William Pitt Fessenden: Dutiful Patriot

In the political history surrounding the War of the Rebellion, the focus is often on Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Ben Wade of Ohio, the leading promoters of the rights of freedmen who were also punitive in attitude to the South. A figure I’d like to highlight today, however, is one who was not so public and loud but no less important in William Pitt Fessenden (1806-1869).

Fessenden came from the Fessenden political family, and his brothers Samuel and Thomas served in Congress. His father, Samuel, was an abolitionist and such beliefs passed on to his children. He was first elected to Congress in 1840 as a Whig, the year that the shortest-lasting president William Henry Harrison was elected. During his one term in the House, Fessenden pushed to end the “gag rule” on debating the continued existence of slavery and did not himself last long in the House, as he came to have such a strong distaste for Washington that in 1843, he vowed never to return. He did in the meantime build up his political profile in the state as the leading Whig opponent of slavery from Maine. However, the abolitionist Fessenden was compelled by a sense of duty to return to Washington as the debate over slavery intensified in 1854, being elected to the Senate as a member of the Opposition. He would become one of the fathers of the state Republican Party and in Congress would speak vigorously against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the law that had resulted in the end of the Whig Party and the beginning of the Republican Party. In 1857, Fessenden suffered two terrible misfortunes: the death of his wife and contracting malaria, which compromised his health for the rest of his life. Despite being one of the staunchest opponents of the Slave Power, he nonetheless was eager to preserve the Union and attended the last-ditch and unsuccessful Peace Conference of 1861 to avert the eight remaining slave states from seceding. Throughout Fessenden’s Senate career, he was independent-minded. For instance, he voted to strike the Legal Tender Clause from the Legal Tender Act but voted for the bill itself. The Legal Tender Act authorized $430 million in “greenbacks” unbacked by gold or silver as an emergency war measure. Fessenden also was not always up for voting favorably regarding railroads. He could best be thought of as a moderate conservative in his voting. Fessenden’s greatest contribution in the Senate was as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in which he took the lead on measures to fund the war effort and through his diligence and hard work was able to win unanimous approval on one revenue measure.

In 1864, President Lincoln nominated Fessenden to be the next Secretary of the Treasury without informing him ahead of time, and the Senate confirmed him unanimously. He was reluctant to succeed Salmon P. Chase due to his poor health, and Lincoln pressured him hard to take the post, telling him, “Fessenden, the Lord has not deserted me thus far, and He is not going to now—you must accept!” (Mr. Lincoln’s White House) Ultimately, however, duty called him to do so just as it had for him to return to Washington in 1854 and he resigned from the Senate to be Secretary of the Treasury. In this position, Fessenden focused on funding the war effort while keeping other expenditures down. However, he only stayed until the next year and then he was returned to the Senate. There, Fessenden would resume his chairmanship of the Finance Committee and retain his independent-minded voting; in 1868 he voted to sustain President Johnson’s veto of a bill increasing tariffs on copper and voted with conservatives in support of the Public Credit Bill in 1869, which would require payment of war bonds back in gold as bondholders expected, which was opposed by lame duck President Johnson who pocket vetoed it. President Grant would sign the measure.

Fessenden, Reconstruction, and the Johnson Impeachment

Fessenden was a strong supporter of Congressional Reconstruction, being chair of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, and he strongly disliked and disagreed with President Johnson. He also voted for both the 14th and 15th Amendments. However, when the subject of impeachment came up for violating the Tenure of Office Act, Fessenden was the first of the seven Senate Republicans to vote against it. Two motives for this were not wanting President Pro Tem Ben Wade of Ohio, who was next in line for the presidency, to ascend to the office. Wade was a forceful and divisive figure as well as a supporter of currency inflation and high tariffs, all of which bothered Fessenden as well as a number of powerful businessmen in New England. Johnson survived conviction by one vote. As was written in a contemporary newspaper, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor” (Trefousse, 309). Although deeply unpopular among his Republican colleagues for this vote, he nonetheless became chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Although none of the seven senators were reelected, he ultimately neither faced political consequences for his vote nor was able to make a mark in his position as his bout of malaria had taken its toll and he succumbed to his poor health on September 8, 1869, only a few months after the passing of his father.

Fessenden was overall a constructive legislator whose efforts were vital in saving the Union and was bound by a sense of duty to his country even when his health was compromised. He was one of America’s great patriots and deserves more than a modicum of recognition.


Cabinet and Vice Presidents: William Pitt Fessenden (1806-1869). Mr. Lincoln’s White House.

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Trefousse, H.L. (2000). “Wade, Benjamin Franklin”. American National Biography Online.

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William P. Fessenden: A Featured Biography. U.S. Senate.

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