Henry Alexander Wise (3 December 1806–12 September 1876), member of the House of Representatives, member of the Conventions of 1850–1851 and 1861, governor of Virginia, and Confederate army officer, was born in Drummondtown (later Accomac), in Accomack County. He was the son of John Wise, a former Speaker of the House of Delegates, and his second wife, Sarah Corbin Cropper Wise. Orphaned after the deaths of his parents in 1812 and 1813, Wise grew up in the household of two aunts but also spent time with his grandfather John Cropper, a Revolutionary War veteran and general of militia. He attended the local Margaret Academy and in 1822 entered Washington College (later Washington and Jefferson College), in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with honors in 1825.
Wise studied law with Henry St. George Tucker (1780–1848) in Winchester for two years. In 1828 he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where in October of that year he married Ann Eliza Jennings, whom he had met in Winchester. Wise practiced law in Nashville for two years and made the acquaintance of Andrew Jackson, whom he much admired. After abandoning a plan to purchase a plantation in the West, Wise returned to Accomack County in 1830 and began a successful law practice there. Before his wife died on 4 May 1837, they had seven children, of whom two daughters and two sons survived infancy.
National Political Career, 1833–1847
A supporter of Jackson, Wise defeated the incumbent, Richard Coke, in April 1833 to win election to the House of Representatives from the district consisting of the counties of Accomack, Gloucester, James City, Mathews, Northampton, Warwick, and York and the city of Williamsburg. Two years later when Coke sought to regain his seat, Wise charged that Coke had spoken both in favor of and in opposition to South Carolina's attempt to nullify enforcement of a federal tariff law. The accusation provoked a duel in which Wise severely wounded Coke in the shoulder. Reelected in 1835 and to four subsequent terms, Wise acquired a reputation as a formidable debater and effective orator. He served on the Committee on Naval Affairs in each of his terms and became its chair in 1841. Even though Wise generally supported Jackson during the Nullification Crisis, he opposed Jackson's transfer of money from the Second Bank of the United States to state banks and soon joined the new Whig Party in opposition to Jackson. The switch earned him another long-lasting reputation, as being impulsive, inconsistent, and unpredictable.
Wise acted as a second in a well-publicized duel between two members of Congress early in 1838 in which a Maine Democrat was killed. Wise often carried a pistol afterward, and in 1842 he had to post security that he would not duel with a North Carolina Whig congressman, but he also helped prevent several other duels. On 26 November 1840 in Philadelphia, Wise married Sarah Sergeant, daughter of a prominent Pennsylvania Whig politician. Of their seven children, three sons and one daughter survived childhood.
Wise later claimed credit for the Whigs' nomination of his friend John Tyler (1790–1862) for vice president of the United States late in 1839 and remained close to Tyler during his presidency. As Tyler's relationship with the national leaders of the Whig Party deteriorated, Wise moved uneasily back into the Democratic Party. Tyler nominated him as minister to France early in 1843, but the Senate twice rejected his appointment. In January 1844 Tyler named Wise minister to Brazil, and the Senate confirmed his appointment on 9 February. Wise served in Rio de Janeiro from August 1844 until the summer of 1847. He spent most of his time there in violation of his instructions and, to the intense displeasure of the Brazilian government, attempting to stop the importation of slaves from Africa into Brazil.
The Convention of 1850–1851
In August 1850 Wise polled the second-highest number of votes in a four-candidate field and won election as one of two delegates representing Accomack and Northampton Counties at a convention that met in Richmond from 14 October 1850 until 1 August 1851 to revise the state constitution. His wife died the day the convention opened, and he was consequently absent when the standing committees were appointed. Wise dominated the convention. He spoke longer and more often than any other delegate; one of his speeches in April 1851 lasted nearly five days. Tall, thin, gaunt, and said to resemble a cadaver, he became highly animated when speaking and was a ruthless debater. His quick wit, sharp and sometimes sarcastic debating style, and willingness to take on unpopular causes gave him a unique place in antebellum Virginia politics.
Wise, added to the Committee on Education and Public Instruction in January 1851, favored creating free public schools. Unlike nearly every other eastern convention delegate, he supported eliminating the property qualification for voting and advocated a new system of apportionment for both houses of the General Assembly based on the voting populations of counties and cities, rather than on a system of combined black and white populations that put western Virginia at a disadvantage. The convention adopted universal white manhood suffrage and reached a compromise on apportionment that gave western counties a majority of seats in the House of Delegates and retained an eastern majority in the Senate of Virginia until 1865, when voters would be asked to consider the issue again. Wise's advocacy of reform won him many admirers in western Virginia. He did not vote on the apportionment compromise on 16 May 1851 but on 31 July voted in favor of the final version of the constitution, which won ratification later that year.
Wise married Mary Elizabeth Lyons, sister of James Lyons, a prominent Richmond attorney and member of the Convention of 1850–1851, in that city on 1 November 1853. They had no children. In December 1854 state Democrats nominated Wise for governor. His competitor in Virginia's second popular election campaign for governor was Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, a former Whig congressman and the candidate of the American Party, or Know Nothings. Wise traveled throughout the state from January to May making dozens of speeches and denouncing the Know Nothings as undemocratic and dangerous to American liberties because of their attempts to exclude immigrants and Catholics from voting, holding office, and citizenship. Other Democrats charged that Virginia's Know Nothings posed a threat to slavery because of the antislavery beliefs of some northern members of that party. In spite of defections of Democrats who distrusted Wise or shared anti-Catholic sentiments with the Know Nothings, Wise defeated Flournoy on 24 May 1855 by a vote of 83,275 to 73,354. The 1855 campaign reinforced Wise's national recognition and made him a potential presidential candidate in 1856.
Governor of Virginia, 1856–1860
As governor of Virginia from 1 January 1856 to 1 January 1860, Wise attempted without much success to persuade the General Assembly to embark on a program of economic development and modernization that would lessen the state's reliance on slavery. (He himself owned nineteen slaves at the time of the 1850 census and twenty-one at the time of the 1860 census.) As on many other important subjects, he expressed apparently inconsistent opinions about slavery and African Americans. Wise recognized the humanity of enslaved people and sympathized with their plight, but he never regarded African Americans before or after emancipation as the equals of white Virginians, and he also vigorously defended the rights of slave owners. After the abolitionist John Brown launched a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Wise mobilized the state's militia. He interviewed Brown in jail and came to admire the abolitionist's courage and willingness to die for his principles. Wise rejected many pleas that he spare Brown's life and allowed Brown to be hanged.
By 1860 Wise had purchased a part-interest in his half brother's Princess Anne County plantation, where he resided while scheming without much skill and with no success to wrest leadership of the state's Democratic Party from his longtime rival, Senator Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, and to win the party's presidential nomination. In the meantime, in May 1858, Wise's eldest son, Obadiah Jennings Wise, had become an editor of the Daily Richmond Enquirer and had made that newspaper, historically one of the most influential Democratic newspapers in the South, an early advocate of secession should an antislavery Republican win the presidency in 1860.
The Convention of 1861
On 4 February 1861 Wise won election to represent Princess Anne County in the state convention called to act for Virginia during the secession crisis. He sat on the critically important Committee on Federal Relations, and as in the Convention of 1850–1851 he was one of the dominating figures. Proclaiming that he loved the Union and detested the idea of secession, he nevertheless often spoke like a secessionist and voted for secession on 4 April 1861 when a motion to leave the Union failed. He then cooperated with O. Jennings Wise and others in summoning what they called a spontaneous (but actually a carefully planned) Southern rights conference to meet in Richmond in the middle of the month to pressure the convention to secede. On his personal authority alone, Wise directed Virginia militia to seize the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the navy yard at Portsmouth. When a second vote on secession approached on 17 April, he dramatically placed a large horse pistol on his desk in the chamber of the House of Delegates and spoke at length and with terrifying effect on the necessity of the state to defend itself after Abraham Lincoln had requested volunteers to put down the rebellion in the states that had already seceded. Wise voted for secession and then led the convention into taking control of mobilizing the state's militia.
The Civil War Years and After
Appointed a brigadier general and ordered on 6 June 1861 to the Kanawha River valley, Wise commanded a legion of mixed artillery, cavalry, and infantry during the summer and autumn of 1861 in the state's largely unsuccessful campaign to hold northwestern Virginia for the Confederacy. He clashed repeatedly with another general, former governor and former secretary of war John Buchanan Floyd, and eventually had himself reassigned to the defense of coastal North Carolina. Wise commanded there, in eastern Virginia, and in eastern South Carolina with credit from 1862 to 1864, but O. Jennings Wise was killed while serving under his father. Never promoted above the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army, Wise took an important role in the defense of Petersburg during the siege of 1864–1865 and surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
Wise practiced law in Richmond after the war and became a popular orator at commemorations of Civil War events and cemetery dedications. He praised the abolition of slavery but also emphasized the heroism and sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. Wise wrote Seven Decades of the Union (1872), a memoir of the public life of John Tyler that contained many of his own personal recollections. Wise served on a state commission early in the 1870s that prepared a long documentary report on the contested boundary between Virginia and Maryland, but Maryland later prevailed in the settlement of the dispute.
By the mid-1870s Wise had become estranged from the state's Conservative Party leaders, and his sons John Sergeant Wise and Richard Alsop Wise both later affiliated with the Republican Party and served in Congress. Wise returned to Washington for the last time in 1876 to argue a disputed-election case before a committee of the House of Representatives. Henry Alexander Wise died in Richmond on 12 September 1876 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Members of several Irish and Catholic organizations, remembering his 1855 campaign against the anti-Catholicism of the Know Nothings, adopted resolutions praising Wise for his defense of civil and religious liberty.
Contributed by Brent Tarter
This biography was prepared for a forthcoming volume of John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ).
Copyright 2010 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.