It's been so long since the Eastern Shore produced a governor that Virginia's current chief executive says he didn't even know of his charismatic, verbose, tobacco-chewing predecessor until about five years ago.
The two governors – elected 162 years apart – came from that isolated sandy spit of farms and fishing villages sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. They even shared an address: Henry Wise and Ralph Northam lived on estates on opposite sides of the wide tidal creek for which their hometown, Onancock, is named.
Wise was governor from 1856 until 1860, and in the fraught run-up to the Civil War, he had a center-stage role: He refused to block the execution of abolitionist John Brown, convicted of treason against Virginia for threatening a violent anti-slavery revolt.
The refusal derailed the national political ambitions of Wise, who developed an impressive résumé during three decades in public life. Before the war, he served 11 years in Congress – after surviving a duel with the incumbent he narrowly defeated. During the war, he was a general in the Confederate army – and never regained his American citizenship afterward.
Wise, a national figure by age 30 whose fondness for chaw was denoted by brown stains on his white cravats, demonstrated as a youngster many of the distinguishing characteristics that would work for – and against – him.
"He was willful in his humors and sharp and quick and imperious in his temper," Wise said of himself, according to an 1899 biography by his grandson, Braxton.
"There was a strange admixture of hardy recklessness and extreme caution in his nature; he was a great mimic and game maker, often offended by his broad humor, but was frank and genial, and so warm in his affections, and generous in his disposition, that he was generally popular, though he could, when he tried, make some hate him with a bitter hate."
The son of a former speaker of the House of Delegates, Henry Alexander Wise was born Dec. 3, 1806, in Drummondtown – now Accomac – and was orphaned by age 7. He was taken in by two aunts and a grandfather who had fought in the Revolutionary War.
His pedigree was rich, but his purse was not. And Wise, who died in 1876 and is buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery, would not achieve until his 40s the prosperity deemed appropriate for a Virginian of his station.
Wise was educated on the Eastern Shore at a private academy of which he had few positive memories before heading to Pennsylvania for college. He later went to Winchester to study the law under Henry St. George Tucker Sr., a congressman and one of the nation's early legal scholars.
Through his first marriage – he would have three wives, the first two of whom died – Wise met and befriended a future president and fellow Democrat, Andrew Jackson. But as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Wise would break with Jackson on two major issues of the mid-19th century, both of which spotlighted the growing reach of the federal government and the mostly Southern resentment it engendered.
One was Jackson's effort to shut down the Bank of the United States, the nation's early central bank, by steering its deposits to state banks. The other was legislation authorizing the president to send federal troops to South Carolina to force the state to collect tariffs – on signature crops such as cotton – that the state threatened to nullify as unconstitutional.
Wise opposed South Carolina's attempt to void the tariffs; the issue even led to Wise's duel in 1835 with Richard Coke Jr., whom Wise had unseated for Congress two years earlier as squishy on nullification. But Wise was sympathetic to states chafing under expanded federal power and favored, as a last resort, a remedy that years later would lead to the Civil War: secession.
With fellow Virginian John Tyler as president, Wise – having joined the anti-Jackson Whig Party – left Congress for a diplomatic appointment, though not the one he expected.
Three times, Tyler nominated Wise as minister to France. But he was blocked by the Senate in retaliation against Tyler for breaking with fellow Whigs over those tariffs that threatened Southern trade with Europe.
Wise, however, would be appointed in 1844 as minister to Brazil, where he served three years.
On his return to the United States, Wise settled at Only, a 400-acre farm with 19 slaves on the north bank of Onancock Creek (along which Northam would grow up more than a century later). Wise threw himself into Virginia politics.
He was elected as the Eastern Shore's delegate to the 1850-51 constitutional convention in Richmond that would adopt direct election of the governor and the no-successive-terms rule that endures to this day.
Wise dominated the convention, giving a speech that would last five days. He argued for free public schools and fuller and fairer representation in the General Assembly of mountainous western Virginia (Wise County is named for him). The area had long been subordinated to the state's eastern aristocracy, whose economic power – and by extension, political sway – was rooted in vast plantations dependent of slave labor.
In his marathon address, Wise also declared that slavery was justified "by the natural as well as divine law." But he also would describe blacks as capable of reason and conscience, biographer Craig M. Simpson wrote in his 1985 book, "A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia."
That Wise summoned a hint of charity for blacks, Simpson said, was viewed by Wise's adversaries as an inadequate defense of slavery.
Wise proposed scrapping a requirement that for men to vote, they had to own property. And on behalf of western Virginia, Wise favored apportioning seats in the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate according to localities' voting populations rather than their combined black and white populations – a practice that benefited slave-holding Tidewater.
Wise's proposal helped nudge the convention toward a compromise that would give the state's western regions a bigger say in state affairs. But the convention, which institutionalized the overt racism that shaped Virginia politics well into the 20th century, also declared that the vote would be restricted to white males.
Having an established base in Tidewater and, because of the constitutional convention, new reach in the west, Wise vowed restored prominence for Virginia – a state the outside world associated with such 18th-century figures as Washington and Jefferson. Wise stood for governor in 1855 and became only the second chosen by voters. (From 1776 until 1851, Virginia's governor was selected by the General Assembly.)
Elected with a hefty 10,000-vote majority over a nativist hostile to slavery, Wise took office amid great promise, at least in the eyes of the press. Even Horace Greeley, the bewhiskered editor of the New-York Tribune and a fierce opponent of slavery, was taken by Wise, describing him as "a real force – a real personality."
Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that Wise began promoting himself to a national audience, writing letters to Democratic groups and newspapers outside Virginia. His presidential ambitions were fueled by his frustrations with the governorship: The office would not be on an equal footing with the General Assembly until 1869 – after the Civil War – when the chief executive was given the power to veto legislation.
As governor, Wise jump-started construction of a canal connecting coastal Virginia and its western counties, a project ultimately rendered moot by a speedier competitor: the nascent railroads. He presided at the dedication in 1858 of the iconic monument to George Washington on the west side of Capitol Square.
And Wise would do something that modern-era Virginia politicians have usually done as a last resort: raise taxes. He sought the tax increase, which applied to land and other property, including slaves, because of a drop-off in the appeal of Virginia bonds.
Significant success, however, was accompanied by dramatic failure.
To drive off Northern interlopers, Wise wanted to strictly regulate oystering in the Chesapeake Bay, in part by imposing a stiff licensing fee on watermen. It enraged legislators from districts flanking both sides of the bay, and they wasted little time rejecting it as a hardship for Virginians.
But it was a revolt on a larger scale – one that captured the nation's attention – that would define Wise's governorship. It also dashed his designs on the presidency, for which he believed he could be the Democrats' compromise nominee in 1860: one who favored union and slavery.
In October 1859, in the closing months of Wise's four-year term, the abolitionist John Brown led 18 men in a raid on the federal military arsenal at Harpers Ferry – then part of Virginia, later in West Virginia after it broke away during the Civil War. Brown planned to seize weapons and ammunition and arm slaves, inciting them to rebel against their white masters across the South.
Brown and others were pinned down in a building by the local militia, and they were captured the next day when it was stormed by a company of U.S. Marines – led by Robert E. Lee, later the Confederacy's top commander. Brown was charged with treason against Virginia, murder and slave insurrection. He was quickly put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death.
Wise came under immediate pressure, mostly from Northern opponents of slavery, to spare Brown from the gallows. The governor received hundreds of letters urging clemency; some argued that Brown should be allowed to live because he was insane.
Wise decided to make that determination himself, interviewing Brown in jail. Wise came to admire Brown for his devotion to his cause, but he refused to stop the execution. Brown was hanged on Dec. 2.
Wise prepared a lengthy report on the matter for the General Assembly. In it, biographer Simpson wrote, "Wise seems to have concluded that such a valorous and devoted man deserved the death he earned and for which he obviously pined."
The events that quickly followed yanked the nation toward war. It was a conflict Wise hoped could be avoided but, for Virginia, proved inevitable after President Abraham Lincoln demanded that the state raise 75,000 troops to thwart the Southern rebellion.
Wise himself was appointed to a Confederate generalship, leading troops in battle – with mixed success – in northwest Virginia, Williamsburg, Petersburg and the Carolinas. Wise would lose a son in combat, and with the last 600 troops of a command that originally numbered 2,800, he accompanied Lee to the rebel surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Wise later became a Republican and supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general and future president who brought the South to heel. But the Civil War would cost Wise his American citizenship, and it would never be restored because – on his indictment for treason, engineered by a pre-war political rival – he refused to swear allegiance to the restored United States.
Gone, too, were Wise's slaves, having been emancipated by four years of bloody combat that, in Virginia, would produce 500,000 freedmen. (Wise is believed to have fathered a son by one of his slaves.)
At his estate, Rolleston, in what is now Virginia Beach – Wise moved there after selling his Eastern Shore plantation before the war – Wise's former slaves had settled in as sharecroppers, working the Atlantic coast farmland as if it had been their own. They also were being taught to read and write by tutors who had descended on the defeated South, helping blacks take the first full steps toward the freedom they had been denied since the Colonial era.
Rolleston, in fact, had become the site of a freedman's school operated by the American Missionary Association. And as Nelson D. Lankford reported in his book, "Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861," Wise discovered that the school's instructors included a daughter of the man whose death had inexorably changed his life: John Brown.