Biography of Gen. James Wilson Jr.

Gen. James Wilson, Jr., who inherited not only the practice but the great talents of his honored father, was born in Peterborough, March 18, 1797. His early years were passed in his native town. His educational advantages were such as were obtained in a country town at that time. He had the misfortune to lose his mother at the early age of eight years. In 1807, young Wilson was sent to the New Ipswich academy, and in 1808 to the Atkinson academy. In 7813, he attended the Phillips academy, in Exeter, for a part of the year. Our country was at that time involved in the second war with Great Britain. Young Wilson desired very greatly to enlist in the army. He was full of the military spirit and heroism of his Scotch-Irish ancestry, and longed for active service; but his father would not consent to it. Chagrined and mortified, he left his academy and went to the North Factory, in Peterborough, and hired himself out as a common hand. He continued to work in the mill until the peace of 1815 was declared. That put an end to the war and, for a time, to the manufacture of cotton at the North Factory. James then went to work on his fathers farm; but, when his father removed to Keene, he decided to resume his studies and picked up his books and went back to school. He entered the Middlebury college in 1816, and graduated in 1820. He delivered the class oration at the special class exercises near his graduation. James immediately began the study of law with his father, and was admitted to the bar, in Cheshire county, at the fall term, 1823. He succeeded immediately to his fathers business in the office and in the courts. At first he practiced in Cheshire, Sullivan, Grafton, and Coos counties, but after his father was stricken with paralysis, in 1836, and required much of his sons attention, he abandoned the northern counties and practiced only in Cheshire. In the military service of his state, Gen. Wilson was deservedly popular. He was appointed captain of the Keene Light Infantry January 1, 1821, and rose through all the various ranks until he was made Major-General of the Third Division of the N. H. militia. In 1825, be was chosen as one of the two representatives to the general court from the town of Keene In 1828 he was elected of the house of representatives of the state of New Hampshire. From the year 1825 to the year 1840 inclusive, Gen. Wilson represented Keene in the state legislature, excepting the years 1833, 1838, and 1839. In the last two of the years just named, he was Whig candidate for governor, but was defeated by his Democratic opponent. The year 1840 was a notable year in the history of this county. No political campaign ever exceeded this in interest and excitement. Gen. Wilson remarkably distinguished himself in this exciting struggle, delivering stump speeches in all parts of the country, and contributing largely to the success won by the Whig party. He had been famous as an orator and advocate before, but his rhetorical triumphs, at this time, extended his reputation to all parts of the land. His presence was unusually impressive. He was six feet four inches in height, straight, well-built, with black curling hair and bright blue eyes, as fine a set of white, sound teeth as was ever seen, of a stem and determined, yet fascinating and impressive countenance. He delighted to joke upon his personal appearance, and would describe himself as a ” rough hewn block from the Granite State.” His friends spoke of him familiarly as ” Long Jim,” ” Gen. Jim,” &c. He had all the qualifications of a first-class orator. He was a logical thinker, and arranged the subject of his thought methodically. He was well read in history and the Bible, and was ready with a good illustration to enforce his points. He was a capital story teller, and knew just when and where to tell one. He could laugh or cry at will, and could produce either effect upon his auditors at pleasure. Nor was this done wholly for effect. He was a 1 sincere man. He had fine feelings and instincts and was remarkably humane; and, whenever he spoke, he was tremendously in earnest. He was no hypocrite. His political principles were based on study, reflection, and sound arguments. He had a powerful voice and could be distinctly heard for many yards in an open field. He had a marvellous command of language and an inexhaustible fund of wit. . He was a keen, shrewd observer and a good reader of human nature; hence he knew how to adapt himself to his audience. Gen. Harrison enjoyed his victory only a single month- Mr. Tyler, who succeeded to the presidency, offered to Gen. Wilson the office of surveyor-general of public lands in the then territories of wasconsin and Iowa, which office he accepted and took possession of the office, at Dubuque, Ia. He was removed by President Polk, in 1845. In 1846 the voters of Keene again returned Gen. Wilson to the general court. About that time the “Independent Democrats,” uniting with the old line Whigs, defeated the regular Democrats, and Gen. Wilson was elected to the thirtieth congress from the third New Hampshire district. He was re-elected to the thirtyfirst congress, but resigned his seat September 9, 1850. While in congress, he was busily employed with the proper duties of his office. He made several speeches, one of which, on the condition of the country, in which he openly and freely expressed his views against the institution of slavery, made a profound sensation in the house of representatives at the time of the delivery, and is still an eloquent composition, as one reads it in the Congressional Globe.

In Washington, Gen. Wilson was a great favorite in society, and a popular guest at dinners. He was a highly cultivated and accomplished man, whose manner was characterized by all the grace and elegance which could be desired, and whose ready wit and fascinating address were sure to be appreciated. He was often seen at the tables of Mr. Webster, Mr. Clay, Mr. Winthrop, the president, and those of the diplomats. The Washington climate did not agree with his health, and he sought the more inviting atmosphere of California. He remained in California eleven years, engaged in law and mining business. He returned East in 1861, in April, just at the breaking out of the Rebellion. His old friend, Abraham Lincoln, offered him a brigadier-generals commission, but he felt compelled to decline the honor, on account of his great age. He had been fond of military service all his life, and had been honored with the highest military distinctions in his native state. He was an admirable soldier, a thorough drill-master, and a good disciplinarian. He did not fail to give the men, under his charge, abundant opportunity for enjoyment, often entertaining them at his own expense (for he was lavish in entertainment), nor did he fail to receive it pleasantly if his men perpetrated a harmless joke upon himself. The history of the old Keene Light Infantry is an interesting chapter in the annals of that town, and a fund of good anecdotes respecting the company and its beloved commander is preserved.

The visit of Gen. Wilson to Keene, in 1861, after an absence of more than a decade, was a memorable one. Soon after his arrival, the shot was fired at Sumpter, and the regiments began to be formed ready to march to the conflict. One memorable occasion will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It was on the twenty-second of April, 1861. A mass meeting was announced to be holden in the public square on the morning of that day. Gen. Wilson accepted an invitation to address the meeting. The knowledge of this fact was conveyed to the adjoining towns. An immense audience assembled, filling the square. It was the Generals first public appearance since his arrival. As the hour for the speaking drew near, a band proceeded to the Generals residence and escorted his carriage to the grand stand. When the door was opened, and the familiar form of the old hero was seen mounting the rostrum, such a tumultuous applause was heard as was never known in Keene before. Old friends from Keene and the adjoining towns were there in great numbers, representing all occupations and professions. When he began to speak, all voices were hushed. It was the same grand old voice, with its familiar ring, the same telling, forcible gestures, the same oratorical power, with fun and anecdote alternating with the most solemn and pathetic passages, the same earnestness, and the same persuasive and convincing eloquence which so many had heard in former days from the same lips.

He returned once more to California in the autumn of 1862, and remained until 1867, when he again returned to Keene to spend the remainder of his days and to die in the town and in the house which he had loved so much.

In 1870 and in 1871, the voters of Keene again returned Gen. Wilson to the general court. He was always interested in education, and especially in young men who were anxious to obtain a liberal education. He aided many young men in their efforts to complete a successful course of study, and watched their progress with great interest. He maintained to the last a firm hold upon the love and affections of the citizens of Keene and Peterborough and the adjoining towns. In the autumn before his death, his many friends, desiring of testifying their love and esteem, procured a fine oil painting of the General, and formally presented it to the city of Keene, November 13, 1879, The presentation address was by Gen. S. G. Griffin. The General was present, and when introduced to the audience, made a graceful speech, in which he feelingly thanked his friends for the honor they had thus conferred upon him.

He was a conscientious, religious man, always attending divine service on the Lords day when able to do so. He was the last survivor of the twelve who first signed the covenant of the Unitarian church in Keene, when the latter society separated from the old Congregational church of the town. He made a study of religious and philosophical subjects, and enjoyed converse upon such themes. He was mercifully spared, at the last, a lingering illness. Sunday morning, May 29, 1881, he had risen comparatively well. During the day he complained of feeling ill, and, before the doctor, who had been summoned, arrived, he expired in the arms of his son, and in the presence of his youngest daughter. He was buried Wednesday, June r. The body was early carried to the church, and a large number of persons from Keene and adjoining towns availed themselves of the opportunity of looking for the last time on the face of their old friend.


Hurd, Duane Hamilton. History of Cheshire and Sullivan counties, New Hampshire. Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis. 1886.

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