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Civil War Senator

William Pitt Fessenden and the Fight to Save the American Republic

Robert J. Cook

Publication Year: 2011

One of the most talented and influential American politicians of the nineteenth century, William Pitt Fessenden (1806–1869) helped devise Union grand strategy during the Civil War. A native of Maine and son of a fiery New England abolitionist, he served in the United States Senate as a member of the Whig Party during the Kansas-Nebraska crisis and played a formative role in the development of the Republican Party. In this richly textured and fast-paced biography, Robert J. Cook charts Fessenden’s rise to power and probes the potent mix of political ambition and republican ideology which impelled him to seek a place in the U.S. Senate at a time of rising tension between North and South. A determined and self-disciplined man who fought, not always successfully, to keep his passions in check, Fessenden helped to spearhead Republican Party opposition to proslavery expansion during the strife-torn 1850s and led others to resist the cotton states’ efforts to secede peaceably after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. During the Civil War, he chaired the Senate Finance Committee and served as President Lincoln’s second head of the Treasury Department. In both positions, he fashioned and implemented wartime financial policy for the United States. In addition, Fessenden’s multifaceted relationship with Lincoln helped to foster effective working relations between the president and congressional Republicans. Cook outlines Fessenden’s many contributions to critical aspects of northern grand strategy and to the gradual shift to an effective total war policy against the Confederacy. Most notably, Cook shows, Fessenden helped craft congressional policy regarding the confiscation and emancipation of slaves. Cook also details Fessenden’s tenure as chairman of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction after the war, during which he authored that committee’s report. Although he sanctioned his party’s break with Andrew Johnson less than a year after the war’s end, Cook explains how Fessenden worked decisively to thwart attempts by Radical Republicans to revolutionize post-emancipation society in the defeated Confederacy. The first biography of Fessenden in over forty years, Civil War Senator reveals a significant but often sidelined historical figure and explains the central role played by party politics and partisanship in the coming of the Civil War, northern military victory, and the ultimate failure of postwar Reconstruction. Cook restores Fessenden to his place as one of the most important politicians of a troubled generation.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

I have incurred numerous debts while writing this biography. There are three principal repositories of Fessenden correspondence: Bowdoin College, the Library of Congress, and the Western Reserve Historical Society. For hospitality and friendship in Brunswick, Maine, Silver Spring, Maryland, and Cleveland, Ohio, my thanks go, respectively, to Deborah...

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pp. 1-6

Late in the evening of Friday, March 4, 1854, the Washington correspondent of Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune entered the gallery of the United States Senate to observe debate on a most contentious item of legislation. Denounced by its Free Soil opponents “as part and parcel of an atrocious plot” to spread slavery across the trans-Missouri West, the Kansas...

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1. The Younger Pitt, 1806–1836

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pp. 7-35

William Pitt Fessenden was born on October 6, 1806. A moderate by reputation, he was not born into a world marked by moderation. The Napoleonic Wars, the most global conflict of any up to that point in history, had yet to reach their midpoint and, after a period of relative calm, the armies of the Old World were again laying waste to the earth. Just eight days after his birth French troops crushed two Prussian armies at the battles of Jena...

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2. A Loyal Whig, 1837–1848

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pp. 36-69

William Pitt Fessenden’s path to national power was far from smooth. He possessed many weapons in his armory: a remarkable self-confidence born of his privileged upbringing; a piercing intellect and suave, dignified manner that commanded respect from his peers; a strong sense of conviction tempered by a pragmatic politician’s understanding of the need...

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3. Union among Ourselves, 1849–1856

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pp. 70-101

Zachary Taylor’s election was a false dawn for America’s Whigs. Although they remained wedded to economic growth, the issues that had once been so central to their identity—protective tariffs, banking, and internal improvements—had declined in salience owing to the country’s returning prosperity (further boosted by the discovery of California gold in 1848). In Maine, as in other northern states, the Jacksonians had stolen their...

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4. The Road to Civil War, 1857–1861

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pp. 102-131

Historians used to refer to the mid-nineteenth-century politicians who failed to prevent the American Civil War as “the blundering generation.” They had a point. No one set out to spark a conflagration that would cost more than half a million American lives. However, the phrase conveyed at best a half truth. Mainstream politicians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line were embroiled in a deepening sectional crisis that led them they...

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5. Saving the Republic, 1861–1864

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pp. 132-170

Union victory in the American Civil War was not inevitable, for Confederate resistance was tenacious. It required an enormous collective effort by northerners to defeat the enemy. While Abraham Lincoln and the mostly volunteer soldiers of the North played a leading role in the dearly won triumph, so did Congress in its near-ceaseless attempts to bring the country’s superior resources to bear on the Confederacy. The Republican...

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6. Secretary of the Treasury, 1864–1865

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pp. 171-194

William Pitt Fessenden served eight difficult months as U.S. secretary of the treasury. Though short, his tenure covered the decisive final phase of the Civil War. Union victory was still far from guaranteed in the summer of 1864. The Army of the Potomac, its ranks seriously depleted after the bloody Overland Campaign, had crossed the James River three weeks before he took up office but Grant struggled to cut Lee’s defenses at Petersburg...

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7. The Chief Tinker: Congressional Reconstruction, 1866–1868

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pp. 195-235

The twin tasks of reintegrating the defeated Rebel states into the Union and managing the South’s transition from a slave to a free-labor society after one of the bloodiest wars in human history were daunting ones. William Pitt Fessenden would need to draw on all his prodigious talents to find a way through the political mire. Historians used to give him high marks for trying to thwart what they saw as the vindictive plans of the Radicals...

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Epilogue: 1868–1869

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pp. 236-250

William Pitt Fessenden was seldom given to bouts of self-pity. Greatly discomfited by the debilitating bowel condition that would eventually kill him and by the intense criticism directed against him for his anti-impeachment vote, he retained his indomitable sense of purpose until the end of his life. Although some Republicans tried to expel him from the party, he resisted the urge to decamp and soon began to reassert his influence...


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pp. 251-284


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pp. 285-300


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pp. 301-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780807138267
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807137079

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War