This future political leader was born to a poor family on February 16, 1812 in Farmington, New Hampshire. His parents, Abrigail Witham Colbaith and Winthrop Colbaith, named him Jeremiah Jones Colbaith after a wealthy bachelor in the neighborhood, hoping to charm themselves into the old man's will (it didn't work).
As a boy, he had almost no formal schooling, but set for himself a rigorous plan of self-improvement which included reading every book he could find. His father apprenticed him to a local farmer at age eleven. When he was nineteen, he pledged total abstinence from alcohol. In 1833, after his release from farming, he legally changed his name to Henry Wilson and moved to Natick, Massachusetts, near Boston, where he learned the trade of shoemaking.
While in Natick, Wilson attended Strafford, Wolfsboro, and Concord Academies for short periods. He became a very prosperous shoemaker in the 1830's, opening a factory and hiring other shoemakers to work there. During a brief experience as a school teacher, he fell in love with one of his students, Harriet Malvina Howe, and they were married in 1840, as soon as she turned sixteen. As a member of the Natick militia, Wilson gained the rank of brigadier general.
Wilson was elected to the Massachusetts state House of Representatives in 1841. Then he became a state Senator during 1844-1846 and again 1850-1852. In 1848, he bought the Boston Republican, which he edited for three years. He was unsuccessful candidate for the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and for Governor of Massachusetts in 1853, but he served as a delegate to the Massachusetts state constitutional convention in 1853.
In 1855, Wilson was elected to the United States Senate to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of Edward Everett, and he held this seat almost twenty years. During the time of the American Civil War, Wilson campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He introduced to Congress the bill outlawing slavery in the District of Columbia. He also raised the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861, and served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia (37th-40th Congress) and the Committee on Military Affairs (41st-42nd Congress). Another important thing Wilson did as a Senator was sponsor the bill forming the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.
His wife Harriet died in 1870. In 1873, Wilson was elected Vice President of the United States under President Ulysses S. Grant. Later the same year, he had the first of a series of strokes that would eventually kill him. His health declined afterwards, but he maintained a demanding schedule of speaking tours all over the country as well as his regular duties. On November 22, 1875, he suffered a fatal stroke in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. He was buried at Old Dell Park Cemetery in Natick, Massachusetts. Ten years later, the Senate placed a marble bust of Wilson and a bronze plaque in the room where he died. The bust was by sculptor Daniel Chester French and the text on the plaque was written by George F. Hoar, an old friend.
Henry Wilson was a member of the Whig, American (Know-Nothing), Opposition, and Republican parties during his career. His religion was Congregationalist. He was loved by his Massachusetts constituents because of his no-nonsense, working man's opinions and for his willingness to listen to their concerns.
Henry Wilson wrote History of the Antislavery Measures of the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth United States Congresses (1864), Military Measures of the United States Congress, 1861-1865 (1866), History of the Reconstruction Measures of the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congresses (1868), and the three-volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (1872-1877).