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The shoemaker who stood for emancipation

Henry Wilson, the 18th vice president of the United States.
UPI/FILE
Henry Wilson, the 18th vice president of the United States.

Come Thursday, it will be 143 years since the death of Henry Wilson, the 18th vice president of the United States. The vice presidency, though, is probably not what defines Wilson but his legacy as a shoemaker from Massachusetts who helped end slavery.

The son of New Hampshire farm laborers, Wilson spent his youth as an indentured servant for a neighbor in Farmington, N.H., until he was 21. And then everything changed with freedom.

“He was given six sheep and a yoke of oxen, which he immediately sold for $84,” said Joe Weisse, a member of the Natick Historical Society. “With this, he reinvented himself.”

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Born Jeremiah Jones Colbath, Wilson changed his name and walked from Farmington to Natick, Mass., a booming town then making its name as one of the largest producers of leather shoes in America.

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For five months, Wilson learned the art of shoemaking from William Legro and soon was working twice as hard as others in the craft.

“The first day he left Legro, he made eight pairs of shoes. He was the fastest workman in Natick,” said Anna Fahey-Flynn, central library manager at the Boston Public Library.

He opened the Henry Wilson Shoe Shop at 181 West Central St. in 1838. That first, small shop — now on the National Register of Historic Places — had enough room for two workers at a time. By 1847, Wilson’s company would be turning out 122,000 leather shoes a year, mostly for farmers.

A vacation on doctor’s orders during his early years would again change the course of Wilson’s life. He went to Washington, D.C., and was disturbed by something he saw.

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“He noted slaves who were shackled together,” evoking “memories of his indentured servitude,” said Weisse.

Wilson spent his vacation speaking to congressmen.

In 1840 he became a freshman state representative and began climbing up the ranks while continuing to operate his shoe business. He would change his party affiliation multiple times.

“He put principle in front of party,” Weisse said. Whenever he became disillusioned with a party’s stubborn stance on slavery, he moved on. And he put principle ahead of profits, too.

“At one point, a Southern farmer owed him $700 for shoes,” said Weisse. “When Wilson heard that the farmer was going to sell slaves to pay the debt, Wilson expunged the bill.”

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In 1851, he became president of the Massachusetts Senate.

Eleven years later, Wilson wrote the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed the slaves in Washington and compensated slave owners. Five months later, President Lincoln announced plans to emancipate slaves in the South.

Wilson was elected vice president for President Grant’s second term in 1872. In May that year, he suffered a stroke, and he reluctantly spent the summer in his Massachusetts home recuperating.

He suffered another stroke on Nov. 10, 1875, and died 12 days later.

Cynthia Fernandez can be reached at cynthia.fernandez@globe.com.