Fessenden and Hyde Series: Part 2: The Early
Politics of Pitt Fessenden
Five years after he graduated from Bowdoin College, Franklin Pierce,
Class of 1824, began his career in politics by going to the New Hampshire
State Legislature. He would eventually become Speaker of the House and
then get elected to the United States Congress. His path would not cross
that of William Pitt Fessenden's again until the latter Bowdoin graduate
joined him in the United States Senate.
A year before Pierce graduated fifth in his class, William Pitt Fessenden
was allowed to graduate from Bowdoin College with the help of his father.
He had run into trouble in those last few weeks of his college career
and had at first been denied a degree. Luckily for him the faculty members
who had brought the charge against him were overruled.
But now that young Pitt Fessenden had graduated, what was he going to
do? Nineteenth century America was full of promise. The year 1823 was
still a long time away from when the sectional issue of slavery would
tear the nation apart with civil war. Of course Pitt Fessenden did not
know that. And having nothing better to do he entered himself into the
study of law. He worked under known attorneys in Portland and New York
City until he was old enough, at the age of twenty-one, to be admitted
to the bar. While Fessenden's work was for the law, his love was for public
speaking. As the temperance movement was gaining steam in Maine at the
time, Pitt made it known that he himself believed alcohol to be a poisonous
threat. And even before he was admitted to the bar, young Pitt Fessenden
was speaking openly about the need for higher tariffs to help support
the workers of America.
Whether or not anyone saw a politician in these words and ideologies
was probably not important for young Fessenden since the lovely Elizabeth
Longfellow, sister to Henry Longfellow, Bowdoin Class of 1825, saw in
him the man of her dreams. They were engaged in 1829 but sadly she died
six months later. Fessenden, shocked and angry, retreated into the world
of work. He barricaded himself in his studies, attempting to fight off
the pain of personal loss. Two years passed, however, and Fessenden was
engaged again, this time to Ellen Deering, daughter of a wealthy Portland
businessman. Love had found William Pitt Fessenden but his life was one
that was destined to walk a solitary path and thus in time, long before
his greatest trials and triumphs, this loved one too would be gone as
Still, Pitt Fessenden was young and as life began to bloom for him again
he entered into the world of politics. Elected to the Maine State legislature
in 1831, Fessenden traveled to the new capitol in Augusta as an anti-Jacksonian
Whig. There was at the time, a boundary dispute between the State of Maine
and Great Britain. It concerned a large chunk of land that both sides
claimed was theirs. The matter had been placed on the desk of the King
of Holland to consider. His decision had not pleased the citizens of Maine.
In Washington DC Jacksonian Democrats ruled the country and could have
cared less about the issue. They saw no reason why Maine should not cede
parts of its current landmass to Canada and receive a payment for it in
return. Pitt Fessenden was at the forefront of this controversy, hammering
away at those sides who wanted to yield to Great Britain. Sent to Washington
as part of a delegation to the capital, Fessenden soon saw that there
was a lack of enthusiasm in support of his state's favor. The issue, at
this point in time, ended with Maine mostly agreeing to Washington's terms.
In 1832- the year that an awkward looking man by the name of Abraham
Lincoln first ran for public office in the state of Illinois- William
Pitt Fessenden was married to Ellen Deering. A family would bloom and
the sons that were born to the couple would also attend Bowdoin College
like their father. A slow life as a lawyer began here and the Fessenden's
moved from town to town and from law firm to law firm. Again and again
Fessenden's name was mentioned in conjunction with a senator's title but
the young lawyer would have nothing to do with it. He was, however, unable
to stay away from politics. In 1835 he began a friendship with Daniel
Webster, consequently, Webster was also Pitt Fessenden's very own godfather.
Webster was a leading member of the Whig party and had aspirations for
the nation's top office. He was, however, hopeless to run against the
Jacksonian Democrats. This of course didn't stop him from trying, nor
did it prevent Fessenden from campaigning for him as well as running the
gubernatorial campaign of Edward Kent, contender for the top office in
the State of Maine. Both of these endeavors in 1836 failed.
The limelight would find Fessenden again in 1839 when he was returned
to the state legislature. A year later he finally caved into the demands
of his Whig comrades, ran, and was elected to the United States Congress.
Next Week: Fessenden and Pierce lose faith in the system.
To view a full version of the entire series (including source citations) please visit my website. (This site includes the Chamberlain and Howard Series and is updated weekly during the school year) at: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~kwongsri