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Leader Forgotten

September 8, 1869

Today, the name Fessenden brings to mind little more than a street in Washington, D.C. On September 8, 1869, however, it identified perhaps the most significant senator of the entire Civil War era—William Pitt Fessenden, Republican of Maine. When the 62-year-old Fessenden died on that day, his Senate colleagues genuinely grieved at the loss of a legislative giant.

Fessenden came to the Senate in February 1854, at the start of a bitter three-month debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. After only nine days in office, he delivered a powerful floor speech accurately predicting that if the measure were enacted, opening the nation's western territories to slavery, it would set the North and South on a course toward inevitable disunion.

During the Civil War, Fessenden chaired the Senate Finance Committee, which also served as the Senate's principal appropriating committee. Long hours under enormous pressure regularly brought him to the point of physical exhaustion as he worked to shape vital wartime funding legislation. He once said he was "content to work like a dog" while "leaving all the jabber to others." Fessenden's quick temper intimidated colleagues and lobbyists who appeared before his committee. To those whose expensive requests seemed at odds with his priorities for waging the war, he barked, "It is time for us to begin to think a little more about the money!"

When Fessenden reluctantly left the Senate in 1864 to serve as treasury secretary, he found the treasury nearly empty. After negotiating a bond issue that produced the revenue necessary to conclude the war, he returned to the Senate in 1865. As chairman of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, he worked for a temperate plan to reunite the nation under congressional—not presidential—leadership. Although he disliked President Andrew Johnson, he opposed his 1868 impeachment and used his influence with six other Senate Republicans to gain the essential votes for Johnson's acquittal. In 1869 Fessenden became chairman of the recently established Committee on Appropriations, but died before he could place his mark on that panel.

As a practical and cautious behind-the-scenes senator who concentrated on fiscal and monetary policy, Fessenden failed to attract the attention that journalists and historians have given to the Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner, who concentrated on slavery issues. Today, Sumner is remembered in the Capitol with an oil portrait and marble bust. Fessenden lies largely forgotten in an unmarked family grave in Portland, Maine.