Benjamin Franklin Wade was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, near Springfield, on October 27, 1800. He was the youngest of ten children of James and Mary (Upham) Wade. In 1821, Wade’s family moved to Andover, Ohio, in the Western Reserve. Wade worked on his father’s farm for two years, before taking a job as a drover, which eventually took him to Albany, New York. While living in Albany, Wade worked as a schoolteacher and as a laborer on the Erie Canal while he studied medicine. In 1825, Wade returned to Ohio, where he taught school as he studied law under the tutelage of Elisha Whittlesey.
Wade joined the Ohio bar in 1828, and he opened a law practice in Jefferson, Ohio. From 1831 to 1837, Wade partnered with Joshua Giddings, another of Whittlesey’s students and a future member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1835, voters elected Wade as the prosecuting attorney of Ashtabula County. One year later, they elected him to the Ohio State Senate. As a member of the Ohio Senate, Wade became a strong advocate for the repeal of all laws “making distinctions among the people of Ohio on account of color.” Wade’s abolitionist views may have contributed to his failure to win re-election when his two-year term expired.
After returning to his law practice for two years, voters re-elected Wade to the Ohio Senate for a term beginning in 1841. That same year, he married Caroline M. Rosekrans on May 19. The couple remained married until Caroline’s death in 1841. Their marriage produced two sons.
When his second term in the Ohio Senate expired, Wade focused his attention on his law practice. In 1847, the General Assembly elected Wade as the presiding judge of the third judicial district of the State of Ohio. Wade fulfilled his judicial duties for the next four years until the state legislature elected him as a U.S. Senator from Ohio in March 1851.
Wade took his seat in the U.S. Senate on March 15, 1851, as a member of the Whig Party. He was a staunch abolitionist and one of the Senate’s most outspoken opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. When the Whig Party split after the ratification of that act, Wade became one of the founders of the Republican Party.
In March 1861, Wade’s fellow senators selected him as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories. After the American Civil War began, he used his chairmanship to promote legislation outlawing slavery in U.S. territories. Following the embarrassing Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Wade became chairman of the newly created Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Throughout the war, Wade was highly critical of President Abraham Lincoln. Wade’s assessment of Lincoln’s leadership was especially sharp regarding the president’s lenient Reconstruction policies.
In 1864, as the war ground toward conclusion, Wade and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland sponsored legislation exacting much harsher terms on the South than those favored by Lincoln. Both houses of Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill on July 2, 1864, and sent it to the president for his signature before adjourning for the summer. Finding the contents of the act too severe, Lincoln refused to sign it. Incensed by Lincoln’s pocket veto, the authors of the bill castigated Lincoln and challenged his integrity in the infamous Wade-Davis Manifesto, published in the New York Tribune on August 5, 1864.
Clash with President Johnson
Despite his antipathy toward Lincoln, Wade felt obliged to follow the party line and support the president’s reelection bid in November 1864. After Lincoln’s assassination, Wade and other Radical Republicans in Congress locked horns with President Andrew Johnson because Johnson favored Lincoln’s lenient Reconstruction policies. On March 2, 1867, Wade became president pro tempore of the Senate, making him next in line for the presidency in case of Johnson’s resignation, incapacity, or death (Johnson had no vice-president).
Impeachment and Acquittal
By 1868, relations between Johnson and Congress had deteriorated so much that the House voted to impeach the president on February 24, 1868. Johnson’s trial before the Senate began on March 30. On May 16, and again on May 26, the full Senate voted on the charges against Johnson. On each occasion, thirty-five senators voted “guilty” and nineteen senators voted “not guilty.” Each tally fell one vote short of the constitutionally required two-thirds majority to remove Johnson from office. It is likely that some senators voted to acquit Johnson to prevent Wade from becoming president.
Fellow Ohioan and future Republican President James Garfield characterized Wade as “a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party.” Wade’s support of women’s suffrage, trade union rights, and soft money made him objectionable to moderate members of his own party. As the editor of The Detroit Post summarized the outcome of the trial, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.”
Loss of Senate Seat
As the 1868 presidential election approached, Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant resisted efforts to have him select Wade as his vice-presidential running mate. Grant, instead, chose Indiana Representative and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax. Although Grant won the presidential election, Democrats gained control of the Ohio General Assembly and selected Allen G. Thurman to replace Wade in the U.S. Senate.
After leaving the Senate in 1869, Wade returned to his Ohio law practice. In 1871, at the request of President Grant, Wade served as president of the “Commission of Inquiry to Santo Domingo.” In 1876, Wade performed his last official public duty, serving as an elector for Rutherford B. Hayes.
Benjamin Wade died at Jefferson, Ohio, on March 2, 1878, after a week-long illness. The man who missed becoming President of the United States by one vote was interred at Oakdale Cemetery, Jefferson, Ohio.