His shiftless and intemperate father named the child after a wealthy bachelor neighbor in vain hope of inheritance. The boy grew to hate the name, and when he came of age had it legally changed to Henry Wilson, inspired either by a biography of the Philadelphia school teacher Henry Wilson or by a portrait of the Rev. Henry Wilson in a volume on English clergymen. The Colbaths lived from hand to mouth; "Want sat by my cradle," he later recalled. "I know what it is to ask a mother for bread when she has none to give."
He was an indentured farm labourer from the age of ten until his twenty-first birthday. In 1833, he petitioned the New Hampshire legislation to change his name to Henry Wilson. He was first a shoe maker and then began a rise in political office that culminated with him serving as Senator from Massachusetts (1855–1873) and as the 18th Vice President of the United States (1873–1875) under President Ulysses S. Grant. Henry Wilson died in office on November 22, 1875 at 20 minutes past 7 in the morning from a second stroke while working in the United States Capitol Building, Washington.