Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary
Marc Garner

Governor Henry Wise

While others pressed for secession and for slavery, Henry A. Wise pressed for Union. He also realized the need for reducing the use of slavery. Were these really Wise's true beliefs?

Craig Simpson writes,

. . . [Wise] many claimed, was a master Southern ideologue-a dueling slave driver for whom violence was always an option. Or was he, as many Southerners believed, an opportunist totally devoid of principle, ever ready to sell out his state and region? Attempting to straddle the diverse interests of several constituencies, he became his own political machine, . . .

Did Wise hold a typical southerner's view? A typical southerner would be someone who supported slavery fervently. He would have advocated states' rights over the federal government. Or did Wise not know for sure where he stood?

The third possibility is most probable as the evidence suggests that he held a combination of the first two views. This indecisiveness shown by Wise needed to be resolved. With the rebellion at Harper's Ferry, Wise, who is governor at the time, must choose between appeasing his Virginian constituents and his Northern allies. It is at this point that Wise decided that the threat of widespread slave rebellion was possible and that he must do everything possible to prevent it.

Wise went to Washington college, Pennsylvania in 1822 when he was sixteen. He graduated from there in 1825. Then he studied law at Henry St. George Tucker's school from 1825-1828. Tucker was known as a states' rights man and this could have influenced a young Wise toward this viewpoint. In 1833, Wise was elected to Congress defeating a Richard Coke. He served in Congress until 1844 when Wise was appointed the United States' minister to Brazil. Once in Brazil, Wise worked against illegal American involvement in the slave trade. Wise was elected governor of Virginia from 1856-1860. During the Civil War, Wise served in the Confederate army and after the war he ran a law practice.

Wise was a "liberal southerner" which means he was a slave owner who saw the eventual dissolution of slavery. Wise held the belief that the Union could or must be maintained, but he was outnumbered by secessionists in his own state. Advocating "fighting in the Union," Wise stressed a compromise between North and South.

Viewed as a Typical Southerner

Describing Wise, Rockingham Valley Democrat states, "As an eminent Southern and fearless advocate of civil and religious liberty we could desire no better leader." Is this a correct statement? Support for the statement comes from the governor's campaign of 1856 and the Harper's Ferry incident. Wise and the papers supporting him were trying to appeal to Virginia constituents.

As a young man, Wise appears to have been unsure of the morality of slavery. He was a strong supporter for states' rights under the Constitution. Politics influenced his public view of slavery. According to Wise in 1837:

Slavery-Whatever differences of opinion may exist among us Virginians upon this vexed subject, we are unanimous on one point, a positive determination that no one shall think or act for us.

By calling slavery a "vexed subject," he made a tough stand against abolitionists, but still left the door open for different opinions about slavery. This opening shows Wise's own uncertainty about slavery. Still Wise used the common excuse of, if slavery wasn't in the Bible he would not own slaves. Wise appeared most in favor of states' rights as a young man. Reviewing his views, Wise was greatly influenced on what the Virginia public wanted to hear.

Viewed as a Liberal

Not much evidence shows that Wise wanted to keep the Union the way it was. Still, there is much evidence from both Wise and secondary sources that shows he was against secession. While there is not much evidence supporting a liberal stance for secession, there is room for a liberal stand for slavery.

Simpson writes that in slavery, " . . . he consumed himself in the attempt and nowhere else shone forth as so conspicuous a liberal." It is true that Wise was most liberal with regard to slavery but to say he was liberal on slavery is untrue. Wise supported slavery because of pressure from society and politics. "He had once freed a slave. Following the requirements of Southern politics in the 1850's, he later recanted." Beyond satisfying his own doubts, Wise didn't appear too concerned with abolishing slavery. He, as governor of Virginia, was not in the position of adjusting slavery without a public outcry.

Viewed as a Mixture of a Typical Southerner and a Liberal

Most sources place Henry A. Wise somewhere in between a typical Southern and a liberal. Even Wise's own documents support this theory.

'I will not nullify, I will not secede, . . . but I will under sovereign State authority fight in the Union another revolutionary conflict for civil liberty, and a Union which will defend it.'

With staying in the Union and fighting, Wise sums up most clearly here his view on the conflict between North and South. He was firm toward the North, yet he was not ready to cut the cord like the Southern extremists were. To 'fight in the Union', a term used by Wise which advocated staying in the Union but peaceably fighting for Southern rights. Included in these rights was the freedom to decide whether or not to use slavery. Wise's solution appears to have had a greater possibility of working than other solutions. "Democratic conservatism" is a term used by Wise in 1855 that developed into "fight in the Union." War would not be necessary if a proper show of force was used to intimidate the North. Not doing this made the South unprepared for war. One must take into account the fact that Seven Decades of the Union was written after the war and therefore could have been modified to fit with the results of the war. Again, if Wise was a liberal, he would have tried to do more for the slaves when he was governor. Shutting down the illegal slave trade in Brazil would make his slaves more valuable to him. In addition, Wise had doubled his slave holding by 1850. The public pressure on Wise had forced him to tone down his liberal views and had influenced his actions. Wise believed in paternalism and some of his slaves returned his goodwill by running away. These runaways must have negatively affected his views toward the African-American race. Straddling the issue, Wise did not call slaves property and in some senses he believed them to be equal to whites, still felt blacks "lacked free will" and "thus unable to control the state." Barton H. Wise supports Simpson's claim, "But while he [Wise] regarded the negro as totally unfit for the responsibilities of freedom and citizenship, he was not blind to the many good qualities of the race."

What position did Henry A. Wise hold? Weighing the evidence, the most likely answer is that he held a combination of views. He held views for both a typical Southerner and a liberal. Advocating "fighting in the Union," Wise hoped to avert war. In regards to slavery he had some views that were radical for the time. Being in the public spotlight forced Wise to suppress his radical beliefs. The event that made Wise choose a side was the raid at Harper's Ferry. The raid on Harper's Ferry occurred while Henry A. Wise was governor of Virginia. This allowed Wise to make a statement for the nation.

On October 16, 1859, John Brown and his 21 followers captured the federal armory at Harper's Ferry. They hoped to use the weapons found there to start a rebellion to free the slaves. They also hoped to establish a stronghold for escaped slaves. The location of the federal armory is at the junction between the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Virginia's militia surrounded but could not defeat Brown and his men. When Robert E. Lee came with federal troops, they defeated and captured Brown. Governor Wise now had the responsibility of keeping Brown out of the hands of the mob that wanted to kill him as well as those who wanted to free Brown. This was to ensure that Brown got a legal trial. The trial was held in Charleston instead of Richmond. This was because of a fear of a mob. "Thus Wise could hang Brown to satisfy Virginians whose outrage over Harpers Ferry he shared or he could spare the Old Man to placate his own political friends in the North."

The fact that Wise did hang Brown suggests that Wise chose the South over the North for this issue. Politically he had to satisfy his own constituents before he tried to satisfy the whole nation. In addition he had to satisfy himself.

Wise was furious that the militia didn't defeat Brown. To him, it made Virginia look bad. The fact that the raid itself was successful upset him. Harper's Ferry was the event that made Wise realize that a full scale slave rebellion was possible. Even worse, the North appeared to be willing to support one. For these reasons, Wise concluded that Brown and his men must die. Wise verbally attacked the North for backing Brown. This paranoia or fear of "invasion" lead to an investigation as to the "supporters" of Brown. Whether or not this rebellion could be successful, does not matter. To Wise, the fact that it occurred once was enough evidence for a full-scale defense. Opponents of Wise claimed, "[Wise] was magnifying the Harpers Ferry 'affair' to the point of jeopardizing the Union." This "magnifying" was necessary to make sure the event was not repeated in the future.

Harper's Ferry was the event that evoked the strong reaction from Wise. It was the turning point in his conflict with where he stood. From this point on Wise was a firm defender of Southern right's and slavery. Any doubts inside of Wise were disregarded. They did not matter anymore. The defense of Virginia and the South demanded that Wise must lose those beliefs. Craig Simpson is correct in his statement,

Attempting to straddle the diverse interests of several constituencies, he became his own political machine, . . .

Yet the raid of Harper's Ferry forced Wise to choose the North or the South. The hanging of Brown and his men show that Wise felt he was destined with the South.


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_______. Political Compromise and the Protection of Slavery: Henry A. Wise and the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850-1. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1975 83(4) 387-405.

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