Written by Catherine Wilson
Read Part I
Benjamin Franklin Wade (1800-1878) seems to be an equally repugnant figure to Ohioans looking at native sons during the Civil War. Like Vallandigham, he was unwilling to abandon his strongly-held principles, and was probably just as convinced that history would prove him right. Both men were lawyers, served in the Ohio and U.S. Senates, and both spoke passionately about their causes. Their political beliefs may have been at opposite poles, but the way in which they expressed them was very similar; however, Wade’s frequent use of colorful metaphors was his own.
Wade was a Whig, later Republican, but would not vote a straight ticket if he was opposed to any part thereof. He was quoted as saying “I am very apt to consult my own view of propriety,” and often did so on everything from enforcement of laws to the conduct of the war. Wade was very strongly against Gen. George McClellan, especially his dilatory habits when speed was necessary in driving and punishing the enemy. Wade described the general as a woodchuck: “Place him before an enemy and he will burrow … his first effort is to get into the ground.” As part of the committee investigating the conduct of the war, Wade felt that the president’s conduct should be indicted as well, and that decisions should be made not by the book, but through experience. Military delay was bad, but indecision was worse. Wade would not be thoroughly happy with any commander until Grant came along; Grant was a Democrat in politics, but saw that only total war would win. Wade agreed.
The Wade-Davis Bill deserves some mention here; it was written in opposition to Lincoln’s plan restoring the Southern states after the war, especially in its policies of property confiscation and of emancipation. Wade did not feel that Lincoln went far enough on either. Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill, not wishing to limit government to a single plan or ignore his own plan that a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery would be better than a mere Congressional statement. Wade may have felt that Lincoln, like McClellan earlier, had a “case of the slows” in this matter. Wade and Davis wrote a manifesto questioning and attacking Lincoln after the veto, which was poorly received to say the least. Wade was censured by his own Ohio district, and was accused of dividing the party when unity was needed and lowering morale. Wade was disgusted by the thought of reinstating the rebel government to the United States as the war neared its end, especially when Johnson declared amnesty for the rebels; admitting the leading traitors with open arms branded Johnson “a traitor in his heart” for doing so. Wade’s hostility, clashes with others, public name-calling, and stubborn behavior were his political undoing; few wanted to associate with him any longer. One cannot help but wonder how history might have changed if either Wade or Vallandigham had evinced a sense of humor; with a president who loved the work of Petroleum V. Nasby and Artemus Ward, that saving grace might have helped these two Ohioans to get along better with their colleagues in Washington City.
On the question of Democrats vs Whigs/Republicans/Unionists in Ohio and elsewhere, various historians come to various conclusions. For some there is a clear division of War Democrats, Moderate Peace Democrats, and Extreme Peace Democrats; however, self-identification and actions overlapped on an individual basis among the Democratic groups, so that very few fit neatly. History is not the story of neat categories, for sure, and especially at this period in Ohio. Politics was no place for a wimp then, either. The diversity of the state’s people meant that aspiring politicians had to keep their partisans under control. This was undoubtedly a hard job before the war – how much harder was it during and after? Preserving the Union did draw some factions together, but not all.
Another political division in the United States, not just Ohio, is the way in which slavery was regarded generally. Prewar Whigs viewed slavery with the belief that society was an integrated whole, so the community was responsible for moral purity and material advancement, therefore were anti-slavery to protect morals and capital. Democrats, in the broadest terms, believed that ending slavery was a risk to free labor at the North, and abolition would be just as bad as slavery. The morality of the South was not anyone’s business but its own. Porter contends that the current Republican party is not the successor to the same party that backed Fremont and Lincoln, whose platform ended with the abolition of slavery in 1865, but is instead heir to the Union party formed somewhat later. There is much merit in this. He also states that “their arguments on the constitutional question were better fitted to a period when calm reasoning rather than inflamed passion was dominant.” This is still true today, after replacing “constitutional question” with “all politics.”
Again, politics in Civil War Ohio are tangled and can be studied from so many directions, that it is difficult to write a short overview within the scope of a blog entry. At least perhaps the reader has been introduced to some of the major Ohio players that have gotten less press than the battles and leaders on both sides.
Sources for further reading:
Brown, Jeffrey P. and Andrew R.L. Cayton, eds. The Pursuit of Public Power: Political Culture in Ohio, 1787-1861. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 1994. Primarily consulted chapters entitled “The Political Culture of Early Ohio” by Jeffrey P. Brown; “Ohio and the Rise of Sectional Politics” by Stephen E. Maizlish; and “Ohio of Republican Dominance: John C. Frémont’s 1856 Victory in Ohio” by Vernon L. Volpe.
Etcheson, Nicole. The Emerging Midwest: Upland Southerners and the Political Culture of the Old Northwest, 1787-1861. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Greene County Ohio Common Pleas Minute Book, vol. 1, p. 338.
Mach, Thomas S. “Gentleman George” Hunt Pendleton: Party Politics and Ideological Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 2007.
Maizlish, Stephen E. The Triumph of Sectionalism: The Transformation of Ohio Politics 1844-1856. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 1983.
Porter, George H. Ohio Politics During the Civil War Period. New York: AMS Press, 1968 reprint of 1911 original.
Wheeler, Kenneth W., ed. For the Union: Ohio Leaders in the Civil War. Columbus OH: Ohio State University Press, 1968. Primarily consulted chapters entitled “Clement L. Vallandigham,” by Frank L. Klement and “Ben Wade,” by Mary Land.
Xenia Torchlight, “Gone Hence Without Day,” 4 July 1855, p. 3; “The Court of Common Pleas,” 12 March 1856, p. 3.