Almost President – Benjamin Wade


In spite of how close our recent election was, there have been closer ones. In fact, two men lost the Presidency by just one single vote. One was Samuel Tilden. The other man was Benjamin Wade of Ohio.

Benjamin Wade was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts on October 27, 1800. In 1821, he moved with his parents to Andover, Ohio. He taught school for a while, and then left to study medicine in Albany, New York. After two years, he returned to Ohio and began to study law. In 1828, he was admitted to the bar and opened his practice in Jefferson, in Ashtabula County, Ohio.

He began his political career as prosecuting attorney of Ashtabula County, a post he held from 1835-1837. He next served in the Ohio state senate from 1837-1838 and again from 1841-1842. He next served as a judge of the third judicial court of Ohio from 1847-1851.

In 1851, Benjamin Wade was elected to the United States Senate as a Whig. He was actually elected to fill a vacancy caused by the failure of the Ohio legislature to elect a Senator. The seat was declared vacant, and the legislature then proceeded to elect a substitute. He served all but two weeks of the six-year term. He was re-elected in 1856 as a Republican, and again in 1863. He served from March 15, 1851 until the end of his term on March 3, 1869. He was defeated for re-election in a very close vote in the Ohio legislature after the Democrats won a narrow majority in state elections.

In the Senate, Wade became identified with the anti-slavery faction. After the Civil War began, he became one of the main leaders, along with Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, of the Radical faction of the Republican Party. For his last four years in the Senate, Wade was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, an elected position of leadership made more important by the absence of a Vice President.

As the war came to a close, Radical Republicans began to oppose President Lincoln’s gentle plans for the South. Lincoln outlined his “10% Plan” which called for the southern states to be “reconstructed” as soon as 10% of the citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Union. Many Republicans felt that was letting the South off too lightly. Many Republicans also feared that allowing the southern states back into the Union, and into Congress, would give the majority back to the Democratic Party. For both these reasons, a growing number of Republicans opposed Lincoln’s plan.

Wade, along with Maryland Congressman Davis, authored the Wade-Davis Bill that outlined the Radical Republican plan for the South. The Wade-Davis Bill called for a state to be allowed to return to home rule only after a majority of its citizens took an oath of loyalty that required them to certify that they had never taken up arms against the United States government. Lincoln allowed the bill to die by the use of the pocket veto.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Wade was very happy to see Andrew Johnson take over. With Johnson’s well-known hatred to southern aristocracy, Wade was confident that the Radical plan would be carried out. But Johnson’s attitude towards the southern aristocracy softened, and he announced he would carry out Lincoln’s plan to bring the South back into the Union as quickly and gently as possible.

The Radicals opposed Johnson’s every move. Led by Sumner and Wade, they passed the Reconstruction Acts and Civil Rights Acts over Johnson’s veto. They then passed the Tenure of Office Act, which said that the President could not fire without Senate approval any official whose appointment had required senate confirmation. This act, later declared unconstitutional, was aimed at Johnson. When Johnson fired his disloyal, radical Secretary of War Stanton, Congress moved to impeach Johnson.

Once the House of Representatives impeached President Johnson, it was up to the Senate to act as jury and either acquit or convict him. Each Senator swore an oath to do impartial justice based on the evidence presented. That oath did not stop many from announcing their vote before the trial even started, including Wade. As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Wade was the acting presiding officer of the Senate during the Johnson administration (except for the actual impeachment trial which was presided over by the Chief Justice of the United States, Salmon Chase). He used his considerable influence to convince Senators to vote against Johnson.

Wade had another reason to want Johnson convicted and removed from office. As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Wade was next in line to become President. According to the succession law in force at the time (see the earlier article “The Presidential Line of Succession: Who’s Next” published on February 25, 2000), the President Pro Tempore of the Senate came after the President and Vice President. As Johnson had been Vice President and moved up to the Presidency after Lincoln’s death, there was no Vice President. At such times, it was proper to refer to the President Pro Tempore as the Acting Vice President, since he fulfilled both the Vice Presidential constitutional duties of presiding over the Senate and being next in line for the White House.

Wade had yet another reason. Ohio, always a closely divided state, had gone Democratic in the last election. With the Democrats controlling the state legislature, Wade was sure to be defeated for re-election. He very much loved being in the Senate, and wanted to stay. His plan called for Johnson to be removed, and for him to fill the last ten months of the Presidential term. The Republican Party was obviously going to nominate General Grant for President, but Wade hoped that by being President and smoothing the way for Grant, he might be named the Vice Presidential candidate. As Vice President, he would be President of the Senate, and get to remain in his beloved Senate. So it was all or nothing for Benjamin Wade. Either he was merely a lame duck Senator with only ten months left to serve, or he was about to become the 18th President of the United States, and the next Vice President with eight more happy years in the Senate ahead of him.

It all came down to the vote in the Senate. Thirty-five Senators voted for conviction and nineteen voted to acquit. Unfortunately for Wade, the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority to convict and remove an impeached official. Seven Republican Senators crossed party lines to join the Democrats in voting in favor of the President. The vote was one short of the required number. Wade’s plan, which had come so close to giving him everything he wanted, missed by one single vote.

In March 1869, Wade returned to Jefferson, Ohio and resumed his law practice. He never again served in his beloved Senate. He was appointed a government director of the Union Pacific Railroad, and in 1871 he was named a member of the Santo Domingo Commission. He died in Jefferson on March 2, 1878. Although he is not often remembered by history, he came closer to being President than any other person: one single vote.