Benjamin Wade (1800-1878)

Benjamin Wade was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1800. His ancestor, Jonathan, came from Norfolk, England, to Massachusetts in 1632. His family were extremely poor. His father, James, a soldier of the Revolution, removed to Andover, Ohio, in 1821. The son's education was received chiefly from his mother. He shared in the pioneer work of his new home and in 1823, after aiding in driving a herd of cattle to Philadelphia, went to Albany, New York, where he spent two years in teaching (1823-25). He also began the study of medicine with his brother, and at one time working as a common laborer on the Erie canal to obtain funds. On his return to Ohio he began the study of law, was admitted to the bar in 1827, and began practice in Jefferson. In 1831 he formed a partnership with Joshua R. Giddings, a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement and in 1835 was elected prosecuting attorney of Ashtabula county, which office he held till 1837.

A member of the Whig Party, Wade served in the Ohio Senate in 1837-38 and 1841-42, where, as a member of the judiciary committee, he presented a report that put an end to the granting of divorces by the legislature. In 1839 he was active in opposition to the passage of a more stringent fugitive-slave law, which commissioners from Kentucky were urging on the legislature. The law passed and his action cost him his re-election to the senate. He was chosen again in 1841. In February, 1847, he was elected by the legislature president-judge of the 3d judicial district, and while on the bench he was chosen, on 15 March, 1851, to the United States senate, where he remained till 1869

In the Senate, Wade soon became known as a leader of the small anti-slavery minority including figures such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. He advocated the Homestead bill and the repeal of the fFugitive Slave Act, and opposed the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854, the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton constitution of 1858, and the purchase of Cuba

After the assault on Charles Sumner, Robert Toombs avowed in the senate that he had witnessed the attack, and approved it, whereupon Wade, in a speech of great vehemence, threw down the gage of personal combat to the southern senators. It was expected that there would be an immediate challenge from Toombs, but the latter soon made peace. Subsequently Mr. Wade, Zachariah Chandler, and Simon Cameron made a compact to resent any insult from a southerner by a challenge to fight. This agreement was made public many years afterward.

Wade was one of the most radical politicians in the United States. He supported votes for women, trade union rights and equal civil rights for African Americans. He was highly critical of capitalism and argued that an economic system "which degrades the poor man and elevates the rich, which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, which drags the very soul out of a poor man for a pitiful existence is wrong."

In July, 1861, Wade was a member of a group of politicians, including Lyman Trumbull, James Grimes, and Zachariah Chandler, who witnessed the Battle of Bull Runin a carriage, and it is related that after the defeat seven of them alighted, at Wade's proposal, being armed with revolvers, and for a quarter of an hour kept back the stream of fugitives near Fairfax Court-House. At one stage Wade came close to being captured by the Confederate Army. This incident, as narrated in the journals, made a sensation at the time. After arriving back in Washington, Wade was one of those who led the attack on the incompetence of the leadership of the Union Army

Wade labored earnestly for a vigorous prosecution of the war, was the chairman and foremost spirit of the joint committee on the conduct of the war in 1861-62, and was active in urging the passage of a Confiscation Act. As chairman of the committee on territories, he reported a bill in 1862 to abolish slavery in all the territories

Wade became one of the leaders of the group known as the Radical Republicans. Though he cordially supported the administration, he did not hesitate to criticise many of its acts. In September, 1861, Wade wrote to Zachariah Chandler that Lincoln's views on slavery "could only come of one, born of poor white trash and educated in a slave State." Wade was especially angry with Lincoln when he was slow to support the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army.

He was instrumental in the advancement of Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War, whom he recommended strongly to President Lincoln.

As the war came to a close, Radical Republicans began to oppose President Lincoln's gentle plans for the South. Lincoln outlined his "10% Plan" which called for the southern states to be "reconstructed" as soon as 10% of the citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Union. Many Republicans felt that was letting the South off too lightly. Many Republicans also feared that allowing the southern states back into the Union, and into Congress, would give the majority back to the Democratic Party

In 1864 Wade and Maryland Congressman Henry Winter Davis sponsored a bill that provided for the administration of the affairs of southern states by provisional governors until the end of the war. The Wade-Davis Bill called for a state to be allowed to return to home rule only after a majority of its citizens took an oath of loyalty that required them to certify that they had never taken up arms against the United States government

The Wade-Davis Bill was passed on July 2, 1864, with only one Republican voting against it. However, Abraham Lincoln refused to sign it and allowed the bill to die by the pocket veto. Lincoln defended his decision by telling Zachariah Chandler, one of the bill's supporters, that it was a question of time: "this bill was placed before me a few minutes before Congress adjourns. It is a matter of too much importance to be swallowed in that way." Six days later Lincoln issued a proclamation explaining his views on the bill. He argued that he had rejected it because he did not wish "to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration".

The Radical Republicans were furious with Lincoln's decision. On August 5, after the adjournment of the 38th congress, Wade and Davis published an attack on Lincoln in the New York Tribune, condemning the president's proposed reconstruction policy. In what became known as the Wade-Davis Manifesto, the men argued that Lincoln's actions had been taken "at the dictation of his personal ambition" and accused him of "dictatorial usurpation". They added that: "he must realize that our support is of a cause and not of a man."

After Lincoln's assassination, Wade was very happy to see Andrew Johnson take over. With Johnson's well-known hatred to southern aristocracy, Wade was confident that the Radical plan would be carried out. But Johnson's attitude towards the southern aristocracy softened, and he announced he would carry out Lincoln's plan to bring the South back into the Union as quickly and gently as possible

The Radicals opposed Johnson's every move. Wade, like other Radical Republicans, argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. Led by Sumner and Wade, The Radical Republicans passed the Reconstruction Acts and Civil Rights Acts over Johnson's veto. They then passed the Tenure of Office Act, which mandated that the President not fire without Senate approval any official whose appointment had required senate confirmation. When Johnson fired his disloyal, radical Secretary of War Stanton, Congress moved to impeach Johnson

At the beginning of the 40th Congress, on March 2, 1867, Wade became president pro tempore of the Senate, and thus acting vice-president of the United States, succeeding Lafayette S. Foster. As Johnson did not have a vice-president this meant that Wade was now the legal successor to the president. He advised President Johnson to put on trial for treason a few of the Confederate leaders and pardon the rest, and was radical in his ideas of reconstruction

In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report written by Thomas Williams contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. On March 30, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Johnson was the first president of the United States to be impeached. The trial, held in the Senate in March, was presided over by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. One of Johnson's fiercest critics, Thaddeus Stevens was mortally ill, but he was determined to take part in the proceedings and was carried to the Senate in a chair.

Charles Sumner, another long-time opponent of Johnson led the attack. He argued that: "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters."

Although a large number of senators believed that Johnson was guilty of the charges, they disliked the idea of Wade becoming the next president. Wade, who believed in women's suffrage and trade union rights, was considered by many members of the Republican Party as being an extreme radical. James Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party."

Others Republicans such as James Grimes argued that Johnson had less than a year left in office and that they were willing to vote against impeachment if Johnson was willing to provide some guarantees that he would not continue to interfere with Reconstruction.

When the vote was taken all members of the Democratic Party voted against impeachment. So also did those Republicans such as Lyman Trumbull, William Fessenden and James Grimes, who disliked the idea of Wade becoming president. Wade voted for conviction. The result was 35 to 19, one vote short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction. A further vote on 26th May, also failed to get the necessary majority needed to impeach Johnson. The editor of The Detroit Post wrote that "Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor." Indeed, several Moderate and Conservative Republicans resisted the movement to impeach and remove Johnson because they considered Wade to be a dangerous demagogue and opposed his stance on other issues, especially his support of "soft money." Wade had good reason for seeking the replace Johnson as president. Ohio, always a closely divided state, had gone Democratic in the last election. With the Democrats controlling the state legislature, Wade was sure to be defeated for re-election. He very much loved being in the Senate, and wanted to stay. His plan called for Johnson to be removed, and for him to fill the last ten months of the Presidential term. The Republican Party was obviously going to nominate General Grant for President, but Wade hoped that by being President and smoothing the way for Grant, he might be named the Vice Presidential candidate. As Vice President, he would be President of the Senate, and get to remain in his beloved Senate. So it was all or nothing for Benjamin Wade. Either he was merely a lame duck Senator with only ten months left to serve, or he was about to become the 18th President of the United States, and the next Vice President with eight more happy years in the Senate ahead of him

Wade was in fact defeated for re-election in 1868 in a very close vote in the Ohio legislature after the Democrats won a narrow majority in state elections. In 1869, at the close of his second term, he was succeeded in the senate by Allen G. Thurman, and he then returned to his home in Jefferson, Ohio. He was one of the chief members of the Santo Domingo commission in 1871, and then became attorney for the Northern Pacific railroad. He was chairman of the Ohio delegation in the Cincinnati national convention of 1876, and earnestly advocated the nomination of Rutherford B. Hayes, but after his accession to the presidency Mr. Wade bitterly condemned his course in relation to the southern states.

Though Mr. Wade had been called "Frank Wade" in Ohio, from his middle name, he was known in congress and throughout the country as Ben or "Old Ben" Wade. He was popularly looked upon as one of the bulwarks of the National cause in the darkest hours of the civil war, and was widely admired and respected for his fearlessness, independence, and honesty. His rugged and forcible style of oratory always commanded attention.

In 1868 Ulysses S. Grant was urged by Radical Republicans to to make Wade his vice-presidental candidate. Grant refused and instead selected another radical, Schuyler Colfax, as his running mate.

Benjamin Wade died on 2nd March, 1878.