William Fessenden

William Fessenden was the second of three Treasury Secretaries appointed by Abraham Lincoln. Born in Boscawen, New Hampshire in 1806, he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1823 before studying and then practicing law in Maine. Fessenden was a temperance advocate and a vocal abolitionist and served in Maine’s legislature and the US House of Representatives before his election to the Senate in 1854 where he made important speeches regarding the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, the Lecompton Constitution and the Dred Scott decision.

After Southerners left the Senate at the start of the war, Fessenden was appointed chairman of the finance committee and hence worked closely with Chase on war finance measures. Despite his failing health, however, he was an obvious choice to replace Chase. A critic of greenbacks, the fiat bills of credit issued to help finance the war, Fessenden stopped issuing them in a successful attempt to slow down inflation, which had run at about 25% per annum in 1863 and 1864. In place of the depreciated currency, he sold through Jay Cooke and other investment bankers bonds in small denominations that paid 7.30% interest, or two cents per day per $100 invested.

In March 1865, following his re-election, Fessenden returned to the Senate where he resumed his chairmanship of the finance committee. He later headed the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and voted against the purchase of Alaska and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Fessenden died in 1869 and is buried in Portland, Maine.

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