Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
William P. Fessenden Papers, 1855-1868, 1908

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, November 1995

Summary Information
Title: William P. Fessenden papers
Creator: Fessenden, William Pitt, 1806-1869
Inclusive dates: 1855-1868, 1908
Extent: 0.5 linear feet
William P. Fessenden was a founding member of the Republican Party and one of its most energetic antislavery voices. His papers consist almost entirely of incoming correspondence, written while he was serving as a U.S. Senator from Maine, 1855-1868. This correspondence reflects Fessenden's moderately progressive political views, and his interests in the abolition of slavery, economics and finance, the turmoil in Kansas in the late 1850s, and the Civil War.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1983. M-2065, M-2110.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

William P. Fessenden Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


A founding member of the Republican Party and one of its most energetic antislavery voices, the public life of Senator William Pitt Fessenden touched on all the major controversies confronting the nation between the time of the debates over slavery in the territories until the failure of Reconstruction. Born out of wedlock in Boscawen, N.H., on October 16, 1806, Fessenden graduated with a degree in law from Bowdoin College in 1827, and was admitted to the bar in the same year. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a political career, winning election as a Whig representative to the Maine legislature for several terms beginning in 1831, and to Congress for one term in 1840. He was a conservative by nature, but was galvanized into the radical camp on the issue of slavery by his experience during his first term in Congress. Thereafter, he became an important figure in furthering the spread of abolitionist sentiment in his home state, and was in turn benefited by its growth when he decided to return to public office in 1853.

Fessenden won election to the Senate as an antislavery Whig, and took his seat in March, 1854, at one of the most difficult moments in American political history. During his first term, Fessenden became embroiled in the debates over the extension of slavery to the territories, the furor over "Bleeding Kansas," and the fallout over John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. His powerful speech in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska bill vaulted him to national prominence, and following his switch to the Republican Party in 1856, he became one of the most visible and voluble political antagonists of the Buchanan administration, and one of the staunchest figures in rejecting compromise with slavery, secession, and rebellion. Fessenden remained firm in his views despite personal loss: during the war, two of his sons, Francis and James Deering, rose to the rank of general in the Union army, and a third, Samuel, was killed in action at the Second Bull Run.

During his tenure in the Senate, Fessenden earned a reputation as a skilled debater and as an expert on public finance. As a result, he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury during Lincoln's second administration, replacing Salmon Chase. After returning to his seat in the Senate following the accession of Andrew Johnson, he became Chair of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, and opposed the administration as one of the prime exponents of a radical Reconstruction policy. Fessenden believed that given the totality of the federal victory over the Confederacy, conservative plans for Reconstruction like Johnson's were absurd, and he argued firmly that it was the responsibility of the Congress to set Reconstruction policy, not of the Executive. Yet Fessenden's views became increasingly conservative after 1866, and he opposed efforts to impeach Johnson on the principle that Johnson had not technically broken the law. Fessenden's was one of the very few Republican votes for acquittal. His role in the impeachment proceedings, along with his opposition to some features of the confiscation bill and other measures, led to a break with leaders of the radical faction, and a consequent reduction in his power in Congress. Throughout, Fessenden felt that he was acting from a principle of justice, regardless of the opinions of his colleagues, and refused to relent. He continued to serve in the Senate until his death in 1869.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The William P. Fessenden papers consist almost entirely of incoming correspondence addressed to Fessenden, written while he was serving as a U.S. Senator from Maine, 1855-1868. This correspondence reflects Fessenden's moderately progressive political views, and his interests in the abolition of slavery, economics and finance, the turmoil in Kansas in the late 1850s, and the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the correspondence consists of requests for favors from acquaintances and constituents, usually in seeking recommendations for jobs, political appointments, or assistance in pressing legislation.

The major topics of interest covered in the collection include the national debate over slavery. Several letters relate to the political turmoil in Kansas between 1856 and 1860, and there are letters requesting that Fessenden address particular abolition societies, and one interesting item relating to slavery in Missouri that includes a small printed map depicting slave-holding patterns in the state (2:49).

The Civil War forms the context for approximately half of the letters in the collection. There is a small series of letters relating to increases in pay for naval chaplains and army surgeons, and several routine letters requesting commissions or transfers in the army. The most important items present include a letter written from New Orleans, 1864, complaining of Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut's apparent unwillingness to execute the government's orders to stop trafficking in cotton (Hurlbut's corruption appears to have been no secret); a letter describing the situation in Missouri in the midst of Sterling Price's Wilson's Creek Campaign, complaining about John C. Frémont's ineffectiveness; and a fine letter from a commander of a Maine independent artillery battery in the defenses of Washington, complaining of their inactivity. Finally, there is a brief obituary of Jesse Lee Reno, killed at South Mountain in 1862.

There are very few items that relate in any way to Fessenden's private life, but three letters include some discussion of the problems of his son, Samuel. The only letter written by Fessenden in this collection is addressed to Sam, advising him to behave himself and not to consort with bad company. Apparently, the Senator had good cause to worry for his son, since Sam apparently fell in with gamblers and fled for Canada after running up a sizable debt.

Subject Terms

    • Johnson, Andrew, 1808-1875--Impeachment.
    • Kansas--History--1854-1861.
    • Legislators--Maine.
    • Patronage, Political.
    • Presidents--United States--Election--1860.
    • Republican Party.
    • Slavery--Anti-slavery movements.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • United States--Politics and government--1815-1861.
    • United States--Politics and government--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • United States. Army--Pay, allowances, etc.
    • United States. Congress. Senate.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    William P. Fessenden papers, 1855-1908 [series]
    Box   1  
    Incoming Correspondence,  1855-1861.
    Box   2  
    Incoming Correspondence,  1861-1868 and  1908.
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    Alabama (Ship)
    • 2:54
    Appleton, John, 1804-1864
    • 2:53
    Baker, Edward, 1811-1861
    • 1:71
    Blair, Montgomery, 1813-1873
    • 1:71
    Cabinet officers--United States
    • 1:71, 72
    Chase, Salmon Portland, 1808-1873
    • 2:30, 70, 90
    Clocks and watches
    • 2:72
    • 2:92
    Crittenden Compromise, 1861
    • 1:79
    • 1:27
    Customs administration
    • 2:38, 40
    Davis, Jefferson, 1808-1889
    • 2:65
    Debts, External--Spain
    • 1:26
    Democratic Party--Ohio
    • 1:15
    • 1:15
    • 1:44
    Exposition internationale (1867: Paris, France)
    • 2:94
    Father and son
    • 1:32a, 87, 89
    Fessenden, Samuel, 1821-1861
    • 1:32a, 87, 89
    • 1:25
    • 2:31
    Frémont, John Charles, 1813-1890
    • 1:81
    • 2:18, 28
    • 1:87, 89
    Garrison duty--District of Columbia
    • 2:58
    Grant, Ulysses S., 1822-1885
    • 2:91
    Hamlin, Hannibal, 1809-1891
    • 1:39
    • 2:44
    Hurlbut, Stephen Augustus, 1815-1882
    • 2:92
    Japan--Foreign relations--United States
    • 2:35
    Johnson, Andrew, 1808-1875
    • 2:97, 98, 100
    Johnson, Andrew, 1808-1875--Impeachment
    • 2:97-100
    • 1:16, 38, 57, 63, 70, 78, 91
    • passim
    Library of Congress--History
    • 1:53
    • 2:25
    Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865
    • 1:72
    • 2:83, 91
    McDowell, Anne Elizabeth, 1826-1901
    • 1:19
    • 2:94
    Minnesota & Northwest Railroad Co.
    • 1:8
    Missouri--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 2:28
    New Orleans (La.)--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 2:92
    New Orleans, Battle of, 1862
    • 2:62
    Patronage, Political
    • passim
    Presidents--United States--Election--1856
    • 1:13
    Presidents--United States--Election--1860
    • 1:44, 54, 59, 66
    • 2:60
    Prostitutes--New York (City)
    • 1:40
    • 1:8
    • 2:71
    Reno, Jesse Lee, 1823-1862
    • 2:75
    Republican Party
    • 1:4,11,13,15,44,54,59,66,71,85,95
    • 2:3, 24, 83, 103
    • 1:80, 95
    Sherman Investigating Committee
    • 1:33
    • 1:78
    Slavery--Anti-slavery movements
    • 1:1, 9, 66, 69, 78, 95
    • 2:46, 49, 81
    • 2:49
    Spain--Foreign relations--United States
    • 1:26
    Swindlers and swindling
    • 2:24
    • 1:82
    Tenney, John, 1789-1869
    • 2:53
    • 2:2, 8, 15
    United States--Economic conditions--1815-1861
    • 1:27
    United States--Foreign relations--Japan
    • 2:35
    United States--Foreign relations--Spain
    • 1:26
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 2:2, 4, 26, 28, 58 and passim
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Blockades
    • 2:54
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Causes
    • 1:78, 80
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Economic aspects
    • 2:16, 29, 31
    United States--Politics and government--1815-1861
    • passim box 1
    United States--Politics and government--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • passim box 2
    United States. Army--Pay, allowances, etc.
    • 1:61, 62, 64, 65, 97
    • 2:5, 22, 34
    United States. Army--Surgeons
    • 1:97
    • 2:5, 22, 34
    United States. Congress. Senate
    • passim
    United States. Navy
    • 2:2, 8, 27, 54
    United States. Navy--Chaplains
    • 1:61, 64
    Washington (D.C.)--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 2:4
    Weed, Thurlow, 1797-1882
    • 1:81
    • 2:18
    Welles, Gideon, 1802-1878
    • 2:26
    Wilson's Creek Campaign, 1861
    • 2:28
    Women's Advocate (Newspaper)
    • 1:19
    Women's rights
    • 1:19