- Civil War Senator: William Pitt Fessenden and the Fight to Save the American Republic
William Pitt Fessenden of Maine was one of the most important Republican United States senators of the Civil War era. As chairman of the Finance Committee, Fessenden played a leading role in financing the Civil War, developing the national banking system, and framing the protective-tariff regime that characterized the American political economy for the rest of the nineteenth century. As Finance Committee chair, Fessenden fulfilled some of the key functions later exercised by the majority leader. A shrewd parliamentarian, a keen debater, a hard-nosed centrist, and a practical politician, Fessenden had immense influence with his colleagues who made him chair of the Joint House-Senate Committee on Reconstruction.
Robert J. Cook, professor of American history at the University of Sussex, provides a first-rate political biography of this important Civil War leader, supplanting Charles Jellison’s 1962 biography, Fessenden of Maine. Cook draws insights from the nearly fifty years of further historiography on the Civil War and Reconstruction and makes judicious use of Fessenden’s papers, key newspapers, and other primary sources. His notes cite mainly the primary sources.
Although he attends to Fessenden’s complicated relationship with his cousin Elizabeth Warriner, Cook eschews most contexts outside of politics and political ideology. He pays little attention to Fessenden’s regular references to manliness. Cook refers to the senator’s conservative attitude toward class but offers no real analysis. He offers a good description of Fessenden’s racial attitudes, finding that he had slight personal empathy with African Americans, occasionally displaying a “casual racism” (247). Fessenden was never a vicious racist, however, and ultimately worked to accord freedpeople the same equal civil and political rights African Americans had always enjoyed in Maine.
Cook describes Fessenden’s Whig disposition toward active government, nationalism, and conservatism. Fessenden was firmly committed to a conservative constitutionalism that tilted him toward centrist [End Page 621] Republicanism. His antislavery convictions developed not out of moral or humanitarian concerns but out of hostility to the slave power which subordinated northern to southern interests. Fessenden was a pragmatist who recoiled against uncompromising idealism. Cook provides a particularly lucid explication of centrist Republicanism, insightfully contrasting it to radical Republicanism.
Among the book’s strengths are a very good account of Whiggism and the politics of antislavery in Maine in the 1840s and 1850s and a description of how Fessenden negotiated the changing political landscape to emerge as the leader of the former Whig faction of the Republican Party. Cook then does an excellent job of describing Senator Fessenden’s contributions to wartime financial policy, his efforts to mediate between the Lincoln administration and the party’s more radical congressional leaders, his activities as secretary of the treasury from 1864 to 1865, and his central role in Reconstruction upon his return to the Senate in 1865.
Fessenden’s belligerent hostility to southern power led him to take a more radical position than fellow ex-Whig pragmatist Lincoln, but his lukewarm interest in African American rights contrasted with the position of his great New England rival, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner. Cook makes crystal clear Fessenden’s contempt for what he saw as his hopelessly impractical and pretentious colleague. Cook presents an excellent account of Fessenden’s growing antipathy to radical Republicanism during Reconstruction, which culminated in his voting against removing President Andrew Johnson upon his impeachment.
Although Cook uses the dense historical literature on Civil War–era politics to help locate and explain Fessenden, he does not in turn use Fessenden’s life explicitly to elucidate the broader panorama. He only sporadically discusses the congressional institutions and customs that made Fessenden so powerful a senator. Cook describes the factional jockeying in Maine’s Democratic and Republican Parties, but he does not use the information to broaden our understanding of the transition from the Jacksonian to the Civil War party system. Nor does he use Fessenden to plumb the role and...