William P. Fessenden
The Nebraska and Kansas Bill
March 3, 1854
William P. Fessenden of Maine had been a member of the U.S. Senate for only a few days when he took the floor to speak against Stephen A. Douglas' bill to organize the' Kansas and Nebraska territories.
As part of the legislation, Douglas sought to appease proslavery senators, whose support he needed for development of a transcontinental railroad, by repealing the Missouri Compromise that had forbidden slavery in the territories north of a specific line. The route that the Illinois Democrat favored would run westward from Chicago through the Nebraska Territory north of that line. Southern senators, however, objected to government support for a railroad through lands closed to slavery and demanded that the Missouri Compromise be repealed. Douglas therefore included such a provision in his bill, infuriating abolitionist senators, who felt betrayed by the proposal to permit slavery in territories from which it had been explicitly excluded.
Born in 1806, Fessenden was an attorney who had spent considerable time in the Maine legislature and served a single term in the House of Representatives in the early 1840's. He was elected to the Senate as a Whig by antislavery forces in the state legislature and arrived in the chamber in February 1854 during the month-long debate on Douglas' bill. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a member of the Free Soil party and a leading opponent of the bill, later remembered that
He came in the midst of that terrible debate on the Kansas and Nebraska Bill by which the country was convulsed to its center, and his arrival had the effect of a reinforcement on the field of battle. . . . One more in our small number was a sensible addition. We were no longer fourteen, but fifteen. . . . There he stood. Not a Senator, loving Freedom, who did not feel on that day that a champion had come.
During the final hours of the debate, feelings in the Senate were running high after weeks of fierce speeches for and against the proposal. Late that night, Fessenden was the final speaker against the measure. Using no notes, the Maine senator, according to his biographer, "proceeded to electrify the Senate with what was perhaps the most brilliant speech of the long, bitter debate." In a letter home the next day, Fessenden observed that "it was a speech which was made entirely without preparation or memo of any kind at a late hour in the evening. . . . I may have said some things imprudently, but I was resolved to make a clean breast of it."
Fessenden began by observing that, as a new senator, he had hesitated to speak until others had finished, and he explained that the Maine legislature had instructed the state's senators to do everything possible to defeat the bill. In a clear northern view of the way the political conflict between slave and free states built up over the years, he traced the history of the various compromises, from the Missouri Compromise to the Compromise of 1850, which he had not supported. The free states, he asserted, had made no effort to interfere with slavery where it already existed, however much they might abhor the institution. Now, he charged, the proslavery forces were trying to abrogate past agreements to limit the areas into which slavery would be allowed. In a powerful conclusion, Fessenden declared that northerners were tired of southerners threatening to secede as a way of getting what they wanted.
Stephen Douglas made his concluding argument for the measure in the early hours of the morning, after which the Senate passed the Kansas-Nebraska bill by a vote of 37 to 14. Fessenden and the other opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska bill proved correct in their predictions that the law would bring not peace but greater conflict. In succeeding years, the struggle between pro- and antislavery forces to control the territory exploded in violence and bloodshed.
Even though Fessenden's speech failed to win enough votes to block passage of the bill, it heartened his northern colleagues and brought him to public notice. The New York Tribune not only commended the speech but predicted that, with Fessenden's arrival, "a champion had made his appearance in the body." Thanks in part to such support, the address turned out to be the first step in a distinguished Senate career. During the Civil War, as chairman of the Finance Committee from 1861 to 1864, and then, toward the end of the war, as secretary of the treasury, Fessenden worked to ensure that the country had the funds to wage war successfully. Returning to the Senate in 1865, he again chaired the Finance Committee, as well as the joint committee on Reconstruction, insisting on congressional rather than presidential control of Reconstruction. In 1868, Fessenden was one of only seven Radical Republicans who voted to acquit President Johnson in his impeachment trial, a courageous stand for which the senator was widely denounced at the time. Fessenden remained in the Senate until his death in 1869.
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1994.).