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Fessenden, William Pitt

William Pitt Fessenden, courtesy Maine State Museum

William Pitt Fessenden, courtesy Maine State Museum

(1806-1869) (brother of Samuel Clement Fessenden and Thomas Amory Deblois Fessenden), was a U.S. Representative and a U.S. Senator from Maine. He was born in Boscawen, Merrimack County, New Hampshire on October 16, 1806.

Fessenden attended the common schools, graduated from Bowdoin College in 1827, studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1827, and practiced in Bridgeton, Bangor, and Portland.

A member of the Maine House of Representatives in 1832 and 1840, he was elected as a Whig to the Twenty-seventh Congress (March 4, 1841-March 3, 1843) but declined to be a candidate for reelection in 1842. He returned as a member of the Maine House of Representatives (1845-1846).

Continuing the state and federal house switches, Fessenden was an unsuccessful Whig candidate for election to the Thirty-second Congress, but became a member again of the Maine House of Representatives (1853-1854).

William P. Fessenden, during the Civil War Mathew Brady Studio

William P. Fessenden, during the Civil War Mathew Brady Studio

Fessenden was elected as a Whig to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy in the term beginning March 4, 1853, caused by the failure of the legislature to elect a U.S. Senator. He was reelected in 1859 as a Republican and served from February 10, 1854, to July 1, 1864, when he resigned to accept a Cabinet appointment as Secretary of the Treasury by President Abraham Lincoln (1864-1865).

A member of the Peace Convention of 1861 held in Washington, D.C., in an effort to devise means to prevent the impending war, he was later elected to the United States Senate as a Republican and served from March 4, 1865, until his death in Portland on September 8, 1869.

Fessenden chaired the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, and authored its 1869 report while opposing some of the extreme proposals of the Radical Republicans.

In 1868 the House of Representatives brought charges of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson. Fessenden disliked the president, but he opposed the proceedings. He was among seven Republicans whose votes for Johnson’s acquittal provided the margin of victory for the president. In the final year of his life, he was alienated from his fellow Republicans and the party he had worked to form.

He served as chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds (Fortieth Congress), Committee on Appropriations (Forty-first Congress), and the Committee on the Library (Forty-first Congress).

William Pitt Fessenden is interred in Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Additional resources

Fessenden, Francis. Life and Public Services of William Pitt Fessenden. 1907. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press. 1970.

Jellison, Charles. Fessenden of Maine: Civil War Senator. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1962.

Note on the Matthew Brady photo above:

“With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady endeavored to record the progress of the war with his camera. He and his associates traveled throughout the eastern part of the country and photographed many of the battlefields, towns, and people touched by the war. In addition, Brady photographed many of the distinguished political and military personalities who found time to stop by his Washington, DC studio. The result was a collection of some 12,000 images (possibly more) which comprises a rich visual document of the Civil War period.” Source: National Archives series description of the photos from which the Fessenden picture comes.  Image ID: National Archives # NWDNS-111-B.

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