“A Champion Had Come”: William Pitt Fessenden and the Republican Party, 1854-60
AbstractRepublican senator William Pitt Fessenden's antebellum career has been largely misunderstood by scholars of nineteenth-century United States history. Though labeled by historians as a moderate or conservative in his later years as chair of the Committee on Reconstruction, in the prewar years Fessenden was a fiery antislavery radical. As a young lawyer in Maine, he quickly became a leading antislavery Whig, fought the Slave Power alongside John Quincy Adams in the US House of Representatives, and created the antislavery coalition that would send him to the United States Senate and become that state's first Republican organization. In the Senate, Fessenden played a vital role in the debates on Kansas and the expansion of slavery and led radical Republicans in the attack on leading doughfaces Douglas, Pierce, and Buchanan. Moreover, his speeches and debates were read widely, influencing Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln and garnering support for him in the 1860 nomination. A study of Fessenden's antebellum career is important, not only to achieve a better understanding of this important politician, but also because it provides insight into the meaning of prewar radicalism and how the term “radical” evolved dramatically during the years of Civil War and Reconstruction.