Henry A. Wise
On Oct. 17, 1859, Governor Henry Wise of Virginia received the alarming news that Northerners had attacked the armory at Harpers Ferry. John Brown, leader of the insurgents, was surrounded and soon would be captured; his fate was now in the governor’s hands. Should John Brown hang? The reform-minded Wise faced the most important political decision of his life. It would have far reaching implications for his career, for Virginia, and for the future of the Union.
Wise began his political life with a duel. He shot and severely wounded his opponent for Congress. He served from 1833 to 1844, developing a reputation as a hot-headed, fiery orator. (In 1851, he captivated Virginia’s Constitutional Convention with a five day speech.) He represented Accomac County, home to his ancestors for almost two centuries. He was nearly six feet tall, lean and nervous, and favored wearing a white cravat.
When elected governor in 1856, Wise had one primary goal: to restore the state of Virginia to its former glory. He believed that the plantation system that had once made Virginia great was now responsible for its economic stagnation. He was critical of Virginia planters, whom he accused of being lazy and having a fondness for "brandy, foxhounds and horse racing."
"We in the South," Wise said, "claim to be high-minded, gentlemanly, lordly fellows, who think nothing of money; and, therefore, we are poor." In return, Wise’s tobacco chewing, short temper, and generally erratic behavior made him contemptuous in the eyes of the Virginia elite. "I would as soon have a baboon for my leader," wrote a prominent state legislator. Wise’s anger was most easily provoked when his loyalty to the South was questioned. His political enemies had already taken him to task over Kansas, feeling he had worked against efforts to secure the territory as a slave state. (Wise felt Kansas was the wrong fight at the wrong time.) Wise was a Southerner to the bone, but he believed Virginia’s future rested in joint economic and industrial advancement with the North.
The governor’s own personal advancement as a politician also rested in the North, for he had ambitions to be president. Wise may have initially thought that the John Brown affair offered an opportunity for favorable exposure on the national stage. After all, Brown’s raid had not only shocked the South, Northerners were appalled as well. Even abolitionists were distancing themselves from Brown’s "mad" act.
Wise arrived in Harpers Ferry on the afternoon of Brown’s capture, accompanied by an entourage of press and politicians to observe the interrogation. He found the old man lying on a pile of bedding, his clothes caked with dried blood.
The Governor interrogated the prisoner for three hours and was surprised by what he found. Brown presented himself as composed, articulate, if not eloquent in his thoughts. "He is cool, collected and indomitable," said Wise, "and he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of truth." He is "the gamest man I ever saw." Historian Craig Simpson writes that, "What Wise recognized of himself in Brown (and probably vice versa) and what he saw in Brown’s qualities that he desired to emulate help to account for his considerable respect for his foe."
Wise now faced the difficult decision of what to do with Brown; each option carried with it great political risk. He could have recommend incarceration for life. While that might have won him favorable support from the North, it was sure to alienate his support in the South; it was not worth the gamble. He could have declared Brown insane, but his conversation with Brown had convinced him otherwise.
Wise’s final decision reflected the popular sentiment in the South: John Brown would hang. But for secessionists who saw Brown’s raid as an invasion by the North and a clear signal that it was time to leave the Union, hanging was not the answer. If Brown were hanged, they argued, he would become a martyr and unify the North. A critic of Wise would later write: "The Harpers Ferry affair ought to have been treated and represented either in its best light as the mad folly of a few deluded cranks...or, more truly, as the vulgar crime and outrage of a squad of reckless desperate Ruffians."
Despite Wise’s desire to remain in the Union, it became increasingly clear over the following months that the situation was hopeless. In April, 1861, Wise conspired to launch his own raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to force his state into secession.