Fessenden, William Pitt

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Fessenden, William Pitt

William Pitt Fessenden, 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 Act, 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 Reconstruction 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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