||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Wise, Henry Alexander (December 3, 1806 – September 12,
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 on December 3, 1806, 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
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
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 did not intervene to stop 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 by opposing the
pro–slavery 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
1861. 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. In June 1861, he was appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate
Army, 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. Henry Wise died on September
Sources consulted: Michael B. Chesson, “Wise, Henry Alexander,”
American National Biography (online); Boatner, Mark, The Civil War