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The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
Chapter VIII.


ALTHOUGH Mr. Wilson received in September of this year (1853) all but three of the six hundred votes of the Free Democratic Convention as their candidate for governor, he failed of an election. This was owing mainly to a letter of Mr. Caleb Cushing, denouncing, on behalf of the administration, the union of the Democrats with the Reform party, and to the animosity of the Whigs, arising from the active part Mr. Wilson took in support of liberal principles in the Constitutional Convention. In spite of this combination, however, over thirty thousand votes were thrown for him; and neither he himself, nor his supporters, wavered in their purpose or their hopes. Defeat was, to them, the signal for renewed vigilance and exertion. The Southern Congress - men were pressing their proslavery measures with more and more audacity; while the Northern members, Charles Stunner and his few compeers excepted, anxious for personal power, and intimidated by the constant threatening of a dissolution of the Union, presented but a feeble opposition. It was not the time for the friends of the slave, though defeated, to full back, or to be disheartened. "The principles of civil freedom," said Mr. Wilson,  "spring from the New Testament; and the word of the Lord will stand. Let us, then, go forward."

In the following year (1854) the attempt to abrogate the Missouri Compromise (carried into effect May 31), and thus extend the blight of slavery over the vast domains of Kansas and Nebraska, threw the country into intense excitement. Mr. Wilson went to Washington in May, and held a consultation with the opponents of the Kansas and Nebraska Bill, then pending, in the hope of uniting men opposed to slavery into one solid organization against its further extension over the States and Territories of the Union. His grand idea was free labor for the whole continent of America. For party, or for name or men, he had but little care, provided he could in any way arrest the encroachments of the slave-power, and make advancement towards the consummation of his purpose. His thought was one, - it was earnest and sincere, - "and that was, death to human servitude." He would not, unless compelled, resort to force, but was ready to unite with any organization for the overthrow of a system which he deemed indefensible either by the laws of God, of nature, or humanity, opposed to civil progress, barbarous and cruel, and a dishonor and disgrace to the American name. He was called an agitator: he had no time to answer, but moved onward. Finding that the Free-soil party had not strength to meet the exigency, he avowed, in a convention of this body held in Boston on the last day of the month (May), that they were ready to abandon every thing but principle, and unite with men of any political standard for the sake of union in resisting the aggressive policy of the South. They were willing to place any men in power who would stand faithful to the cause of freedom and of human right. "They were ready," he declared, "to go to the rear. If a forlorn hope was to be led, they would lead it. it. They would toil others might take the lead, hold the offices, and win the honors. The hour had come to forin one great Republican party, which should hereafter guide the policy and control the destinies of the republic."

For the purpose of' uniting political parties on the slave-question, a convention was held in Worcester on the tenth day of August, 1854; and there, again, Mr. Wilson and his associates urged with great force and ability the fusion of the different organizations into one grand body for the effectual resistance of the aggressive policy of the South. The Free-soil party would concede everything but principle: all they demanded was the acceptance of their doctrines of perpetual hostility to the slave-power." These overtures were steadily rejected by the Whig element in the convention; yet, with unabated energy, Mr. Wilson continued to press the importance of merging every political creed in one. In his desire to combine the antislavery elements in the State, he accepted the nomination of the Republicans for governor, and was again defeated at the election. For entering into the American organization this year, his course was criticised by many: but the people, finding union under the Whig leadership impossible, went into that party; and he, believing that it might be so liberalized and broadened in its principles as to advance the cause of freedom, decided (March, 1854) to cast in his influence with them. Personally he is, and ever was, a friend to the foreigner, and ever bids him welcome to the rights and privileges of this free country: but then the slave-power was triumphant in the passage of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; and he deemed it advisable to array, as far as possible, the powerful American organization against the proslavery propagandists. In his expectations he was not disappointed; for this union resulted in the election of several liberal men as representatives to Congress, and "of the most radical antislavery State legislature ever chosen in America."

In a letter dated April 20, 1859, he thus presents the course of policy which he has undeviatingly pursued; and in it we may discover the reason of his union with the American party: -

"For more than twenty years I have believed the antislavery cause to be the great cause of our age in America, - a cause which overshadowed all other issues, state or national, foreign or domestic. In my political action I have ever endeavored to make it the paramount question, and to subordinate all minor issues to this one grand and comprehensive idea. It seems to me that the friends of a cause so vast, so sacred, should ever strive to save it from being burdened by the pressure of temporary interests and local and comparatively immaterial questions. With the issues involved in the solution of the slavery question in America, with the lights I have to guide my action, I should feel, if I put a burden on the antislavery cause by pressing the adoption of measures of minor importance, that I was committing a crime against millions of hapless bondmen, and should deserve their lasting reproaches and the rebuke of all true men who were toiling to dethrone that gigantic power which perverts the National Government to the interest of oppression."

Mr. Wilson, as an acknowledged leader, evinced the skill of a practised engineer in so blending and combining political parties as to form a legislature of all character. But it will be remembered that the sentiment of the State against the aggressions and the insolence of the South had for several years been steadily gaining strength. The passage of the Fugitive-slave Act, 1850, by which the North became a vast slave-hunting field; the trial and rendition of Anthony Burns in 1854 the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, by which the Missouri Compromise was virtually repealed; the border-ruffianism and the reign of terror in Kansas, in whiuch many people from Massachusetts lost their property or their lives, - these with other acts and outrages of the slaveholding party, whose policy was to select for leaders Northern men with Southern principles, awakened more and more the indignation of this State. The pulpit began to speak upon the theme; the press proclaimed the iniquity; the workman in his workshop talked of the Missourian barbarities in Kansas; and the statesman showed the suicidal policy of the South: so that the anti-servile legislature of 1855 was but an exponent of the spirit of the State; and Mr. Wilson, as he himself declared, "instead of controlling circumstances, was, by the force of circumstances," led into success.

While the heart of the Commonwealth was throbbing under the arrogant assumption of the slavocracy, now triumphing in the reclamation of the fugitive, in the atrocities of the Missourians in Kansas, and the subserviency of a Northern president, Mr. Edward Everett, on account of failing health, sent in his resignation to the Senate. Mr. Sumner was making great efforts to resist Southern influence, and dealing gallant blows in defence of freedom. Now, who shall be sent to stand by him? Who shall take the place of the accomplished orator, four years of whose term were unexpired, and face with all front the issues on the floor of Congress? Who has the historical knowledge, the legislative skill, the statesmanship, the honesty, the unconquerable will, the force, and the backbone, to meet the exigency? Who can best represent the principles, the spirit, and the fire of Massachusetts in the Senate-chamber? The answer of the State was, "Henry Wilson." On the first ballot in the caucus he was nominated, notwithstanding strenuous opposition, by a majority of more than a hundred votes. Pending the election, several gentlemen in favor of nationalizing the American party solicited him to write a letter modifying his avowed opinions oil slavery question, that they might, consistently with their political principles, give him their support. They might as easily have moved the granite hills from which he came. He assured them that his opinions on slavery question were the matured convictions of his life, and that he would not qualify them to win the highest position on earth; that he had not travelled one mile [In a letter to Hon. Gilbert Pillsbury, dated Natick, March 10, 1855, he says, You also know that I never travelled a single mile to secure a vote, or asked s single member of the House or Senate to vote for me.] nor uttered one word to secure his nomination; that, if elected, he should carry his opinions with him into the Senate; and, if the party with which he acted proved recreant to freedom, he would shiver it, if he possessed the power, to atoms.

He was elected by two hundred and thirty-four to a hundred and thirty votes in the House, and twenty-one to nineteen votes in the Senate; [N. F. Bryant of Barre and J. A. Rockwell were the principal opposing candidates in the House, and B. M. Wright in the Senate.] and took his seat in the Senate of the United States on the tenth day of February, 1855. It was a time of wild and stormy debate in Congress on great questions between the friends and foes of slavery. The Southern men were combining with a section of the American party of the North, and presenting an unbroken front against the advocates of freedom. They seemed to menace and to fight, as if the crisis and the doom of their inhuman domination had arrived. The great "Northern hammer," wielded by the stalwart arm of Giddings, Hale, or Sumner, was descending with effect; and the cry of "No more slave States" was pealing through the land.

The halls of Congress rang with fierce invective, threats of violence, and oaths of condign punishment. "To me," said Mr. Giddings, "it is a severer trial of human nerve than the facing of cannon and bullets on the battle-field."

Mr. Wilson was now forty-three years old, [The following description of Mr. Wilson's personal appearance was written at the time: "The senator from Massachusetts is about five feet ten inches high; and weighs, I should think, about a hundred and sixty-five pounds. He has a small hand and foot, and seems built for agility. His complexion is florid, his hair brown, and his eye blue. His ample brow Indicates ideality and causation; his voice Is strong and clear. He is, on the whole, decidedly good-looking; and seems fearless and good-natured In the performance of his senatorial.] he had arrived at the full vigor of manhood; his health was perfect; his principles were fixed, his plans matured; his heart and hand were ready for the contest; and, on entering that tumultuous assembly, he took position at once, and stood firm as a rock for truth and liberty. Though he had not the grace or rhetoric of his predecessor, he had the knowledge, the tact, the working-power, the dauntless heroism, which come to the front when mighty interests are at stake.

In his first speech in the Senate he announced his determination fearlessly to stand with his antislavery friends in the defence of the rights of the colored race. It was upon the bill of Mr. Toucey of Connecticut, "to protect persons executing the Fugitive-slave Act from prosecution by State courts." "Now, sir," said Mr. Wilson, "I assure senators from the South that we of the free States mean to change our policy. I tell you frankly just how we feel, and just what we propose to do. We mean to withdraw from these halls that class of public men who have betrayed us and deceived you, - men who have misrepresented us, and not dealt frankly with you; and we intend to send men into these halls who will truly represent us, and deal justly with you. We mean, sir, to place in the councils of the nation men who, in the words of Jefferson, 'have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every kind of oppression of the mind and body of man.' Yes, sir, we mean to place in the national councils men who cannot be seduced by the blandishments, or deterred by the threats, of power, - men who will fearlessly maintain our principles. I assure senators from the South that the people of the North entertain for them and their people no feelings of hostility; but they will no longer consent to be misrepresented by their own representatives, nor proscribed for their fidelity to freedom. This determination of the people of the North has manifested itself during the past few months in acts not to be misread by the country. The stern rebuke administered to faithless Northern representatives, and the annihilation of old and powerful political organizations, should teach senators that the days of waning power are upon them. This action of the people teaches the lesson, which I hope will be heeded, that political combinations can no longer be successfully made to suppress the sentiments of the people. We believe we have the power to abolish slavery in all the Territories of the Union; that, if slavery exists there, it exists by the permission and sanction of the Federal Government, and we are responsible for it. We are in favor of its abolition wherever we are morally or legally responsible for its existence.

I believe conscientiously, that if slavery should be abolished by the National Government in the District of Columbia and in the Territories, the Fugitive-slave Act repealed, the Federal Government relieved from all connection with or responsibility for the existence of slavery, these angry debates banished from the halls of Congress, and slavery left to the people of the States, the men of the South who are opposed to the existence of that institution would get rid of it in their own States at no distant day. I believe, that, if slavery is ever peacefully abolished in this country,-and I certainly believe it will be, - it must be abolished in this way.

The senator from Indiana (Mr. Pettit) has made a long argument to-night to prove the inferiority of the African race. Well, sir, I have no contest with the senator upon that question; but I say to the senator from Indiana, that I know men of that race who are quite equal in mental power to either the senator from Indiana or myself, - men who are scarcely inferior, in that respect, to any senators upon this floor. But, sir, suppose the senator from Indiana succeeds in establishing the inferiority of that despised race: is mental inferiority a valid reason for the perpetual oppression of a race? Is the mental, moral, or physical inferiority of a man a just cause of oppression in republican and Christian America? Sir, is this democracy? Is it Christianity? Democracy cares for the poor, the lowly, the humble. Democracy demands that the panoply of just and equal laws shall shield and protect the weakest of the sons of men. Sir, these are strange doctrines to hear uttered in the Senate of republican America, whose political institutions are based upon the fundamental idea that 'all men are are created equal.' If the African race is inferior, this proud race of ours should educate and elevate it, and not deny to those who belong to it the rights of our common humanity.

"The senator from Indiana boasts that his State imposes a fine upon the white man who gives employment to the free black man. I am not surprised at the degradation of the colored people of Indiana, who are compelled to live under such inhuman laws, and oppressed by the public sentiment that enacts and sustains them. I thank God, sir, Massachusetts is not dishonored by such laws! In Massachusetts we have about seven thousand colored people. They have the same rights that we have; they go to our free schools; they enter all the business and professional relations of life; they vote in our elections; and, in intelligence and character, are scarcely inferior to the citizens of this proud and peerless race whose superiority we have heard so vauntingly proclaimed to-night by the senators from Tennessee and Indiana."

Mr. Wilson's uncompromising attitude in the Senate drew forth many expressions of admiration even from his political opponents at home. The following frank letter from the late Hon. George Ashmun indicates the spirit with which many, who then disagreed with him, regarded his consistent action:-

SPRINGFIELD, Feb. 28, 1855.

DEAR Sir,-This world has many seemingly queer changes. It seems queer to see you in the United-States Senate, and perhaps more queer for me to say to you an approving word. But I have a short memory for wrongs which are merely personal to myself, and am quite ready to do justice in spite of some needless abusive things which the newspapers have formerly reported from you. I therefore sit down for a moment to say that your letter to "The Organ," and some brief speeches in the Senate, have given me entire satisfaction. It is not very important for me to say it, nor for you to hear it but, having myself cut loose from all party alliances for the present and the future, I can afford to do what a party man cannot; i.e., tell the truth of friend or foe.

Your demonstrations thus far show two things: 1st, That, when a man of sense finds himself in a national position, he is quite sure to throw off the slough of provincialism; and, 2d, That, whatever your antecedents may have been, you have the courage to take ground which men of sense at home will sustain you in.

I mean to see in you nothing else than a Massachusetts senator, and hope to see in your course nothing else than a vindication of Massachusetts honor. You have, by the present confusion of all old parties, a clear field, and ample room to conquer all the prejudices which the low arid miserable strife of factions at home may have given life to; and you will find but feeble and fickle support in the mere appliances of party. You cannot conform to the narrow and exacting spirit of a local party; but you can deserve and command the respect and confidence of those whose eyes look beyond a village or a provincial horizon.

It is and has been too much the habit of our people to abuse their senators and representatives at Washington for any nonconformity to every article in their several and individual creeds. Your predecessors have been shamefully treated in this respect; and the consequence has been that their hands have been weakened, and Massachusetts has lost nearly all its ancient influence.

I hold to a different doctrine, and feel that a liberal confidence in advance is due alike to ourselves and our servants. Therefore, while I should not by my vote have placed you in the Senate, and while I cannot agree to some of your heresies, I feel moved to send you this expression of my sincere gratification at the ground on which you have placed yourself at the outset of your career.

Very respectfully,



In a sermon delivered July 1, 1855, the Rev. Theodore Parker thus, in his plain way, refers to Mr. Wilson's advancement and his brave defence of freedom: -

"When a noble man rises in the State, how much we honor him! when a mean man, how we despise him! Massachusetts, within a few months, has taken a man from a shoemaker's bench, and placed him in the Senate, in the very chair left vacant by the most scholarly man, who had fallen from it, and rolled wallowing in the dust at his feet and, when the senatorial shoemaker speaks brave words of right and justice (and in these times he speaks no other), the people, not only of Massachusetts, but of all the North, rise up, and say, 'Well done! here are our hands for you.'"

The following letter also shows Mr. Parker's estimation of his senatorial course: -

BOSTON, July 7, 185?

MY DEAR WILSON, - I cannot let another day pass by without sending you a line - alI I have time for - to thank you for the noble service you have done for the cause of freedom. You stand up most manfully and heroically, and do battle for the right. I do not know how to thank you enough. You do nobly at all places, all times. If the rest of your senatorial term be like this part, we shall see times such as we only wished for, but dared not hope as yet. There is a North, a real North, quite visible now. God bless you for your services, and keep you ready for more.

Heartily yours,


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