Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
Chapter I.


ONE of the essential benefits of liberal institutions is the opportunity afforded by them for developing the mental energies of the masses of the population. Freedom is the fostering mother of the intellect and intelligence of the entire people.

The voice of civil liberty, like that of Christianity, is, "Ho! every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money; and whosoever will, let him come." Hence America is the best country in the world for men to make themselves.

"Sometimes," remarked an intelligent Japanese, "we express our feelings in Japan: opinions we have none."

Here we entertain opinions; we express them freely; and, through the clashing of opinions, make advancement. Our destiny is placed in our own hands; and every man is rated, as he ought to be, according to his worth. There is the goal, the prize: the track is clear, and the best champion wins.

Thus from the bosom of the people came up Washington, Jackson, Clay, and Lincoln; and thus arose the legislator whose career we now attempt to trace.

Henry Wilson is the son of Winthrop and Abigail Colbath; and was born in Farmington, N.H., on the sixteenth day of February, 1812. His father was the son of Winthrop Colbath; and was born in that town on the seventh day of April, 1787; and died in Natick, Mass., on the tenth day of February, 1860. His mother was born on the twenty-first day of March, 1785; and died on the eighth day of August, 1866. They rest side by side in the cemetery at Natick, where the son has erected marble headstones to their memory.

The Colbath family, originally, as supposed, from Argyleshire in Scotland, emigrated to the north of Ireland in the troublesome times of James the First; thence to America, and settled at Newington, N.H., early in the eighteenth century.

At the time of Mr. Wilson's birth, his parents were living in a small cottage on the right bank of the Cocheco River, about one mile south of the "Dock," as the village of Farmington was then called. The site of the cottage is on a gentle eminence commanding a pleasant prospect of the river and surrounding country.

Farmington, which is in Strafford County, and about thirty-five miles north-east from Concord, and seventeen north-west from Dover, contained, at this period, about twelve hundred inhabitants; and they were mostly engaged in agricultural pursuits. They earned their livelihood by the sweat of the brow. They had but slender educational advantages; and their style of speech, of dress, of building, and of life in general, was plain and unpretending. They generally spun and wove their own garments from wool of their own raising. They stored their barns with hay in summer, their cellars with apples and cider in the autumn. They spent the long winter evenings around the ample fireplace in shelling corn, making brooms, cracking nuts, singing songs, and telling stories of the times gone by.

Mr. Winthrop Colbath was a poor day-laborer, engaged for many years in running a saw-mill on the river below his house. He was rather tall, good-looking, agile, brave, and quick at repartee. His wife was handsome, fond of reading, sensible, and industrious. Her eyes were very keen and piercing. For his father and mother Mr. Wilson ever entertained and cherished the most affectionate and kind regard.

Like other indigent and hard-working people of New England, Mr. Wilson's parents saw the value of the public school, and early introduced their bright-eyed son to the tuition of Mistress Guy, who quickly taught him how to read and spell, from Perry's "Spelling-Book" and "The Primer," in the old wooden schoolhouse.

He was a studious and obedient pupil, improving well the opportunities he had for learning in his boyhood.

The school-books at that time in Farmington were Welch's and Adams's "Arithmetics," "The English Reader," "The American Preceptor," and "The Columbian Orator." Over these this boy spent many an hour in the long seats of the unpainted district schoolhouse and whatever entered his retentive memory remained as in a vice, - fixed and unchangeable.

When he was about seven years old, his father built a small house in front of an old grove of pines, just where the Cocheco River makes a beautiful bend to the right, and to this place removed his little family. Nothing now remains to indicate the spot except the cellar, and some peach and cherry trees growing in the enclosure.

When he was eight years old (1820), a little incident took place which had some influence upon his future course of life. Mrs. Anstress (Woodbury) Eastman, wife of the Hon. Nehemniah Eastman, and sister of the lion. Levi Woodbury, seeing him pass her house, called him to her, gave him some clothes of which he was in need, and inquired if lie knew how to read. "Yes, pretty well," he answered her. "Come, then, and see me at my house to-morrow," she replied with kindness. Early the next morning lie presented himself before the lady ; when she said to him, "I had intended to give a Testament to some good boy that would be likely to make a proper use of it. You tell me you can read: now take this book, and let me hear you." lie read a chapter in the Testament.

"Now carry the book home with you," said she, "read it entirely through, and you shall have it."

Gladly he accepted the condition; for a book he had never owned, and to him it was a golden treasure. He hurried home to read it. After seven days he called again at Mrs. Eastman's house, and said to her that he had read time book from beginning to end.

"It cannot be!" said Mrs. Eastman with surprise.

"But let me try you." So, calling him to her side, she carefully examined him till she was fully satisfied that he had read the Testament entirely through, and fairly won the prize he coveted.

Mr. Wilson has publicly declared that the reading of this Testament, which he still keeps, together with the subsequent examination, was the starting-point in his intellectual life.

The times, especially for the working-men, were very gloomy at this period. The war with England had unpoverished the country. Money was scarce; wages were low. Want and sickness entered the Colbath family. Three of the little children died, and were buried in the field opposite the house. In reference to these days of trial, Mr. Wilson once, in public, said, "I was born in poverty: Want sat by my cradle. I know what it is to ask a mother for bread when she has none to give."

So, in his reply to Mr. Hammond, who had characterized working-men as "the mud-sills of society," he thus touchingly alluded to these early days of trial.

"Poverty cast her dark and chilling shadow over the home of my childhood, and Want was there sometimes an unbidden guest. At the age of ten years, to aid him who gave me being in keeping the gaunt spectre from the hearth of the mother who bore me, I left the home of my boyhood, and went to earn my bread by 'daily labor.'"

This active boy, nurtured in adversity, had a vigorous constitution: above all, he had an inspiration; and a boy with an inspiration is far better than a boy with a great fortune.

In the summer of 1822 he was bound by indenture to a hard-working farmer of' the neighborhood to serve him on his farm until the age of twenty-one. By the terms of the indenture, he was to have one month's schooling in the winter, food and raiment, with six sheep and a yoke of oxen to be delivered to him at the expiration of his time of service. He went to live with Mr. Knight upon the seventh day of August, being then a little more than ten years old, and began at once the hard work of the farm. As he increased in age, his toil became more steady and severe. In summer he swung the scythe, or handled the sickle, till the evening stars appeared: in winter he cut timber in the forest.

But while thus laboring uncomplainingly, and developing by incessant toil his physical system, he was also turning every moment he could save from house and farm work to the improvement of his mind. He read with intense avidity whatever books came in his way; and he remembered what he read.

"I believe," says Walter Scott, "one reason why such numerous instances of erudition occur among the lower ranks is, that, with the same powers of mind, the poor student is limited to a narrow circle for indulging his passion for books, and must necessarily make himself master of the few he possesses ere he call more."

This poor boy had, at first, no books except his Testament and the text-books of the district school. He read them over and over again, committed many parts of them to memory, and longed for more. Mrs. Eastman, as a kind of guardian angel, still watched over him. She noticed his regard for books: she kindly made selections for him from her husband's library, and lent him volume after volume. This was a godsend to him. Every moment he could now steal from toil was spent in reading. This was his pastime and his recreation. Some of the happiest moments of his life were spent in running, when work was over, to the dwelling of his benefactress for another book. By the light of the kitchen-fire —for he had no money to purchase oil - he went through volume after volume; sometimes reading on, unconscious of the flight of time, until the morning broke. In this way he perused the leading works of the British and American statesmen and historians, the fascinating pages of Irving, Cooper, and Scott, all the then published numbers of "The North-American Review," and many other current publications of the day.

Judge Whitehouse of Farmington also lent him many books, and directed him in his course of reading. It was fortunate that he met with such intelligent guides, and that the best works in English and American literature thus fell into his hands; for it is the quality rather than the quantity of the material received into the mind that yields valuable increase.

So industriously had this hard-working boy availed himself of these means of culture, that, at the expiration of his time of service (February, 1833), he had read, and then held in mind, nearly a thousand volumes of history, biography, philosophy, and general literature. Thus he bore away from that hard farm more solid information, and a heart better prepared to toil and to achieve, than many bear away with the diploma from the university.

To the interests of his employer he was ever faithful. His eye was quick, his judgment clear; his health was good; his habits were correct; and hence his services were valuable.

On closing them he received the promised compensation, - six sheep and a yoke of oxen, all of which he sold immediately for the sum of eighty-four dollars cash. So poor had he been up to this period, that he had never possessed two dollars; and a single dollar would cover every penny he had ever spent.

Having now arrived at the age of twenty-one, he, by an act of the legislature, had his name changed from Jeremiah Jones Colbath to Henry Wilson. This was done by the advice of the family he had lived with, and with the approval of his parents.

The question now before Mr. Wilson was, "How shall I obtain a livelihood, and assist my father and his family?" He set himself at once to seek employment; and the struggles which it cost him to obtain it will forever keep alive his sympathies for the working-people.

He hired himself for several months in Farmington; but the compensation was so trivial, that he soon resolved to leave his native town, and find work elsewhere. He packed up his clothes and visited several places, seeking for it, but in vain. He himself shall tell the story. Addressing the citizens of Great Falls last February, he said, -

"I know what it is to travel weary miles, and ask my fellow-men to give me leave to toil. I remember, that, in 1833, I walked into your village from my native town, and went through your mills, seeking employment. If anybody had offered me eight or nine dollars a month, I should have accepted it gladly. I went down to Salmon Falls, I vent to Dover, I went to Newmarket, and tried to get work, without success; and I returned home weary, but not discouraged, and put my pack on my back, walked to the town where I now live, and learned a mechanic's trade. I know the hard lot that toiling men have to endure in this world; and every pulsation of of my heart, every conviction of my judgment, puts me on the side of the toiling men of my country, ay, of all countries. I am glad the working-men in Europe are getting discontented and want better wages. I thank God that a man in the United States to-day can earn from three to four dollars in tell work easier than he could, forty years ago, earn one dollar, working from twelve to fifteen hours. The first month I worked after I was twenty-one years of age, I went into the woods, drove team, cut mill-logs, rose in the morning before daylight, and worked hard until after dark at night; and I received for it the magnificent sum of six dollars! - and, when I got the money, those dollars looked as large to me as the moon looks to-night."

Unsuccessful in obtaining employment in New Hampshire, Mr. Wilson finally determined to seek his fortune in the State of Massachusetts. He had heard of the prices paid for making shoes in the enterprising town of Natick: hence he resolved to go there, and to try a new vocation. He had learned to endure hardship without murmuring. His hand and eye were well trained; his head was clear; his heart was honest; his store of knowledge large; he had a sound mind in a sound body. His purpose was to work: what, then, could be expected of him but success?

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus