Benjamin Franklin Wade

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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

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 Sources

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

Wade, Benjamin Franklin

views updated May 14 2018

Wade, Benjamin Franklin (1800–1878), radical Republican senator in the Civil War.Born in Massachusetts, Wade settled in Jefferson, Ohio, to practice law, was elected to the legislature as a Whig, and rose to become a presiding judge of the third Ohio district. In 1850, he was sent to the U.S. Senate by a combination of Whigs and Free Soilers.

An outspoken opponent of slavery, when the Civil War broke out, Wade, now chairman of the Committee on Territories, attempted to arrest the rout at the First Battle of Bull Run by putting his carriage across the road and turning back the retreating troops with his rifle, an experience that caused him to develop a great mistrust of West Point leadership. Also serving as chairman of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, he sought to further the antislavery cause by badgering President Abraham Lincoln to dismiss conservative generals in favor of their radical counterparts. In investigations of the battles of Bull Run, Balls Bluff, and the Seven Days' Battle, he attempted to induce Lincoln to dismiss Gen. George B. McClellan, and (unsuccessfully) in later hearings to retire Gen. George Gordon Meade, while vigorously defending Joseph Hooker, Dan Sickles, Benjamin F. Butler, and others. Wade also chaired investigations of the Fort Pillow Massacre and of Confederate atrocities against prisoners of war, the results of which were published as powerful propaganda for the Union cause.

In 1864, the senator was the co‐author of the Wade‐Davis Reconstruction bill, which was more radical than Lincoln's plan. As president pro tem of the Senate, Wade would have become president had Andrew Johnson been convicted in his impeachment trial. Wade was forced to retire in 1869 after the Democrats captured the Ohio legislature.
[See also Fort Pillow, Battle of; Reconstruction.]


Hans L. Trefousse , Benjamin Franklin Wade, Radical Republican from Ohio, 1963.

Hans L. Trefousse

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