William P. Fessenden, US Sec'y of Treasury

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William P. Fessenden, US Sec'y of Treasury's Geni Profile

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Sen. William Pitt Fessenden

Birthplace: Boscawen, NH, United States
Death: September 08, 1869 (62)
Portland, ME, United States
Place of Burial: Portland, Cumberland, ME, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Gen. Samuel Fessenden and Ruth Fessenden
Husband of Ellen Maria Fessenden
Father of Brig. Gen. James Deering Fessenden, USA; William Howard Fessenden; Maj. General Francis Fessenden (USA); Lt. Samuel Fessenden (USA) and Mary Elizabeth D. Fessenden
Half brother of Samuel Clement Fessenden; Philip Chandler Fessenden; Oliver Griswold Fessenden, I; Hewett Fessenden; Daniel Webster Fessenden and 5 others

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About William P. Fessenden, US Sec'y of Treasury


William Pitt Fessenden (October 16, 1806 – September 8, 1869) was an American politician from the U.S. state of Maine. Fessenden was a Whig (later a Republican) and member of the Fessenden political family. He served in the United States House of Representatives and Senate before becoming Secretary of the Treasury under President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.

A lawyer, he was a leading antislavery Whig in Maine; in Congress, he fought the Slave Power (the plantation owners who controlled southern states). He built an antislavery coalition in the state legislature that elected him to the US Senate; it became Maine's Republican organization. In the Senate, Fessenden played a central role in the debates on Kansas, denouncing the expansion of slavery. He led Radical Republicans in attacking Democrats Stephen Douglas, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. Fessenden's speeches were read widely, influencing Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln and building support for Lincoln's 1860 Republican presidential nomination. During the war, Senator Fessenden helped shape the Union's taxation and financial policies. He moderated his earlier radicalism, and supported Lincoln against the Radicals, becoming Lincoln's Treasury Secretary. After the war, Fessenden was back in the Senate, as chair of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which established terms for resuming congressional representation for the southern states, and which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Later, Fessenden provided critical support that prevented Senate conviction of President Andrew Johnson, who had been impeached by the House.

Youth and early career

Fessenden was born in Boscawen, New Hampshire. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1823, and then studied law. He was a founding member of the Maine Temperance Society in 1827. That year he was also admitted to the bar. He practiced with his father Samuel Fessenden, who was also a prominent anti-slavery activist. He practised law first in Bridgeton, Maine, a year in Bangor, and afterward in Portland. He was a member of the Maine House of Representatives in 1832, and its leading debater. He refused nominations to congress in 1831 and in 1838, and served in the Maine legislature again in 1840, becoming chairman of the house committee to revise the statutes of the state.

He was elected for one term in the United States House of Representatives as a Whig in 1840. During this term, he moved the repeal of the rule that excluded anti-slavery petitions, and spoke upon the loan and bankrupt bills, and the army. At the end of his term in Congress, he turned his attention wholly to his law business until he was again in the Maine legislature in 1845-46. He acquired a national reputation as a lawyer and an anti-slavery Whig, and in 1849 prosecuted before the United States Supreme Court an appeal from an adverse decision of Judge Joseph Story, and gained a reversal by an argument which Daniel Webster pronounced the best he had heard in twenty years. He was again in the Maine legislature in 1853 and 1854.

Service in U.S. Senate and Cabinet

Fessenden's strong anti-slavery principles caused his election to the U. S. Senate in 1854, with the support of Whigs and Anti-Slavery Democrats. Upon taking office, he immediately began speaking against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His speech on the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in 1856, received the highest praise, and in 1858 his speech on the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas, and his criticisms of the opinion of the supreme court in the Dred Scott Case, were considered the ablest discussion of those topics. He participated in the organization of the Republican Party, being re-elected to the Senate from that group in 1860, this time without the formality of a nomination.

In 1861 he was a member of the Peace congress. By the secession of the Southern senators the Republicans acquired control of the senate, and placed Fessenden at the head of the finance committee. During the Civil War, he was the most conspicuous senator in sustaining the national credit. He opposed the Legal Tender Act as unnecessary and unjust. As chairman of the finance committee, Fessenden prepared and carried through the senate all measures relating to revenue, taxation, and appropriations, and, as declared by Charles Sumner, was “in the financial field all that our best generals were in arms.”

President Abraham Lincoln appointed Fessenden United States Secretary of the Treasury upon Salmon P. Chase's resignation. It was the darkest hour of national finances of the United States. Chase had just withdrawn a loan from the market for want of acceptable bids, and the capacity of the country to lend seemed exhausted. The currency had been enormously inflated: the paper dollar was worth only 34 cents; gold was at $280/ounce. Fessenden at first refused the office, but at last accepted in obedience to the universal public pressure. When his acceptance became known, gold fell to $225/ounce. He declared that no more currency should be issued, and, making an appeal to the people, he prepared and put upon the market the seven-thirty loan, which proved a triumphant success. This loan was in the form of bonds bearing interest at the rate of 7.30%, which were issued in denominations as low as $50, so that people of moderate means could take them. He also framed and recommended the measures, adopted by congress, which permitted the subsequent consolidation and funding of the government loans into the 4% and 4.5% bonds.

Fessenden began his service as Secretary of the Treasury on July 5, 1864. The financial situation becoming favorable, in accordance with his expressed intention, he resigned the secretaryship, leaving on March 3, 1865, to return to the Senate, to which he had now for the third time been elected.

From 1865 to 1867, he headed the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which was responsible for overseeing the readmission of states from the former Confederacy into the Union. He wrote its report, which vindicated the power of congress over the rebellious states, showed their relations to the government under the constitution and the law of nations, and recommended the constitutional safeguards made necessary by the rebellion. At this point, Fessenden was the acknowledged leader in the senate of the Republicans. He was considered a moderate, rather than Radical, Republican.

During President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in 1868, Fessenden broke party ranks, along with six other Republican senators, and in a courageous act of political suicide, voted for acquittal. These seven Republican senators were disturbed by how the proceedings had been manipulated in order to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence. He, Joseph S. Fowler, James W. Grimes, John B. Henderson, Lyman Trumbull, Peter G. Van Winkle,[3] and Edmund G. Ross[4] defied their party and public opinion and voted against conviction. As a result, a 35-19 vote in favor of removing the President from office failed by a single vote of reaching a 2/3 majority.

He served as chairman of the Finance Committee during the 37th through 39th Congresses (from 1861 to 1867), which led to his Cabinet appointment. He also served as a chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds during the 40th Congress, the Appropriations Committee during the 41st Congress and the U.S. Senate Committee on the Library, also during the 41st Congress. In 1867, he was one of two senators who voted against the purchase of Alaska from Russia.[5] His last speech in the Senate was upon the bill to strengthen the public credit. He advocated the payment of the principal of the public debt in gold, and opposed the notion that it might lawfully be paid in depreciated greenbacks.

For several years, he was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. He received the degree of LL.D. from Bowdoin in 1858, and from Harvard University in 1864. He died in 1869, while still serving in the U. S. Senate, and was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, Maine.


Two of his brothers, Samuel C. Fessenden and T. A. D. Fessenden, were also Congressmen. He had three sons who served in the American Civil War: Samuel Fessenden, killed at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and Brigadier-General James D. Fessenden and Major-General Francis Fessenden, the latter of whom wrote a two-volume biography of his father which was published in 1907.

Birth: Oct. 16, 1806, Boscawen, Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA. Death: Sep. 8, 1869, Portland, Cumberland, Maine, USA.

Presidential Cabinet Secretary, US Senator, US Congressman. One of the most powerful Republican members of the United States Congress during the Civil War, and a strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln. Represented ME's 4th District in the House of Representatives, serving from 1841 to 1843. Elected to represent Maine in the US Senate in 1853 to fill the vacancy caused by the failure of the Maine State Legislature to fill the seat. Served in the Senate from 1853 to 1864, then from 1865 to his death in 1869. In the 1850s he was a strong anti-slavery proponent, and helped organize the Republican Party. During the Civil War was a chairman of the Senate Finance committee, a position which he greatly influenced the financial aspect of the war for the Union. He was a member of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference, which unsuccessfully tried to stave off the war. He was appointed in July 1, 1864 to the post of Secretary of the Treasury, serving until March 1865, when he again took up his Senate seat. After the war he served as chairman of the Joint Committee of Reconstruction, which was orientated to Radical Reconstruction. Three of his sons served in the Union Army in the Civil War. Two, James D. Fessenden and Francis Fessenden, rose to the ranks of Brigadier General and Major General, respectively (both owing their rank to their father's political influence). The third, Samuel Fessenden, served in the artillery, and as an aide-de-camp, and was mortally wounded at the Battle of 2nd Bull Run. His two younger brothers were Maine Congressmen Samuel C. Fessenden, and Thomas A.D. Fessenden. Originally interred in Portland's Western Cemetery, he was moved to the Fessenden family plot in Evergreen Cemetery. (Ancestor of Hollywood actress, Beverly Garland)

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William P. Fessenden, US Sec'y of Treasury's Timeline

October 16, 1806
Boscawen, NH, United States
Age 16
A.B. from Bowdoin College
September 28, 1833
Age 26
Westbrook, Maine
May 5, 1835
Age 28
March 18, 1839
Age 32
Portland, Maine
January 6, 1841
Age 34
June 16, 1843
Age 36
Portland, Cumberland County, Maine, United States
Age 47
Elected to Congress
Age 52
Elected U.S. Senator
September 8, 1869
Age 62
Portland, ME, United States