- Politics and Social Issues
Almost President Benjamin Wade
Almost President Wade
Wade Was One Hundred Years Ahead of His Time
Tumultuous times followed the Lincoln assassination, after which Andrew Johnson, the VP, took over the presidency just as Lyndon Johnson took over for JFK one hundred years later. The impeachment by the House of Representatives on February 24, 1868, accused Andrew Johnson of high crimes and misdemeanors mainly for removing the Secretary of War from office despite federal law prohibiting this. But additionally, Andrew Johnson was hated by many Americans.
On March 5, 1868, a trial began, the impeachment being only an accusation. The trial took place in the Senate. The judge was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This was the first impeachment in US history. Since then, we've had only one other, being the Bill Clinton impeachment. Neither impeachment went all the way to conviction. Many people associate Richard Nixon with impeachment, but he resigned first.
Senators voted 35 guilty but 19 not guilty. Because two-thirds of the 54 senators had to vote guilty in order to oust Johnson, this meant that the 19th not-guilty vote was crucial. Had there been a 36th guilty vote instead, Johnson would have been gone one year before his term expired naturally in March of 1869.
What seems strange to us today is that in the 1860's when Andrew Johnson was president, there was no VP at all serving under him. Not until the 25th Amendment could a replacement VP be appointed.
What if that 36th vote had been cast? Another thing strange to us today is that in the 1860's the line of succession was different. Since 1947, the Speaker of the House is next in line, but in Andrew Johnson's time, it was the President pro tempore of the Senate. Dramatically, it was the Senate itself that held the fate of Johnson in its hands.
Both House Speaker and Senate Pro Tempore are powerful office holders. For example, when Ulysses S. Grant became president after Johnson, Grant's VP was Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the same House of Representatives that had impeached Johnson a year earlier.
A strong critic of Johnson during the trial in the Senate was the Pro Tempore himself, Benjamin Wade. Did his anger against Johnson stem from political ambition? Would it be naive to say otherwise? An analysis of Benjamin Franklin "Bluff" Wade's life leaves these questions without any clear answer.
Wade was born October 27, 1800, and died March 2, 1878. If he had succeeded Johnson, it's doubtful he could have defeated Grant in the presidential election the next year due to Grant's popularity and Wade's appeal only to what then was considered a radical fringe, but today would be thought to be politically correct in every way.
Wade started life in a small town in western Massachusetts. His was one of the poorest families around. Wade’s dad fought the British in Boston and Yorktown. His mother stayed home raising ten kids. Ben was the tenth.He was home-schooled by his mom and worked on farms around the area. At eighteen he didn’t want to be a burden on his parents, and headed westward on foot.
He found one brother in Ohio. Benjamin worked on farms and went to school in the winter. Although he loved biographies and read the entire Bible, he didn’t do well in school. He became a drover, leading cattle from Akron, Ohio to Albany, New York on foot, but sometimes riding an ox. He worked also digging the Erie Canal.
In his twenties he studied law and was admitted to practice at twenty-eight. While lacking the finer education of lawyers, Benjamin, something of a working-class hero, could sway juries with his plain and simple talk.
His reputation as a courageous lawyer spread.He was made county prosecutor and then state senator at thirty-seven. Although successful, he always regretted becoming a politician and wished for the simple life. He fought against imprisonment for debt, slavery, and discrimination, making many enemies.
But his aversion to the stress and arrogant bickering of politics perhaps always remained, even to the fateful day in 1868 when the US Senate cast the vote in the impeachment trial. Is it too imaginative to wonder whether Wade seriously could have wanted to vote for acquittal just to avoid assuming the presidency?
Back in Ohio, at age forty, he had quit politics and married Caroline Rosecrantz, a native of Connecticut. They had two sons. Wade apparently was peaceful and content for a time, practicing law and doing well. But then, due to his legal reputation, Benjamin Wade was made a judge at age forty-seven. Next, at fifty-one, he became a US Senator from Ohio.
Seventeen years later, in 1868 Benjamin Wade was still Ohio senator and had become President pro tempore of the Senate. He had fought bitterly against Andrew Johnson. Wade was a “Radical” Republican, the most liberal politician of his day, seeking women’s rights, African-American integration, labor union solidarity, and restrictions on capitalism.
Not only did Wade dislike Johnson, he even disliked Lincoln, calling him “white trash” for refusing to let Blacks serve in the army and stating publicly that they should not associate with the superior Whites.
Political analysis in the 1860's showed that the defiant Southern racist Johnson escaped conviction not because he was forgiven, but because the American public was so afraid of the radical Wade that they dreaded his becoming president.
While the struggle between liberals and conservatives has not changed over the centuries, the mechanics of the law did change. Succession law has changed. The Constitution let Congress decide who should be president after the VP (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6). In 1792 Congress made the President pro tempore of the Senate next in line; in 1886 it changed to Secretary of State; now since 1947 it’s Speaker of the House.
Impeachment is rare. Bill Clinton came along one hundred thirty-one years after Andrew Johnson. Richard Nixon resigned, but although there was a strong voice for impeachment, it never happened because the American people feared VP Agnew even more than President Nixon due to evidence of criminal activity on the part of that VP.
From the tumultuous world of politics and history, Benjamin Wade emerges as a man ahead of his time, so much so that it cost him the presidency, or perhaps the desire to be president at all.
The Lincoln-Johnson Ticket
The National Union Party
The National Union Party no longer exists, but it was the party on which Lincoln and Johnson ran in 1864 toward the end of the Civil War. The National Union Party only lasted through that term and dissolved in 1868 after four years. Its predecessors were the Republican Party, the Northern War Democrats, and the Constitutional Union Party. It seemed it was all about war and holding the states together, preventing the break-up of the United States.
Normally, Lincoln and Johnson would have run as Republican candidates, but the National Union Party came about all because of the Civil War. It was only a name change. The key tactic was to win the votes of Northern War Democrats. The word "Republican" was repulsive to them.
The end result was successful. Lincoln and Johnson enjoyed a landslide victory.
Radical Republicans, liberals like Benjamin Wade, disliked Lincoln. Their party was called The Radical Democracy Party.
A lot of the votes for The National Union Party candidate for president, Lincoln, came about through the generally accepted thought, embodied in a Lincoln speech accepting the nomination, that "it's not best to swap horses when crossing streams." This is obviously true literally as it pertains to horses and streams, but became just as true in the minds of many voters with respect to incumbent President Lincoln and the Civil War.
Just before the election in 1864, the Union Armies won decisive battles, especially the major feat of taking Atlanta in September. Everyone, by the time of the election, realized the Confederacy was fighting a losing battle.
The National Union Party (the Republican Party under the guise of a different name) won an overwhelming majority of Senate seats also in the 1864 election. It has to be mentioned that the Confederacy senators refused to participate in Washington politics during the War, so there were only 52 senators at the time of the election. The National Union Party (Republicans actually under a temporary alternative name) won 42 seats in the Senate.
When Johnson took over for the murdered Lincoln in 1865, The National Union Party started to dwindle. Republicans left it, and it eventually turned into the Democratic Party. Republicans impeached (accused) Johnson in 1868. They did not like his Reconstruction tactics. But meanwhile, the Democratic Party came to like Johnson.
The reason Johnson was impeached was the impatience of liberal, radical Republicans with the Lincoln-Johnson approach to Reconstruction, which was to move slowly toward Civil Rights of the Black slaves in the South. The liberals wanted a swift and radical movement to elevate the former slaves to a position equal to Whites in every way. They saw Lincoln and Johnson as bigots who cooperated with the prejudice in the South against Blacks.
Therefore, in historical perspective, The National Union Party was not liberal or progressive in today's sense. Many U.S. citizens at the time of The National Union Party saw it as a party that would shed the blood of Americans in the Civil War for the sole reason of maintaining power over a large nation by forcefully preventing the Southern States from forming their own country. Anti-slavery was seen as a trick to lure voters' support for The National Union Party candidates, Lincoln and Johnson, who simply were power-hungry people disguising themselves as Civil Rights advocates.