A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia

By Craig M. Simpson | Go to book overview

Chapter 1 The Character and Politics of a Young Virginian

The time and place of Henry Alexander Wise's birth are reminders that people lived in Virginia long before the United States had a history. When young Henry arrived in 1806, the American republic was younger than one person's lifetime, but the Wises had already lived for nearly two centuries in Accomac County on Virginia's Eastern Shore. An isolated and clannish community, across Chesapeake Bay from the Virginia mainland, Accomac occupied the narrow peninsula between the bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Though the land was too flat to be picturesque, the soil was rich and well watered by small creeks that often formed the boundaries between the estates that developed them. The squires planted trees near the creek beds, and these in time enclosed their property and afforded them considerable privacy, while further limiting their already circumscribed vision. Like many of his countrymen, Henry A. Wise deeply loved his birthplace. He regularly recouped his energies near it and, in a sense, never lost the special perspective on national affairs--with all its strengths and weaknesses-- that the highly insular and unchanging Eastern Shore furnished him. 1

Of Wise's immediate ancestors, relatively little is known. His father, Major John Wise, held a commission in the Virginia militia following the American Revolution. He later served ten terms in the Virginia House of Delegates, from 1790 to 1800, and acted as Federalist elector in the presidential campaign of 1800. 2 After retiring from politics, Major Wise served briefly as Commonwealth attorney and then held the clerkship of the county court until his death in 1812. His numerous farms made him one of the wealthiest men in Accomac. He married twice and sired ten children, though only five reached maturity.

In his later correspondence, Wise seldom mentioned his father or mother. His mother died in 1813, making orphans of Henry, his brothers, and a sister. But if no clear physical memory of his

-3-

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