Benjamin Wade was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 27th October, 1800. His family were extremely poor and for a while worked as a labourer on the Erie Canal. He also taught school before studying medicine in Albany (1823-25) and law in Ohio (1825-28). Wade was admitted to the bar in 1828 and began work as a lawyer in Jefferson, Ashtabula County.
In 1831 Wade formed a partnership with Joshua Giddings, a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement. A member of the Whig Party, in 1837 Wade served in the Ohio Senate (1837-38 and 1841-42). Between 1847 and 1851 Wade was the judge of the third judicial court of Ohio.
Wade joined the Republican Party and in 1851 he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he associated with other anti-slavery figures such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Over the next few years he played an active role in the campaign against the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
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 Run. The battle was a disaster for the Union forces and at one stage Wade came close to being captured by the Confederate Army. After arriving back in Washington, Wade was one of those who led the attack on the incompetence of the leadership of the Union Army.
During the Civil War he became one of the leaders of the group known as the Radical Republicans. Wade was highly critical of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. 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.
Wade was also opposed to Lincoln's Reconstruction Plan. In 1864 Wade and 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. They argued that civil government should only be re-established when half of the male white citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Union.
The Wade-Davis Bill was passed on 2nd July, 1864, with only one Republican voting against it. However, Abraham Lincoln refused to sign it. 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 5th August, Wade and Henry Winter Davis published an attack on Lincoln in the New York Tribune. 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."
Wade also opposed Andrew Johnson and like other Radical Republicans, argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. He also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts.
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At the beginning of the 40th Congress Wade became the new presiding officer of the Senate. As Johnson did not have a vice-president this meant that Wade was now the legal successor to the president.
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 30th March, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Johnson was the first and only 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. 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."
After being defeated in the 1869 elections, Wade returned to his Ohio law practice. Benjamin Wade died on 2nd March, 1878.