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William Pitt Fessenden
(October 16, 1806 – September 8, 1869)
William Fessenden of Maine was a congressman (1841-1843), senator (1853-1864; 1865-1871), and secretary of the treasury (1864-1865).  He served as chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction, which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Acts.

He was born on October 16, 1806, in Boscawen, New Hampshire, to Ruth Greene and Samuel Fessenden, a prominent lawyer in Maine.  His parents never married, and he never met his mother.  He lived with his paternal grandmother in Fryeburg, Maine, for his first seven years.  In 1813, he began living with his newly married father in New Gloucester, Maine.  Young Fessenden was educated primarily at home by his father before entering Bowdoin College (Maine) when he was 13.  He graduated in 1823, which was a year late because he had to pay fines for “profane swearing” and leaving the campus without permission.  He then read law in Portland, Maine, was admitted to the state bar in 1827, and worked at his father’s law office for a few years.

Politically, Fessenden identified first with the National Republicans, then the Whigs, and later the Republicans.  In 1831, he was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1831, but lost reelection the next year.  He established a law partnership in Portland, Maine, with William Willis.  Fessenden married Ellen Deering in 1832; the couple later had five children.  In 1837, he served as campaign manager for the successful Whig gubernatorial nominee, Edward Kent.  Two years later, Fessenden was again elected to the lower chamber of the Maine legislature, through which he steered a revision of the state legal code.  In 1840, he was elected to Congress, where he supported the Whig agenda of protective tariffs, internal improvement, and a national bank.  He did not run for reelection in 1842, but continued expanding his law practice.  Fessenden was the Whig nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1843 and 1845, but was defeated in the Democratically controlled state legislature.  In 1845-1846 and again in 1853-1854, he served in the Maine House. 

A state legislative coalition supporting temperance and objecting to the expansion of slavery elected Fessenden in 1854 to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate.  He arrived in time to be the last speaker on the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which he strongly opposed for opening the Western territories to slavery.  Senator Stephen Douglas, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, called his Maine colleague “the readiest and ablest debater.”  In the summer of 1855, Fessenden joined the new Republican Party.  In 1857, his wife died and he was struck with malaria, which left him in ill health for the remainder of his life.  Two years later, he was reelected to the Senate. 

During the secession crisis of 1860-1861, Fessenden refused to consider compromising with the South.  As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee (1861-1867), he cooperated in implementing Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase policies, such as the use of paper money (“greenbacks”), even though the measures were at odds with the senator’s conservative economic views.  Fessenden generally supported the Lincoln administration’s war effort, although he pushed for greater military aggression.  He did not join radicals in the party in calling for emancipation or confiscation of Confederate property.

When Lincoln accepted Chase’s resignation as treasury secretary in July 1864, the president appointed Fessenden to the position, which the senator accepted reluctantly.  At the Treasury Department, he sought to raise government funds through short-term loans, but had to rely on financier Jay Cooke to sell most of them.  Fessenden resigned in March 1865 to return to the Senate for a third term.  In December 1865, he was chosen to chair the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Acts.  Although he was himself reluctant to dictate terms for the South’s reentry into Congress, and he tried to cooperate with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, Fessenden broke with the Democratic president when he vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bills in early 1866.  Nevertheless, he opposed impeaching and removing Johnson from office, becoming one of only seven Republican senators who joined with Democrats to vote in May 1868 against the president’s conviction.  Fessenden argued that Johnson had not violated the Tenure of Office Act (which the Maine senator had voted against) nor committed any impeachable offense.  That independent act left his standing in the Maine Republican Party somewhat damaged, but it was partially restored later that year by his vocal support of Republican presidential nominee Ulysses S. Grant.  

Fessenden died at his home in Portland, Maine, on September 8, 1869.

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