Great-Great Uncle Henry

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, July 30, 1988 | Go to article overview

Great-Great Uncle Henry


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


If there's magic in the limpid syllables that form the name Lloyd Bentsen, it seems to have eluded the delegates assembled in Atlanta. Even his supporters had difficulty speaking of the man with any conspicuous joy. This is unfair. Far more than the dreary Dukakis, Bentsen resumes the rich traditions of the Democratic Party. He began his political career calling for a nuclear strike on North Korea and has consumed its most recent portion raking in virtually unparalleled amounts of PAC money while supporting the policies of Ronald Reagan.

Bentsen is the great-great nephew of a Vice President, as he acknowledged in Boston when he said, "I'm delighted to be back in the state where my great-great uncle was a Senator from Massachusetts and became Vice President of the United States of America, and we're out to duplicate that record today." The man in question was Henry Wilson, who served at the elbow of President Grant and whose career is itself richly illustrative of the passions-and principles -of nineteenth-century political life.

He was born very poor, worked as an indentured farm laborer, then as a shoemaker and finally became a successful shoe manufacturer, thus symbolic of Massachusetts' econoffiic history in the days when Route 128 was stir but a gleam in the weasel's eye. Unlike his great-great nephew, Henry remained a friend to the working man but made abolition of slavery his central drive. He was initially a Whig, left the party in 1848 when it refused to affirm the Wilmot Proviso (prohibiting slavery in the areas taken from Mexico) and became one of the founders of the Free Soil Party, organized at an 1848 convention in Buffalo and naming Martin Van Buren as its presidential candidate. Many of New York's Democrats defected to the Free Soilers, enough to throw New York to the Republicans and thus give Zachary Taylor the thirty-six electoral votes sufficient to win him the presidency.

Thus far the lesson of Great-Great Uncle Henry is one scarcely appealing to the vociferous proponents in Atlanta of unity-at-all-costs and "reaching out to the moderates." In 1854, Wilson launched himself into national prominence by a somewhat unscrupulous maneuver, joining the American Party, aka the Know-Nothings, who were vying with the new Republican Party for the antislavery standard in Massachusetts. He soon left the party, but not before being elected to the U.S. Senate by a coalition mightily influenced by the Know-Nothings.

As a Senator, Wilson vehemently criticized Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies and argued for homesteading of the South, equal rights for blacks and the overturning of privileges enjoyed by the white aristocracy. He took office as Vice President in March 1873, and died in the Capitol on November 22, 1875 . Those today invoking a Kennedy-Johnson parallel for Dukakis-Bentsen should proceed with caution.

The battle over Reconstruction bears considering in light of current denunciations of Jesse Jackson's tax-the-rich plan as a form of class war. In the summer of 1867 the Republican Party was split over policy. Charles Sumner had introuced a resolution trying to broaden the scope of Reconstruction by immediately abolishing existing Southern governments, requiring the integration of public schools and providing the newly freed with homesteads. Eric Foner, in his new book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, says that "even Radical Henry Wilson objected, declaring 'the terms we have made are hard enough."' As Foner also says, "To moderates, Sumner's proposals seemed a form of what Sen. James W. Grimes called 'class legislation'- singling out one group of citizens for special government favors. 'That is more than we do for white men,' declared [Williaml Fessenden in opposing the land proposal. To which Sumner responded, 'White men have never been in slavery."'

Sumner could have said that government should start redistributing land and wealth for some white folks too, which was what Ben Wade of Kansas was on abouts declaring that with the issue of slavery settled, the politicians ought to set their attention to the matter of capital and labor. …

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