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Volume CXXXIII, Number 8
November 2, 2001

Fessenden & Hyde

"Franklin Pierce was no genius," wrote historian Larry Gara. "Indeed," the biographer of Pierce's presidency continued, "the ordinary demands of the office were often beyond his ability. He was a politician of limited ability, and instead of growing in his job, he was overwhelmed by it." This was indeed harsh criticism of the fourteenth president of the United States and a Bowdoin graduate (class of 1824). But it was all true. Franklin Pierce was not a good president, and his administration was probably responsible for bringing the nation closer to civil war.

Elected as a Democrat who supported the extension of slavery in 1852, Pierce tried to distract the nation from its internal problems by dreaming of expansion into Cuba, Canada, Nicaragua, and even Formosa (currently known as Taiwan). Internally the nation was a mess. New lands that had been acquired from the Mexican War were in need of organization, and the Fugitive Slave Law had been strengthened by the Compromise of 1850 and led to the growth of the abolition movement in the North. There were also problems with the British both in Canada and in Central America.

Jane Pierce.

Few of these problems would be solved by the Pierce administration. How could Pierce himself hope to accomplish anything when his personal life was in ruins? His wife was going slowly insane because of the death of their third and final son had driven her over the edge. The White House was a cold and dreary home. Perhaps, the President himself knew that it was not his place and that the responsibilities of the Office were far beyond his little hands. He would walk around Washington DC alone to think and ponder. One time he told visitors to the White House, "You need no introduction to this house, it is your house, and I am but the tenant for a time."

Thus, Franklin Pierce's life at its pinnacle was a tragedy. If not because he was a weak man, but because he was severely out of date. The time of slavery and states rights was slowly passing, but Mr. Pierce would never understand that. He would uphold his party's beliefs till the end of his days.

The major event of the time was the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Spearheaded by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the bill proclaimed that both the Kansas and Nebraska territories could organize as either slave or free states utilizing the concept of popular sovereignty. The adoption of this bill would nullify the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and thus open up the entire western United States as new ground for slavery to expand.

In February of 1854, at the height of the Kansas-Nebraska debate in the Senate, a Bowdoin graduate and former Congressman returned to Washington. He was by this time forty-seven years old but as bold and as unwavering as ever. The newly elected Senator from Maine, William Pitt Fessenden joined the minority of his senatorial colleagues who opposed the Douglas Bill.

In his speech against the bill, the night before it passed in the Senate, the supporters of the bill were too many for even the dedicated Free-Soilers and Whigs to fight off, Fessenden spoke of slavery as a handicap that was holding back the growth of the nation. He reminded his fellow senators that "if an institution injuriously affects the prosperity of a part, its evils are felt through the whole system." But here was the difference in how the two halves, that would within a decade wage war on each other, saw the nation.

On the one hand, there were those who saw slavery as a cancer that was spreading across the land, affecting not only the slave states, but also the free ones as well. And then there were those who believed that human bondage was something that was none of anyone else's business, that a state had the right to do whatever it wanted with the people it deemed lesser than others.
Fessenden hammered away at his colleagues saying that to yield on this bill would be in a sense appeasement. It was soothing a bully so that he could take more and more from you as time went on. Frankly, Fessenden declared, he was sick and tired of it. To those who threatened secession, Fessenden declared:

Do not delay it on account of anybody at the North…We love the Union as well as you do, and you love it as much as we do; I am willing to allow that. But sir, if it has come to this, that whenever a question comes up between the free States and the slave States of this Union, we are to be threatened with disunion unless we yield, if that is the only alternative to be considered, it ceases to be a very grave question for honorable men and free men to decide… we are ready to meet every question on this floor fairly and honestly; we are willing to be bound by the decision of the majority, as law. If it operates hardly upon us, we will bear it. If it is unconstitutional, we must go to the proper tribunal for a decision, and not threaten each other with what no one of us desires to execute.

It has a grand spectacle of a man rising to fight against what he believed to be an injustice. It would not be the last time in his life that William Pitt Fessenden spoke his mind for he was a man of rigid ideals and unshakable determination. But all of it was, in this case, for nothing. The next day, March 4 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in the Senate. When the bill passed the House of Representatives in May of that same year it seemed as if everything had been lost.

Referring to the failure of the Whig Party in the recent presidential election and its already divided members, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, himself a Free-Soiler and perhaps best know for being caned in the Senate to the brink of death, remarked, "out of this chaos the party of freedom must arise." And so it was that the Republican Party was born.

That same year, to heighten the tension that was already rising near the boiling point of civil war, Franklin Pierce would mishandle the trail of a runaway slave by the name of Anthony Burns and set off riots in the streets of the abolitionist stronghold, Boston.

In Kansas people from all over the nation, of all beliefs and political ideologies converged to form two governments and to battle it out for the fate of the territory. In Maine a fifteen year old Sam Fessenden, son to the senator in Washington and later in his life to be a part of the Bowdoin class of 1861, looked on with eager anticipation of what was to come.

Next Week: Goodbye Mr. Pierce and Sam Fessenden goes to Kansas.

Some editing (by the Orient staff) may have occurred before this piece was published. 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:
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