Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Feisty Henry A. Wise in Brazil

Portrait of Henry A. Wise. .
By Charles Fenderick, 1840.  Frame-gold leaf
molding. From the ESVHS Collection.
Written by: Dennis Custis

On August 2, 1844, the most celebrated ship in the American Navy, The Constitution arrived in the beautiful harbor of Rio de Janeiro.  Salutes were fired by Brazilian ships in the harbor welcoming the new Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from The United States of America.  This new minister had spent the previous twelve years as a zealous defender of Southern causes in the United States House of Representatives.  Four months shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, this tall, angular man with long flaxen hair looked too combative for the diplomatic service.  He was.

Henry Alexander Wise was the first (and only) Eastern Shoreman to hold such an important diplomatic position. It is unlikely Wise would have been able to stomach three years in Brazil had it not been for the support of his wife and five children.  Sarah Sergeant was Wise's second wife and, fortunately for Wise, an expert linguist.

Most of Wise's correspondence deals with one or the other of these diplomatic situations;  the dispute with Mexico over Texas, the conflict between Argentina and Britain and France in the La Plate River area, the Columbia Affair, and the illegal slave trade.  In the first three situations Wise's diplomacy met with little success.  It was in his dedicated opposition to the slave trade that Wise thought he "devoted his best energies."  Given the fact that Wise had been the unquestioned champion for slavery in Congress, it might seem incongruous that Wise became the most dedicated opponent of the slave trade to Brazil.

For Wise "there is but one true test of anything, and that is, is it right."  Slavery was right, but the slave trade was illegal; therefore, he was obligated to use the power of his office to right the legal and moral wrong of the slave trade.  The slave trade was a staple business of Brazil and Wise raised the ire of the Brazilian government.  "My strenuous opposition to the prostitution of the flag of the United States to the nefarious uses of the slave trade has rendered me naturally unpopular in the country."

It is debatable whether Wise or the Brazilian government first reached the conclusion that it was time for the Shoreman to return to Accomack.  However, it is certain that when Brazil demanded his recall, Wise was determined to stay, The Brazilian government thought Wise possessed a "morose and gloomy temper," and ought to be "taught a lesson."  The "Lesson" Wise wanted the Brazilians to learn could easily be taught by the American Navy and Marines.  His country did not respond but Wise's defiant attitude remained unchanged and he did not regret any of his actions.  When Brazil asked Wise to sign a document which would admit wrongdoing on his part, Wise responded, "I would have my right hand cut off and stuck on a post to point the way to a gibbet before I would permit my thumb and forefinger to touch a pen to sign the paper of such degrading notes!"

Dennis Custis speaking at
To Kill a Mockingbird &
Southern Culture Event
Eventually Brazil stopped demanding Wise's recall which allowed Wise to resign.  On September 1, 1847, The Columbia conveyed a stubborn and prideful Shoreman out of the harbor of Rio de Janeiro.  A month later, Wise reported to Washington and by early November, was back at his home, Onley, on Onancock Creek.  Wise's retirement to country life was brief; he would later serves as Governor of Virginia and Brigadier General of the Confederate Army. Upon his death an admirer wrote that Wise was "a knightly figure of heroic age, single hearted, lofty-minded, honest, generous, brave, a noble product of the loins of The Commonwealth he loved so well."

Excerpt from Historical Society Newsletter: Summer of 1997

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