Tuesday, April 09, 1996
The ohn Bigelow Papers Part III dup
Ex-Ambassador John Bigelow left Paris and came back to New York in early 1867, and promptly went to work on his annotated edition of Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He had located and bought the lost manuscript in Paris for a then exorbitant price of Fr 25,000, and the three-volume publication, correcting over 1200 errors in the standard Jared Sparks' edition, appeared in Spring of 1868. (The manuscript eventually ended up in San Marino, Cal., by way of the bicarbonate of soda manufacturer E. Dwight Church's book collection in Brooklyn, bought in its entirety by Henry E. Huntington in February 1911 for $1.3 million for his Museum and Library, where Ben now resides, alongside Gainsborough's Blue Boy.) The reviews were favorable, but Bigelow craved action, and became managing editor of The New York Times in 1869. It was not to be a happy tenure -he had clashes with management and journalists, and an article planted by the crooked speculator Jay Gould with the aid of the U. S. Grant administration contributed to the gold crisis on Wall Street. The deeply hurt editor resigned within three months and moved the family to Germany, to write a history, France and Hereditary Monarchy, published in 1871. (His son Poultney, who died in 1954 at the age of 98, formed a youthful friendship with the Emperor-to-be Wilhelm II, which faded before WWI and was renewed during the monarch's exile.)
Still on the loose, Bigelow returned to New York in 1873. He had voted for U.S.Grant in 1868 and 1872, but the corruption in the administration disgusted him, and though offered a Republican seat in the Congress, he went to work in old friend Samuel J. Tilden's 1874 Democratic campaign for Governor. Bigelow himself was elected N.Y. Secretary of State next year, and immediately started on Tilden's 1876 Presidential campaign, writing a biography and dissipating charges about the wealthy lawyer's business problems and falsified tax returns. The campaign, managed by Gramercy's Abram Hewitt, son-in-law of Gamercy's Peter Cooper, seemed a success, but there were two sets of electoral votes from Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, a disputed original and a Democratic recount. Who had the authority to determine which set to open? The Constitution was not clear, and it took months of Congressional discussions to agree that a commission of 10 politically evenly divided Senators and Representatives, plus five Supreme Court judges chosen by lot would decide. A Republican Judge, Joseph Bradley, took over at the last minute for Democratic Judge David Davis, who had been elected Senator and refused to serve on the Commission. The vote was divided on party lines, and the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President of the United States. Though bribery was suggested, Bigelow blamed Tilden's sickliness and inability to present a commanding stature for the unfavorable turn of events, and may have swayed Tilden not to run in 1884 (1880 was destined to go to Republican James A. Garfield's, but he was assassinated, and his successor Chester Arthur was much disliked), and to endorse the young N.Y. Governor, Grover Cleveland, for Presidency. Grover won; yet Bigelow, originally slated to be Secretary of State, or Treasury, was offered only a boring Assistant Secretaryship, which he refused and went back to writing his biographies of Tilden and William Cullen Bryant (who had died in 1878). Tilden, who dubbed Bigelow "the worst used man in the U.S." had bought a house for his friend at 21 Gramercy Park in 1881, while the Bigelows were on one of their European trips, and deeded it to Bigelow's eldest daughter, to forestall objections. That became the family home, with the venerable statesman and author residing there until his death at 95, in 1911. There he completed editing his multi-volume The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin (1887-88), The Writings and Speeches (1885), Life (1895) and Letters...of Samuel J. Tilden (1908), his own Retrospections of an Active Life (1909-13), along with numerous feisty introductions, as well as philosophical and Swedenborgian (his acquired religious persuasion) treatises.
In 1884 Bigelow helped Tilden revise his will, leaving $5 million to establish a public library, an old dream of Bigelow's, "the noblest memorial a wealthy man could raise unto himself." There were two major public libraries in New York. The Astor Library, on Lafayette Street, now Joe Papp's Public Theater, was built in 1854 by William B. Astor (1792-1875) with $400,000 left by his father, landowner John J. Astor (1763-1848), then the richest man in America. Lenox Library (1870), on 5th Avenue and 70th Street, was built to house the eclectic collection of rare books assembled by the eccentric James Lenox (in 1847, for an exorbitant L500, he bought the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the U.S.). It was torn down to make room for the Henry Clay Frick Mansion (now Collection).
Soon after Tilden's death and burial in a little hillside cemetery in his Columbia County birthplace, New Lebanon, N.Y., the town of Shakers and other contrarians, his will was read and his relatives immediately sought to invalidate it. Nevertheless, a Tilden Trust was authorized by the legislature, and the trustees (Bigelow as President, Andrew H. Green, Tilden's law partner, George W. Smith, his assistant and two elected members) went about their business, waiting for the law suit to settle. It took until 1891. Most of the money went to relatives; the trustees ended up with $2 million. In expectation, Bigelow had drawn plans for a building at the city-owned site of the abandoned Reservoir, 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The old agit-prop swung into action with a Scribners Magazine article to sell his proposal. But the trustees had internal disagreements regarding the site (the Old City Hall on Wall Street was a possibility) and the mergers needed to build up the library holdings. Offers to merge with Columbia University, N.Y. Historical Society and the National Academy were discarded, and final agreements for the Free Public Library to merge with the Astor and Lenox libraries were made in 1895, with legislative and the Governor's and City Aldermen's approvals obtained in 1896. By the time Park Commissioners' approval and appropriations of funds from the Board of Estimate were in place (monies were more plentiful then), Bigelow was 79 years old. A military surgeon and library builder, Dr. John S. Billings, was chosen as director, and started operating in the Astor and Lenox buildings, the collections swelled by purchases and gifts, such as the Emmet autographs, Ford, Gould and Bigelow collections. The latter consisted of Congressional documents and treaties; the famous Benjamin Franklin manuscript was not part of it.
Building plans took longer, the cornerstone was laid in November 1902, and the building was opened on May 23, 1911 by President William Howard Taft, with the 95 year old President of the Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation, John Bigelow, at his side. The 2,500,000 New Yorkers (grown tenfold since John Bigelow's arrival 75 years earlier) had acquired a new major resource, not a little due to one man's persistence.
The last major task of this life safely put to rest, John Bigelow died, in December 1911 and was buried in the country cemetery of his beloved Highland Falls, N. Y. But another of his projects was not completed until 1914 - a canal.
Bigelow's steadfastness helped build the Panama Canal, an interest that overlapped his Public Library efforts. He first visited Baron de Lesseps' Colombia site in 1886. When de Lesseps failed and his chief engineer, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, came to Bigelow in despair, the old propaganda expert advised writing a book. Americans were apathetic and an alternative route, through Nicaragua, was gaining strength. Colombia also resisted, and it took the Spanish-American War and a revolution partitioning Columbia to finally complete the Canal. The first flag of the revolutionary republic of Panama was sown in the library of Bigelow's upstate house, "The Squirrels," in Highland Falls, by his daughter Grace and Mme Bunau-Varilla, in 1903.
Wally Dobelis thanks Margaret Clapp, the 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of John Bigelow; Anne Eristoff, great-granddaughter, and Andrew S. Eristoff, great-great grandson of John Bigelow, as well as O. Alton James for the loan of key material and pictures for this series of articles.
B Franklin's autobiography manuscript, 1771-1790, begun at 65 and kept to his death at 84, was acq by Henry Edwards Huntington (1850-1927,nephew and heir of Collis P. Huntington the railroad builder) for his rich San Marino, CA, museum and library in 1911. (Eliz Pomeroy, The Huntington Museum, London1983)
First to Elihu Dwight Church Bklyn, Geo watson Cole catalogs
Lenox; presented to public 1870; 1st suptd Geo H. Moore, 1st lib Samuel austin Allibone the biographer and bibliographer, received the Drexel &Stuart bequests TAEmmett and CHHildeburn newspap purch. Dr WE Prime Cervantes coll.Wilberforce Eames lib 1892, to NYPL died 1937i
Beverly Chew later Harry M. Lydenberg 600 pg hist
Astor: Joseph Green Cogswell (Harvard, Goettingen) was treasurer and prime minister 1848 WIrving wanted him as embassy secty in Madrid, JJA kept him by promise of 400k for lib, bought80-90k abroad by 1894 when opend
Carnegie: 1901 sold steel co to JPMorgan, gave $5.2m for 64 branches thru city, many by McKim Mead White (murd 1906); city to maintain. Fell under NYPL
Tilden 20k books?
JBigelow por, with some of the longest muttonchop whiskers ever seen even in thre beard-proud Victorian era. On the Balcony 2nd floor directly above the main entrance, he and Billings brace the opening overlooking the main entrance and