Fessenden, William Pitt

Fessenden, William Pitt,

1806–69, American politician, b. Boscawen, N.H. Admitted (1827) to the bar, he began practice in Portland in 1829 and by 1835 was regarded as one of the leading lawyers of Maine. A Whig, he served several terms in the state legislature and one (1841–43) in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fessenden was active in organizing the Republican party in Maine and in 1854 was elected to the U.S. Senate, where, except for nine months as Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury (June, 1864–Mar., 1865), he remained until his death. Beginning with a notable speech against the Kansas-Nebraska ActKansas-Nebraska Act,
bill that became law on May 30, 1854, by which the U.S. Congress established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. By 1854 the organization of the vast Platte and Kansas river countries W of Iowa and Missouri was overdue.
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, he gained a reputation as one of the Senate's greatest debaters. Made a member of the finance committee in 1857, Fessenden was its chairman during most of the Civil War. In that capacity and as Secretary of the Treasury he established an excellent record in public finance, trying to confine expenditures to necessary measures and to resist inflation. In Dec., 1865, he became chairman of the joint committee on ReconstructionReconstruction,
1865–77, in U.S. history, the period of readjustment following the Civil War. At the end of the Civil War, the defeated South was a ruined land. The physical destruction wrought by the invading Union forces was enormous, and the old social and economic
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 and wrote most of its famous report. Although he believed Congress, and not the President, should direct Reconstruction, and although he disliked Andrew Johnson personally, he refused to vote for Johnson's impeachment. He also refused to vote on the Tenure of Office Act and in general acted more moderately than his fellow radical Republicans. His course, particularly in regard to the impeachment proceedings, was contrary to the expressed wishes of his constituency, and for a time he was unpopular.


See biography by his son, F. Fessenden (1907, repr. 1970); B. J. Hendrick, Lincoln's War Cabinet (1946, repr. 1965); C. A. Jellison, Fessenden of Maine: Civil War Senator (1962).

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Fessenden, William Pitt

(1806–69) lawyer, U.S. representative/senator; born in Boscawen, N.H. He graduated from Bowdoin College (1823) and was admitted to the Maine bar in 1827. He rose in the Whig Party and served Maine in the U.S. House of Representatives (Whig, 1841–43). As a strong opponent of slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, he became one of the founders of the Republican Party (1854) and then went to the U.S. Senate (Rep., 1854–64). As a member of the Senate Finance Committee (chairman after 1861) he was a staunch proponent of fiscal responsibility, arguing for taxes if necessary to support the Union forces. President Lincoln appointed him secretary of the treasury (1864–65), where he continued his conservative fiscal policies. Returning to the U.S. Senate (Rep., Maine; 1865–69), as chairman of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction he supported severe treatment of the defeated South and opposed President Andrew Johnson and his policies. But as a man of principle and law, Fessenden was convinced that Johnson had been impeached (1868) for political motives and so voted "not guilty" after the trial even though it led to his being attacked by his party and constituents.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.