the severe political conflicts of those times, he doubtless had many strong opponents; but in his own town of Concord he enjoyed the confidence, the respect, and the affection of men of all parties. His townsmen and neighbors loved and honored him; for they knew his worth.

Having a family of three children, an accomplished, intelligent, and faithful wife, he has, during the past few years, devoted himself, when not engaged in the duties of public life, to the welfare of his family, and to the cultivation of his beautiful garden. His library, for which he had recently fitted up an appropriate room, reflected the refinement of his taste and the cultivation of his mind, He was surrounded by every thing to make life agreeable and desirable. But, sir, he has fallen, fallen in the vigor and maturity of his manhood, - mourned by all his neighbors, and deeply regretted by all his associates and friends in political life. In him I have lost an associate and friend whose name and memory I shall ever cherish with affection until my heart shall cease to beat.

"A comrade has fallen. We may pause for a moment, and drop a tear of affection to his memory; but duty compels us to close up the ranks, and hurry on in the performance of life's labors."

His speech on the course pursued by the friends of Harvard College in respect to Prof. Francis Bowen, who had been set aside from his professorship, as Mr. Wilson stated, for "misquoting, misstating, and garbling historical authorities," is marked with manly farce.

"I do not, sir, mean to charge it " [the restoration of Mr. Bowen], "directly or indirectly, to the corporators of that institution. I charge it upon a certain class of individuals, who seem to think that they own the institution, president, corporators, overseers, and all, a class of individuals who assume it to be their mission to keep Harvard College from the influences of the outside barbarians. I would not, if I could, take Harvard College from one sect of religionists, and place it under the control of another sect. I would not take it from the control of one political party, and place it under the control of another political party. I would introduce into its government men of all religions sects and of all political parties; men of genius and knowledge; men devoted to the cause of sound learning and literature; men of liberal ideas; men who would bring that institution, founded by our fathers in their days of weakness, abreast of the progressive march of the age, and within the circle of popular sympathy.

"Mr. President, in 1850, Francis Bowen, editor of 'The North-American Review,' was nominated professor of history by the corporators of Harvard College. On the sixth day of February, 1851, his nomination came up for confirmation before the board of overseers in the Senate- chamber. A majority of the board of overseers of that year believed that he entertained sentiments and opinions which unfitted him to be a teacher of history in that university, or anywhere else in America; and he was rejected, ignominiously rejected, - rejected for sentiments and opinions that disqualified him to be the teacher of American youth; and rejected, also, for the historical ignorance he had shown; for the perversions, misquotations, and blunders he had made in defending his obnoxious sentiments and opinions.

"Sir, I ask the gentleman from Boston (Mr. Lothrop) if the nomination of Francis Bowen to the professorship of history by the corporation of Harvard College, in 1850, was an evidence of the desire of the men who control that institution to keep it along with the wants of the people and the spirit of the age. Are such sentiments and opinions as Bowen has expressed for years through 'The North- American Review' such sentiments and opinions as fit him to teach the young men of Massachusetts and of the country? Are such historical mistakes, blunders, and perversions, as he has exhibited in his Hungarian controversy, evidences of qualifications to teach the young men of Harvard? Is such dishonesty as he has shown in garbling historical authorities an evidence of fitness for the chair of the professorship of history in the oldest university of the country? Is such a temper as he has manifested in the controversies growing out of his historical discussions an evidence of his fitness, of his impartiality? His sentiments, opinions, historical ignorance, mistakes, perversions, blunders, plagiarisms, and garbling of authorities, were not unknown to the corporators when his name, in January, 1851, was submitted to the board of overseers. When, on the 6th of February, his nomination came up for confirmation, they were there, not to withdraw the nomination in obedience to the almost united voice of the American press and the American people, who loathed and abhorred his sentiments; but they, and the peculiar friends of the college, were there to sustain the man whom the voice of the people had pronounced unfit to be the teacher of American youth. And, sir, when the majority of the board of overseers had rejected their nomination, that board of corporators, sustained by the self-constituted friends of the college, seized the first accidental opportunity which turned up to place that man in the chair of the professorship of moral philosophy.

These men knew Bowen's sentiments; they knew he had been proved ignorant of the subjects he professed to understand; they knew he had been convicted of dishonesty in garbling, perverting, and misquoting historical authorities; they knew that the public, with a voice approaching unanimity, demanded his rejection: yet they pressed his nomination; and, when that nomination was rejected, they seized the first opportunity to obtain a snap-judgment for him, and placed him in a professor's chair. Does the member from. Boston (Mr. Lothrop) think this an evidence of liberality, of a desire to keep along with popular opinion?

Mr. President, the men who have thus, in defiance of the popular voice, sustained Francis Bowen, cannot plead ignorance of his sentiments and opinions. For several years he has edited 'The North-American Review,'- a journal which claims to be the leading literary arm of the country, but which, in comparison with the English reviews, in ability, learning, and scholarship, is like a Cape-Cod fishing-smack compared to a line-of-battle ship. Through the columns of this journal, for years, he has avowed sentiments and opinions which show that whatever passes through his mind is perverted; that it is impossible for him to give a truthful and philosophic view of the events of history in the Old World or in the New, of the events of the past, or of the events of the present day. Narrow, bigoted, intolerant, he, and the class of which he is the head, have converted 'The North-American Review,'- once graced by the genius and learning of Edward Everett, and the ripe scholarship and comprehensive views of Alexander H. Everett; a journal once presided over by that liberal and true-hearted scholar, John G. Palfrey; by Jared Sparks, who has done more for American history than any other man in the country; and by other eminent men, who made 'The Review' worthy of the country and of its rising literature, - he, and the class of which he is the head, have converted that Review into a narrow, intolerant, bigoted organ of that conservatism which shrinks from every thing progressive at home or abroad. Could the spirit of William Gifford - who battled with such ferocious vigor and ability through 'The London Quarterly Review' against the spirit of progress, against the rights of the many, and for the exclusive privileges of the few come back to earth, he would be delighted with its tone of fanatical conservatism, if he did not feel utter contempt for its want of power, vigor, learning, and ability. Through the columns of that journal, Francis Bowen has poured out his slanders and libels upon the great leaders of European republicanism. Men illustrious for genius, ability, learning, eloquence, and self-sacrificing patriotism; men who have perilled all for the cause of republicanism; men who have been driven into exile for their devotion to popular rights, - are sneered at, libelled, and slandered by this professor of history, this teacher of moral philosophy, through the pages of his journal.

"When the re-action of 1850 overran Europe; when the high hopes excited by the popular revolutions of 1848 were buried in the graves and dungeons of the martyrs of freedom, quenched in the blood of the people; when the voice of freedom was heard only in the murmurs of the down-trodden masses, or in the sad accents of their exiled leaders; when Hungary went down before the armed intervention of Russia; when the hopes of Italy fell before the soldiers of Louis Napoleon; when the hopes of the friends of republicanism in France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and on all the continent, had failed; when the prisons were crowded with patriots; when banishment was the sad fate of some of the noblest men of the age; when Kossuth was languishing in his Turkish exile, - Francis Bowen placed 'The North-American Review' on the side of the oppressor, and falsified and garbled even the oppressor's historical authorities, in order to blast the names of the champions of freedom. When Kossuth was in a Turkish prison, Francis Bowen sneeringIy called him 'a renegade,' 'a fanatic and ultraist,' 'a demagogue and radical of the lowest stamp.' Such were the epithets applied to one whom so many now here have welcomed to this Commonwealth, where lie won all hearts by his noble qualities of mind and character. Mazzini, Garibaldi, and the Italian patriots, are denounced as 'conspirators ' and ' brigands.' And, sir, this man, this libeller of European republicanism, this narrow, bigoted advocate of a conservatism that shrinks from all change, is the man selected by the corporators of Harvard College to teach the young men of that university history and moral philosophy!"

After the close of the convention Mr. Wilson published an address to his constituents, in which he explains with remarkable clearness the nature, and recommends the adoption, of the proposed amendments. The State, however, refused to sanction them by its vote; and the reason for it appears in the concluding part of his remarks:-

"Ardent friends of constitutional reform may have felt a degree of disappointment at the action of the convention upon some questions deemed by them of the first importance. These friends of reform should remember that Massachusetts is an old Commonwealth; that she has a history, a glorious past, full of recollections and memories. They should remember that her people cherish with affectionate regard the works and memories of their glorious ancestry: they will not touch with irreverent hand the works achieved by their fathers. They should remember that the people of Massachusetts instinctively shrink from all untried experiments. They should also remember that the first proposition for a convention to revise the Constitution was lost in 1851, and that in 1852 it was carried by immense efforts. Recalling to mind these facts, they cannot fail to realize the profound wisdom of that policy by which the convention was guided, - a policy which refused to peril wise and beneficent measures of reform by the adoption of untried and hazardous experiments, or radical changes which the people were not prepared to sustain. The men of the majority of the convention, the men whose untiring efforts had carried the convention before the people against powerful combinations and great interests, the men whose efforts had secured more than a hundred majority of reformers in the convention, clearly saw that the hope, the last and only hope, of the leaders of the opposition, who had denied the constitutionality of the act calling the convention, who had voted against it two years in the legislature, opposed it before the people, and demanded its repeal by the legislature of 1853, depended solely upon the adoption of untried experiments and radical changes. When the chiefs of the opposition saw that the men who had proposed and carried the convention, and were a controlling majority in it, were masters of their work, they showed unmistakable signs that the last hope to which they clung had forever vanished, and that the battle was lost.

"The organs of that conservatism which has, to use the words of Rufus Choate, 'a morbid, unreasoning, and regretful passion for the past,' are now making unwonted efforts to rally, steady, and marshal the reeling columns and oscillating ranks of the opposition."


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