Benjamin Franklin Wade

Benjamin Franklin Wade (1800-1878), a U.S. senator, was a leading Radical Republican in the Civil War era. He supported a vigorous military effort against the South, emancipation, civil rights for African Americans, and a severe Reconstruction.

Benjamin Franklin Wade was born on Oct. 27, 1800, on a farm in Feeding Hills, Mass. He had some scattered schooling before his family moved to Ohio's Western Reserve in 1821. He worked as a farmer, drover, laborer, and schoolteacher, finally establishing a successful law practice in Jefferson, Ohio. He was elected to the Ohio Senate as a Whig in 1837 and 1841. His career there marked him as a product of the reform spirit so prevalent in the Western Reserve in the first half of the 19th century.

Wade opposed imprisonment for debt and special privileges for corporations, and, most of all, he established himself as a convinced opponent of slavery. He vigorously challenged Ohio's Fugitive Slave Law compelling the return of escaped slaves. He believed that slavery could be restricted only through the concerted action of a major party. When a coalition of Whigs and Free Soilers gained control of the legislature, they elected Wade as a compromise choice to the U.S. Senate in 1851.

Wade was firmly opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, took a prominent part in the ensuring debates, and ultimately joined the Republican party as it formed to carry on the abolition fight. He served as a member of the Senate Committee of Thirteen in the secession crisis of 1860-1861, strongly opposing any compromise with the South in the form of Federal guarantees to protect slavery.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Wade joined other Radical Republicans in advocating total war. He chaired the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, which became the prime Radical instrument to spur on Abraham Lincoln's administration—which preferred more moderate war aims. In 1863 Lincoln announced that he would recognize new Southern state governments formed by 10 percent of the electorate taking a loyalty oath. Wade and the other Radicals were outraged. He and Representative Henry Winter Davis sponsored a bill making restoration of the seceded states much more difficult. When Lincoln pocket-vetoed the measure, Wade again joined Davis in issuing a manifesto (Aug. 5, 1864) violently attacking Lincoln's policies. Nevertheless, Wade worked for Lincoln's reelection in 1864, having no party alternative and fearing a Democratic victory.

After the war's end, Wade also clashed with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction. Convinced that Johnson's policies would restore an unrepentant South to power and leave African Americans and unionists without protection, he supported strong measures to control the South and to guarantee civil and political rights for the freedmen. In 1867 he was elected president pro tempore of the Senate and would have succeeded to the presidency had Johnson been convicted on impeachment charges in 1868. Instead Wade was himself defeated for reelection. He retired to Ohio and resumed his law practice. He died in Jefferson, Ohio, on March 2, 1878.

Further Reading on Benjamin Franklin Wade

Hans L. Trefousse, Benjamin Franklin Wade (1963), is a sympathetic and scholarly modern biography. Trefousse's The Radical Republicans (1969) places Wade's advocacy in wider context. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals (1941), finds more to criticize in Wade's actions. An authoritative biographical sketch of Wade is in Kenneth W. Wheeler, ed., For the Union Ohio Leaders in the Civil War (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Trefousse, Hans Louis, Benjamin Franklin Wade, radical Republican from Ohio, New York, Twayne Publishers 1963.

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