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.
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he was a weak man, but because he was severely out of date.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
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
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.
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
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
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: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~kwongsri