Ohio History Journal

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Benjamin Wade's Strange Defeat


Benjamin Wade is known to countless thousands of undergraduates

as "Bluff Ben," a grim, outspoken advocate of equal justice for freed

Southern slaves. The memorable but not completely flattering portrait

of Wade found in most college textbooks sometimes obscures the

prominent part the Ohio Senator played in national politics during the

great crisis of the Civil War and Reconstruction. A leading "radical"

Republican, he chaired the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct

of the War. One more Senator's vote cast in favor of Andrew Johnson's

conviction would have made Wade the only president pro tempore of

the Senate to replace a President removed from office.

Over the last several decades revisionist historians have rescued

Wade's reputation from the even more unflattering caricature found in

older studies of the "legend of Reconstruction."1 The work of Hans L.

Trefousse has been most influential in renewing respect for Wade's

long and impressive career. Yet even Trefousse (who admittedly was

preoccupied with other issues) did not stress the significance of an

unusual event early in Wade's political career.2 Until the Democratic

Ohio Legislature refused to return Wade to the U.S. Senate in 1868, his

most frustrating political setback came in a little-known 1839 race for

reelection to the Ohio Senate. That year an "unholy alliance" between

Democrats and antiabolitionist Whigs in Geauga and Ashtabula coun-

ties combined to defeat Wade in two of the strongest Whig counties in

the state.

Not only should this episode be considered in evaluating Wade's life,

it also reveals critical considerations about antebellum politics. For





Vernon L. Volpe is Assistant Professor of History at Kearney State College.


1. For the "legend" see Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877

(New York, 1965), 3-23.

2. Trefousse, Benjamin Franklin Wade: Radical Republican from Ohio (New York,

1963), 41-42, mentions Wade's 1839 defeat briefly but attributes it partly to conservative

Whig opposition to his general "independent course," especially on financial issues.

(Wade did vote with the "Vanocrats" on some issues. Ohio State Journal, January 3,