A leader among the radical Republicans in Congress, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio wielded considerable influence as chairman of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Wade disdained those who did not support the full emancipation of slaves, and was especially critical of President Abraham Lincoln and Union generals who favored conciliation toward the South over slash-and-burn retribution. Leniency, said Wade, “sprung from goodness of heart…but…as a method of putting down this rebellion, mercy to traitors is cruelty to loyal men.”
In 1864 Wade cosponsored with Rep. Henry Winter Davis a bill to establish provisional governments in the seceded states until the end of the war. Locally elected civil governments would be implemented only when half of the white males eligible to vote in a state had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Union. Officials in the Confederate government and high-ranking military officers were barred from taking the oath and thus from participating in reorganized state governments. Lincoln refused to sign the bill into law, earning him even more animosity from the Radicals.
In 1868 Wade voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson on various charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” stemming in part from Johnson’s attempt to oust Secretary of War Edwin Stanton without Senate approval. Johnson’s refusal to enact the Radical Reconstruction legislation—including a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the landmark 1866 Civil Rights Act—further infuriated the Republican opposition. Johnson never appointed a vice president after succeeding Lincoln, meaning that he would be succeeded by the president pro tempore of the Senate: Benjamin Wade. Though Wade had his supporters, moderate Republicans feared him as an extremist and demagogue. Johnson’s impeachment—the first of a sitting president—failed by one vote. In the words of a Detroit Post editorial, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.”
Wade lost reelection to the Senate in 1868; that same year he was unable to secure the vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket headed by Ulysses S. Grant. Wade resumed his law practice in Jefferson, Ohio, where he died in 1878.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.