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Facial Hair Friday: William and William (A Tale of Two Neck Beards)

Why were neck beards ever socially acceptable? In my humble opinion, they are the facial equivalent of mullets or bowl cuts. Unlike bad haircuts, however, they may have had some useful characteristics. Maybe they kept cold wind from blowing in men’s collars. Maybe their wives objected to prickly beards and mustaches but the husbands still wanted facial hair?

At any rate, two of President Lincoln’s cabinet members had neck beards.

William Fessenden, circa 1860–1865, ARC Identifier 529980

William Fessenden, whose neck hair is on the less-offensive side of neck beards, served as President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury from July 1864 to March 1865. Prior to his appointment, he served as a Whig Representative and then a Republican Senator for Maine, during which time he strongly opposed slavery. Part of the Peace Congress in 1861, he was appointed as Head of the Finance Committee. His fantastic performance on the Committee prompted his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. He stabilized the national financial situation, then resigned to return to the Senate.

Fessenden headed the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and was responsible for readmitting Southern states to the Union. He recommended procedures based on the Constitution and the Law of Nations and recommended safeguards to prevent future rebellion. He was widely considered the leader of the Senate Republicans. However, during President Johnson’s impeachment trial, he bravely contradicted his fellow Republicans and voted for acquittal, essentially ending his political career.

William Dennison, circa 1860–1865, ARC Identifier 525467. This image is very high resolution, so click on it if you want a nice, close view of his neck beard.

William Dennison, although he had the far more unsightly neck hair, was just as awesome as Fessenden. He was one of the first Ohio Whigs to transfer to the Republican party, and quickly gained recognition for his anti-slavery and anti-discrimination policies in the Ohio State Senate. He was elected as the governor of Ohio in 1859. Before the Civil War began, he resisted demands from Kentucky and Virginia for extradition of runaway slaves and punishment of the people who helped them.

When the war began, he mobilized Ohio troops despite his small staff and complete lack of military experience. He sent troops to guard the Wheeling Convention, which allowed the admittance of West Virginia as a free state, without instruction from the War Department. He resisted secession, established a steady stream of supplies for troops, and supported Lincoln’s policies. He raised over 100,000 troops during his term. The Republicans and War Democrats dropped him when he ran for a second term, but he remained active in recruiting and served as Chairman in the 1864 Republican National Convention.

Lincoln appointed Dennison as U.S. Postmaster General in 1864, and he served until he decided he could no longer support President Johnson’s policies in 1866.

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