Jeremiah Colbath was born in Farmington, New Hampshire, on 16th February, 1812. An indentured farm labourer at the age of ten, he changed him name to Henry Wilson after obtaining his freedom in 1833. Wilson then moved to Natick, Massachusetts, where he became a shoemaker.
Wilson attended Concord Academy before becoming a school teacher. In 1848 he acquired and started editing the Boston Republican. Wilson failed to be elected as governor of Massachusetts in 1853 but two years later won a seat in the Senate. He joined the Republican Party and was re-elected in 1859.
A strong opponent of slavery, Wilson raised and commanded the 22nd Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the American Civil War. He also served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs (1861-65).
Wilson, like other Radical Republicans, objected to Johnson's attempts to veto the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts and voted for his impeachment in 1868. During this period he wrote the 3 volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (1872).