The New International Encyclopædia/Fessenden, William Pitt

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FESSENDEN, William Pitt (1806-69). An American statesman. He was born in Boscawen, N. H., graduated at Bowdoin College in 1823, and began the practice of law in 1827. He settled in Portland, Maine, was elected to the State Legislature in 1832, and became known as an able debater. In 1840 he was elected to Congress as a Whig, but served only one term. He won national repute as a lawyer, and as an Anti-Slavery Whig orator and campaign speaker, and in 1848 he was a strong supporter of Webster for the presidency. In 1854, while a member of the Maine Legislature, he was elected United States Senator, by the combined votes of the Whig and Anti-Slavery Democratic members. A fortnight after taking his seat in the Senate, he delivered a stirring speech in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, thereby leaping at once into prominence as one of the ablest speakers on the Anti-Slavery side. In 1859 he was reëlected to the Senate for a second term as a Republican, and was at once made chairman of the important Committee on Finance, in which position, during the next five years he ably seconded President Lincoln and Secretary Chase in their attempts to solve the puzzling financial questions arising from the war. Upon the resignation of Secretary Chase in 1864, President Lincoln and his counselors naturally turned to Senator Fessenden as the man best fitted to take the vacant portfolio of the Treasury. Fessenden hesitated at first, but after it became evident that there was need of his services and that both President and nation looked to him in the emergency, he accepted. The period was one of the blackest in the financial history of the country. Gold was at 280, the currency of the nation was inflated, the paper dollar was worth only 34 cents, and the government had just found it necessary to withdraw from the market a loan which it had been unable to float. The first act of the new Secretary in this crisis was the issuance of the famous “seven-thirty” bonds, — bonds bearing interest at the rate of 7.30 per cent., and issued in denominations as small as $50. His idea was that if appeals were made to the patriotism of the people, and the loan offered in such sums that people of moderate means could invest, it would succeed, and his judgment proved correct. He also withheld the further issue of greenbacks for the time being, thus inducing the State banks to adopt the national system. Gold having fallen to 199 and the necessities of the occasion having been met. Secretary Fessenden resigned his portfolio in March, 1865, in order to take his seat. in the Senate, to which he had been chosen for a third term. In the years immediately following the war he took a leading part in the debates and was chairman of the joint committee on reconstruction. His action in voting for the acquittal of President Johnson on his impeachment trial brought upon him the harshest criticism of his political career. He bravely faced the storm of reproach which it called forth, and although for the moment his political associates looked upon him as almost a traitor, his sincerity and honesty of purpose were so apparent, and his continued devotion to the principles of the Republican Party so absolute that he very soon won again his old position as a party leader.