Name:  Henry Alexander Wise

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Born:  December 3, 1806
Died:  September 12, 1876
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Henry Wise was a maverick Virginia politician who served as a congressman and a governor, and was successively a Democrat, a Whig, a Democrat, and a Republican. He is most remembered for being Virginia’s governor during John Brown’s raid, capture, and execution. He also served as a Confederate general.

Henry Wise was born in Drummondtown (now Accomac) on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Sarah Cropper Wise and John Wise, a Federalist legislator and lawyer. He was orphaned in 1812-1813 and raised by relatives. His education, under tutors and at a local academy, was sporadic until he entered Pennsylvania’s Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson College), graduating with honors in 1825. He began to study law and passed the Virginia bar three years later.

Wise began his political life voting for Andrew Jackson in 1828 and was nominated by the Jacksonian Democrats for Congress in 1833. Once in office, however, he displayed a characteristic political independence by voting against the president on both the national bank renewal and the force bill. His constituents seemed satisfied, though, and reelected him five times. He chaired the House Naval Affairs Committee, but his independence hindered his legislative success.

Dissatisfied with Jackson’s chosen successor, machine politico Martin Van Buren, Wise shifted his allegiance to the Whigs. After the death of Whig president William Henry Harrison, many in the party became angry over the policies of his successor, former Democrat John Tyler. Wise, however, cast his lot with the new president, a fellow Virginian, who appointed him U.S. minister to Brazil in 1844. In Congress, Wise had criticized slavery and abolitionists, while defending the state institution against federal interference. As minister to Brazil, he condemned American involvement, particularly of northern shippers, in the transatlantic African slave trade. This stance alienated him from the Brazilian government and he left the post in 1847 nearly a persona non grata. Returning to his plantation and law practice, he gained a comfortable level of wealth.

In 1848 Wise returned to the Democratic fold, but was denied a desired Senate seat in favor of Robert M. T. Hunter, a more dependable defender of slavery. Wise was a major voice at the Virginia constitutional convention of 1850-1851 and helped apportion the legislature in a more equitable fashion. When he ran for governor as a Democrat in 1855, Wise attracted more votes than any other candidate in Virginia during the nineteenth century. He was an activist governor, working to strengthen business, industry, transportation, and education in the state. He was also governor during John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and allowed the execution of the anti-slavery radical and his co-conspirators.

Although Wise had opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he sided with its author, Senator Stephen Douglas, over President James Buchanan on the issue of the Lecompton Constitution. Since the document, which was narrowly defeated in Congress, would have allowed Kansas to enter the Union as a slave state, Wise was vilified in the South for his opposition. Some northern Democrats, on the other hand, promoted his presidential candidacy in 1860; but he eventually endorsed John Breckinridge, the nominee of the southern wing of a divided Democratic party.

Following Lincoln’s election, Wise urged Virginians to arm themselves for "fighting in the Union," but did not support the secessionists until April. After the firing on Fort Sumter he organized, under his own authority, attacks on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry and on the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. He was appointed a brigadier general in June 1861, but his military record during the war was not notable. After the war he was indicted for treason, but the charge was soon dropped. In 1866 he returned to the practice of law, this time with his eldest surviving son, John. During Reconstruction he defended Republicans and blacks against the Democratic "Redeemers" who gained control of the Virginia state government in 1869-1870. He supported Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1872. His memoirs, Seven Decades of the Union, were published in 1871.

Sources consulted:American National Biography; The Civil War Dictionary, ed. Mark Boatner.











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