Fessenden, William Pitt

FESSENDEN, WILLIAM PITT (1806-1869), American statesman and financier, was born in Boscawen, New Hampshire, on the 16th of October 1806. After graduating at Bowdoin College in 1823, he studied law, and in 1827 was admitted to the bar, eventually settling in Portland, Maine, where for two years he was associated in practice with his father, Samuel Fessenden (1784-1869), a prominent lawyer and anti-slavery leader. In 1832 and in 1840 Fessenden was a representative in the Maine legislature, and in 1841-1843 was a Whig member of the national House of Representatives. When his term in this capacity was over, he devoted himself unremittingly and with great success to the law. He became well known, also, as an eloquent advocate of slavery restriction. In 1845-1846 and 1853-1854 he again served in the state House of Representatives, and in 1854 was chosen by the combined votes of Whigs and Anti-Slavery Democrats to the United States Senate. Within a fortnight after taking his seat he delivered a speech in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which at once made him a force in the congressional anti-slavery contest. From then on he was one of the most eloquent and frequent debaters among his colleagues, and in 1859, almost without opposition, he was re-elected to the Senate as a member of the Republican party, in the organization of which he had taken an influential part. He was a delegate in 1861 to the Peace Congress, but after the actual outbreak of hostilities he insisted that the war should be prosecuted vigorously. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, his services were second in value only to those of President Lincoln and Secretary Salmon P. Chase in efforts to provide funds for the defence of the Union; and in July 1864 Fessenden succeeded Chase as secretary of the treasury. The finances of the country in the early summer of 1864 were in a critical condition; a few days before leaving office Secretary Chase had been compelled to withdraw from the market $32,000,000 of 6% bonds, on account of the lack of acceptable bids; gold had reached 285 and was fluctuating between 225 and 250, while the value of the paper dollar had sunk as low as 34 cents. It was Secretary Fessenden's policy to avoid a further increase of the circulating medium, and to redeem or consolidate the temporary obligations outstanding. In spite of powerful pressure the paper currency was not increased a dollar during his tenure of the office. As the sales of bonds and treasury notes were not sufficient for the needs of the Treasury, interest-bearing certificates of indebtedness were issued to cover the deficits; but when these began to depreciate the secretary, following the example of his predecessors, engaged the services of the Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke (q.v.) and secured the consent of Congress to raise the balance of the $400,000,000 loan authorized on the 30th of June 1864 by the sale of the so-called "seven-thirty" treasury notes (i.e. notes bearing interest at 7.3% payable in currency in three years or convertible at the option of the holder into 6% 5-20 year gold bonds). Through Cooke's activities the sales became enormous; the notes, issued in denominations as low as $50, appealed to the patriotic impulses of the people who could not subscribe for bonds of a higher denomination. In the spring of 1865 Congress authorized an additional loan of $600,000,000 to be raised in the same manner, and for the first time in four years the Treasury was able to meet all its obligations. After thus securing ample funds for the enormous expenditures of the war, Fessenden resigned the treasury portfolio in March 1865, and again took his seat in the Senate, serving till his death. In the Senate he again became chairman of the finance committee, and also of the joint committee on reconstruction. He was the author of the report of this last committee (1866), in which the Congressional plan of reconstruction was set forth and which has been considered a state paper of remarkable power and cogency. He was not, however, entirely in accord with the more radical members of his own party, and this difference was exemplified in his opposition to the impeachment of President Johnson and subsequently in his voting for Johnson's acquittal. He bore with calmness the storm of reproach from his party associates which followed, and lived to regain the esteem of those who had attacked him. He died at Portland, Maine, on the 6th of September 1869.

See Francis Fessenden, Life and Public Services of William Pitt Fessenden (2 vols., Boston, 1907).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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