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The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
Chapter VI.


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 continent.

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: -


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.

Sincerely yours,



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, -

"Senators, this 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 it."

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 sacrifice,
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 freedom."]

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 presiding officer.

It bears this inscription: -


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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