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Congressional Lions: Benjamin F. Wade


One commentator characterized Benjamin Franklin Wade, the Radical Republican from Ohio, as “pugnacious,” and indeed he was. Other descriptions, such as cantankerous, confrontational, abrasive, blunt, and uncompromising, would be apt as well. Second only perhaps to Thaddeus Stevens in his vehement attacks on slavery, the bombastic orator nicknamed “Bluff Ben” was a ferocious critic of men and policies he deemed second rate, which included virtually everyone and everything save himself. He was “a born fighter” who “became famous for his willingness to meet Southerners on their own grounds in debate, and, if need be, on the dueling ground.” I discuss his life and times in my soon-to-be published book, Congressional Lions.

Wade was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1800, to parents James and Mary Wade. He was their tenth child. Two years after he was born, his brother Edward, nicknamed Ned, arrived.

Ben Wade did not have much formal schooling, but that was hardly unusual. Few children of the frontier spent time inside a schoolhouse. His mother had grown up in a household of New England scholars, however, and she understood the value of education. She instructed young Frank, as the boy was called during his youth, in the standard fare of the time, books such as Pilgrim’s Progress and John Milton’s works as well as the Holy Bible. He excelled at mathematics. His mastery of grammar, spelling, and punctuation was haphazard, and he remained a marginal writer throughout his life. Compared with learned men such as Charles Sumner, Ben Wade felt that his preparation for a public career was inadequate. He compensated for what he lacked in formal classical learning with a passion and ferocity of expression.

He was close to his younger brother, Ned, who later became an attorney and elected official. Observers watching the pair in their youth found Ned the smarter and more disciplined of the two. It was Ned who read for the law while his older brother floundered about, eventually persuading Ben to follow him into the profession.

With its abundance of children, the Wade family never found a stable means of support in Feeding Hills. The patriarch, James, resolved to head west in search of a better life. He chose the upper portion of Ohio, an area commonly referred to as the Western Reserve, to build a new home for his family. In 1819, the oldest Wade children migrated to Ohio, followed by a second group in 1820, and the last of the family in 1821.

Wade’s young adulthood was difficult, filled with hard labor and grinding poverty. Much work needed to be done to make their new land inhabitable. Forest land and scrub brush had to be cleared, crops had to be planted and harvested, and corn had to be transported to the grist mill. The family’s problems multiplied when both parents died in 1826.

Farming on the homestead, with its backbreaking drudgery, never appealed to Ben Wade, although he developed something of a local reputation for physical prowess, especially for his ability to wield an axe. Eventually abandoning the farm, he became a day laborer, alternately driving cattle and, for fifty cents a day, working on the Erie Canal. It was not the most secure means of earning a wage, but he granted him the freedom to move around. Even as a grown man, a successful legislator of comfortable means, he vividly recalled his humble origins as well as the pressing needs of the working man trying to eke out a modest living.

By 1825, he realized that he could not work as a laborer and hope to acquire enough money to live an extraordinary life. Ned was reading the law in the offices of a Whig congressman, Elisha Whittlesey, and he enjoined his older brother to join him. Ben agreed. At a time when many attorneys earned a living arguing cases in a courtroom, Wade’s ambition demonstrated his burning desire to succeed against all odds. By most accounts, he was shy and stammered when he spoke, which made his chosen profession a difficult one. Never a man to back away from a challenge, however, Wade worked diligently to overcome all impediments, which he eventually did. He won admission to the Ohio bar in 1827.

He longed for a political career, and he got his wish. After serving as a prosecuting attorney in Ashtabula County, he was elected to the Ohio State Senate representing the Whig Party in 1836. He immediately attracted attention for his outspoken views. In a profession where most elected officials are circumspect lest they offend potential supporters and wavering voters, Ben Wade refused to obfuscate his message or hide behind platitudinous euphemisms. “Until the laws of nature and of nature’s god are changed,” he bellowed out to his fellow state legislators in 1839, “I will never recognize the right of one man to hold his fellow man a slave.”

Wade eventually became a state court judge in 1847. Although he was not a national political figure, he was vitally interested in politics, speaking out against measures that he believed were unjust or unwise. His take-no-prisoners style of politics impressed many Ohio Whigs. The state legislature soon elected Wade to the United States Senate. He headed off to Washington, D.C., in 1851, where he served for almost 18 years, through perhaps the most turbulent epoch in the nation’s history. Ben Wade was a central figure in every major congressional event of the 1850s as well as during the war and into the Reconstruction era.

By the end of the 1850s, Ben Wade had grown increasingly angry at northerners’ Herculean efforts to soothe the savage southern beast. Each time a new incident occurred involving slavery and the South threatened to secede, northern men became overly concerned about the hurt feelings of southern slave-owners. It was all too much. After the radical abolitionist John Brown unsuccessfully tried to trigger a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, southern fire-eaters again expounded at length on secession. This time, Wade responded in kind. Standing in the Senate and facing his southern brethren, Wade ridiculed their plaintive wails. He dared them to make good on their threats to secede from the Union.

Secession and war finally came in 1861. He had not sought out an armed standoff with southerners, but once it arrived, he would do his part. He tried to enlist in the army, but he was already 60 years old, and he was rejected.

Always interested in the military, he was on hand when Washingtonians rushed into the Virginia countryside to watch the first major engagement between northern and southern forces in July 1861 at what became known in the North as the Battle of Bull Run. When the Confederates routed the green Union troops, a mad dash back toward Washington, D.C., ensued. Wade had driven out to observe the battle in a carriage. He and Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler turned over the carriage to form a barrier that would hopefully stop fleeing Union troops and delay advancing Confederate forces. Unable to stem the tide of panicked Federals, Wade brandished a squirrel rifle, calling out, “Boys, let’s stop this damned runaway.” He and a few Union troops held off a contingent of Confederate soldiers for 15 minutes until the 2nd New York Division arrived to supply backup and extricate the senator from the confrontation.

Wade felt sickened by what he had seen that day. The organization of the army, its training, and its performance under fire were horrifyingly poor. He had assumed that military men, some of whom were West Point graduates, must know what they were doing. After witnessing the melee at Bull Run, Wade lost all respect for professional military men. He would not trust them, or anyone, to stop the rebels without appropriate oversight.

Unable to participate in the army, Wade chose to use his congressional position to good effect. Like his radical colleagues in Congress, he made his reputation in the war years as a critic of President Abraham Lincoln. It was no secret that he harbored doubts about the president’s abilities. The large-than-life Lincoln of historical legend did not yet exist when war erupted in 1861. At the time, the chief executive appeared ill-suited to put down an armed rebellion. Wade was determined to ensure that the administration zealously prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion. After repeated battlefield reversals during that first uncertain year, he doubted that Lincoln and his military officers had the necessary skills to handle the affair. Congress would have to take an active part in the war effort.

Wade and his brethren—the Radical Republicans in Congress—became a thorn in Lincoln’s side. They constantly upbraided the president for his reluctance to prosecute the war aggressively and end slavery immediately. To Wade and his allies, the president was a nice old prairie lawyer who was in over his head. He might be a jovial fellow, a fun traveling companion and a first-rate raconteur with all those old humorous stories, but the times demanded a different sort of man, a leader with the intestinal fortitude to engage the enemy in a long, bloody contest to the bitter end.

During one meeting with the Radicals when Lincoln offered up a story, as he often did, Wade interrupted. “Bother your stories, Mr. President. That is the way it is with you, sir. It is all story—story. You are the father of every military blunder that has been made during the war. You are on the road to hell, sir, with this Government, and you are not a mile off this minute.” Lincoln responded instantly. “Wade,” he said, “that is about the distance from here to the Capitol,” a reference to the location of the meetings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which Wade chaired.

Wade barely tolerated the old bumpkin, and he would not refrain from confronting Lincoln. On the last day of the year 1861, Wade led a contingent of Radicals to see the president and push for a change of command if McClellan did not march his troops into battle in the immediate future. He was blunt in his assessment of the administration’s failures, telling Lincoln, “Mr. President, you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery.” In an earlier exchange with the president, Wade reputedly barked at Lincoln, “Go on as you seem to be going. Give up fortress after fortress, and Jeff Davis will have you as prisoner of war in less than thirty days!”

During an especially heated argument on March 3, 1862, Wade criticized Lincoln’s continued delay in relieving McClellan from command. Irked at the criticism, Lincoln explained that replacing McClellan would not be easy. He rhetorically asked who should step into the general’s shoes.

“Well, anybody!” Wade replied.

“Wade, anybody will do for you, but not for me,” an exasperated Lincoln told him. “I must have somebody—I must use the tools I have.”

Wade was puzzled by what he saw as Lincoln’s curious passivity. The president once confessed that he did not control events, but he was controlled by them. Although this comment was perhaps too self-effacing, it reflected one view of political power. A president may be the single most powerful actor in the seat of government, but he cannot control the behavior of third parties. He can be proactive on occasion, but often he must react to unforeseeable events, modifying his policies based on factors sometimes beyond his reach. John Bright, the British anti-slavery advocate, viewed Lincoln “like a waiter in a large eating house where all the bells are ringing at once; he cannot serve them all at once and some grumblers are to be expected.”

This type of thinking was anathema to Ben Wade. He believed that great men do not wait to act. They make things happen on their own initiative. It was a philosophy of active governance that had served him well in his life and career as he rose up from poverty to become a leading light in Congress.

Wade was pleased that Lincoln issued an emancipation proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863, but he believed it did not go far enough. He also greeted Lincoln’s December 1863 reconstruction plan with scorn and derision. It was characteristic of the president that he did not possess the strength of character to punish the rebels. Lincoln proposed allowing southern states to return to the Union when a number equivalent to 10 percent of the men who voted in the 1860 election swore a loyalty oath. The lenient “ten percent plan” was insulting; it made a mockery of the high price that Union troops had paid to suppress the rebellion.

Joining forces with Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, Wade sponsored a bill that would supplant Lincoln’s proposal and require stringent terms for readmission to the Union. Rather than only 10 percent, fully half of the state’s voting age population must swear an “iron-clad” oath. The bill called for military governors to administer the law, and it even set forth a plan for Negro suffrage. The Wade-Davis bill passed the House of Representatives on May 4, 1864, by a 73-59 vote. The Senate approved the measure narrowly, by an 18-14 vote, on July 2, 1864.

Wade was livid when Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill. Rather than viewing the president’s actions as a principled, pragmatic approach, allowing the executive’s plan to work in areas that already had been captured by Union troops, Wade believed that Lincoln, who was standing for reelection later in the year, was acting expediently. On August 5, 1864, he and Davis issued a manifesto condemning Lincoln’s action. “We have read without surprise, but not without indignation, the Proclamation of the President of the 8th of July,” it began. “The President, by preventing this bill from becoming a law, holds the electoral votes of the Rebel States at the dictation of his personal ambition.”

Reflecting the numerous arguments between Lincoln and Wade, the manifesto added a new point. Often Wade had criticized Lincoln for not employing the full wartime powers of the presidency in putting down the rebellion and eradicating slavery. Now, he and Davis suggested that Lincoln had gone too far in exercising executive power. He had grabbed legislative power, which was a violation of constitutional dictates. The manifesto argued that “the authority of Congress is paramount and must be respected; that the whole body of the Union men of Congress will not submit to be impeached by him of rash and unconstitutional legislation; and if he wishes our support, he must confine himself to his executive duties—to obey and execute, not make the laws—to suppress by arms armed Rebellion, and leave political reorganization to Congress.”

Lincoln was disturbed by the manifesto, especially in an election year, but he simply carried on, as he always did. Because it did not possess the force and effect of law, the manifesto accomplished little other than to magnify the differences between factions inside the Republican Party.

Lincoln won reelection in 1864. He was preferable to the Democratic candidate—former Union General George B. McClellan—but Wade was still unhappy. The old man was dragging his feet. It seemed as though the war would never end.

And yet events soon moved rapidly. Within five months of the election, matters came to a head. General Robert E. Lee, the South’s most illustrious commander, laid down his arms in Virginia. The Union could expect that other armies would surrender in short order. The long-sought-after peace was finally at hand.

And then, on the eve of victory, the unimaginable happened. An assassin shot Abraham Lincoln dead. It was a national tragedy that struck seemingly without warning. The dastardly deed sent Americans in the North into a season of unprecedented mourning. It also transformed Abraham Lincoln into an icon for the ages.

Ben Wade was as shocked as anyone, and yet he also recognized an opportunity to use Lincoln’s assassination to achieve a political goal. If Americans were outraged enough about the murder, they might be as willing as the Radicals to punish the rebels for their treason, for surely Jefferson Davis and his band of malcontents were behind the deed. Lincoln, for all his numerous faults, might prove to be a godsend to the Radical cause after all.

There was also the new man, Andrew Johnson, to consider. He had made tough, bold statements about doling out harsh punishments to southern traitors, but would he live up to his promises and rule with an iron fist? Meeting with the new president shortly after Lincoln’s death, Wade told him, “Mr. Johnson, I thank God you are here. Lincoln had too much of the milk of human kindness to deal with these damned rebels. Now they will be dealt with according to their just deserts.”

An early test of the Johnson administration’s commitment to ruling with an iron fist came when the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War published its final report in May 1865. Wade was anxious to gauge Johnsons’ reaction to the report’s recommendations, especially the sections that placed the burden for assisting the freedmen on the federal government. To Wade’s dismay, the new president accepted the report but refused to commit himself or his administration to any action. In face-to-face meetings, Wade detected a decidedly chilly reception.

Later that month, Johnson issued a proclamation promising a pardon for most Confederate leaders and appointing pro-southern provisional state governors to oversee the southern states. Gone was the fire-and-brimstone Andy Johnson, a righteous figure who would smite the rebels and ensure justice and domestic tranquility for the freedmen. In his place was a pro-Confederate Democrat who had been masquerading as a Republican.

Relations between the president and the Radicals continued to deteriorate throughout the remainder of 1865 and into 1866. As Johnson and congressional Republicans faced off in the series of confrontations recounted earlier in this chapter, Wade grew increasing shrill and infuriated. Johnson simply was the wrong fellow for the job, a headstrong, impudent, obstructionist little man. When the Radicals began discussing impeachment as early as 1867, Wade wholeheartedly supported the effort.

His interest in removing Johnson from office was not merely based on policy differences. Wade had a vested interest in seeing the “incubus” swept out of the way. In March 1867, the Ohio senator had reached the apex of his political power, becoming president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. Under the law at that time, he would become president if Johnson were removed from office. Johnson did not have a vice president; thus, the president pro tempore was next in line if the president died or left office prematurely.

Despite the Radicals’ initial euphoria at the possibility of toppling the Johnson regime, impeaching the president was always a risky and improbable venture. The man was poorly suited for his office both in terms of temperament and judgment, but his “crime” of violating the Tenure of Office Act seemed to be a manufactured constitutional crisis. As Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, a prominent but inconsistent Radical, wryly observed, if Johnson “were impeached for general cussedness,” he unquestionably would be found guilty, but “that is not the question to be heard.” Six senators who might have supported impeachment joined with Fessenden to question whether removing Johnson was worth the price. Every president who followed him potentially would face impeachment charges if a majority in Congress deemed it a suitable means of influencing public policy. Such a situation was untenable.

The thought of Ben Wade becoming president also may have contributed to the final vote acquitting Johnson of the charges. For many senators, even his closest colleagues, Wade was a prickly, unstable personality. Johnson was temperamentally unfit for the presidency, but Wade fared no better. One newspaperman concluded that “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.”

The Senate voted on May 16, 1868, with 35 senators voting for removal and 19 for acquittal. Johnson had escaped conviction by a single vote. Afterward, the Senate recessed for 10 days so the senators could mull over additional articles of impeachment, but the tally never changed. Having concluded the matter, the Senate adjourned the trial sine die. Despite the Radicals’ best efforts, Johnson would serve as president of the United States until his term ended on March 4, 1869.

Recriminations continued for years, but the Johnson impeachment campaign was the high water mark for the Radicals. Within three months of the final vote, ailing Thaddeus Stevens died. Rejected by the Ohio legislature as he sought another term, Ben Wade was forced into retirement. Charles Sumner and his colleagues continued to rail and protest in favor of a strong Reconstruction policy, but their influence was diminishing.

The old adage suggests that power abhors a vacuum, and it proved to be true as the Radical position withered. With the decline of the so-called “ultra” perspective, moderate views predominated. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who had helped to win the war, emerged as the leading Republican presidential candidate. His slogan was “Let Us Have Peace,” hardly a stirring cry to rally the populace around a vigorous campaign to protect the freedmen. The possibility of the emancipated slaves being assimilated into American life was always slim, but by 1868 it was essentially non-existent. The “revolution” in race relations that the Radicals had so fervently desired was replaced by a “counter-revolution” around 1868.

The only bright spot for the Radicals was Grant’s choice of House Speaker Schuyler Colfax as his vice presidential pick. In some camps, Ben Wade’s name had been bandied about as a vice presidential prospect, but that option was never seriously considered. Colfax was nominally a Radical, albeit not as reliable as Stevens, Sumner, and Wade, and he might influence Grant’s views. No one knew much about Grant’s governing philosophy in 1868. He had made his name as a military man, and he appeared to be a moderate. Time revealed that the philosophically-inconsistent Grant was a political pragmatist who did not consistently follow a specific ideological or party line. And so federal Reconstruction policy limped into the 1870s, each year becoming less effective, at least from the Radical perspective.

As for Benjamin Franklin Wade, he retired to his Ohio law practice following his 1868 election defeat. He lived for almost a decade after he left the Senate. During his retirement, he remained vitally interested in public affairs. He served as an agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, joined a commission investigating the possibility of the United States purchasing the Dominican Republic, and eventually served as an elector for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes during the 1876 presidential election.

After he died on March 2, 1878, Wade was remembered as an irascible, uncompromising legislator who was often his own worst enemy. He left behind a solid legislative record—he had been instrumental in enacting key laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed settlers to acquire property in western lands, and the Morrill-Land Grant Act, which created land-grant colleges using money derived from selling western lands—but Wade was not primarily remembered for those accomplishments. Instead, he was a controversial figure in the public imagination. Bluff Ben Wade was heralded on one hand as a fierce opponent of the slave power before and during the war, and a friend to the freedmen in the Reconstruction era. On the other hand, he was vilified as an overwrought, mercurial, and provocative figure who destroyed his own power and legacy with his attacks on Abraham Lincoln and his misguided quest to impeach Andrew Johnson. Whatever else was true about him, Ben Wade was the quintessential Radical Republican—passionate, righteous, and devoted to principle. Historians honor his ends even as they question his means.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez