Thursday, July 25, 1996
The Bigelow Papers, Part I
The T&V area has been home to many famous names in American history, arts and literature. You can read of Samuel Tilden, Peter Cooper and Edith Wharton, but often left out is a man who for many of his 95 years lived on East 14th Street, at 69 East 23rd Street and at 21 Gramercy Park, a lawyer, newspaper publisher, Union propagandist in Europe during the Civil War and founder of the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations - John Bigelow, the Forgotten First Citizen, in the words of his biographer, Margaret Clapp (Little Brown, 1947). His life is no mere dry history - it provides parallels to problems that current-day politicians wrestle with, without the benefit of a background of classics and political philosophy that John Bigelow drew upon when evaluating events and consequences. Little was new to him, he could hark back to thinkers and wits from Lucian to Jefferson who had faced similar circumstances.
John, son of Asa Bigelow, a farmer and trader in Bristol on the Hudson (now Malden), 40 miles South of Albany, was born in 1817. A bright boy, his mother took him to the Walnut Grove Academy in Troy. He distinguished himself, and was accepted at thirteen by Washington (later Trinity) College in Hartford. He worked through their 880-book library, and moved over to Union College, in Schenectady, which had a library of 13,000 books. Graduating at 17, he started reading law at Hudson, then a major center, and moved to New York, when his employers' firm dissolved. He read law until admitted to the bar at 21, taught at a girls' school, made good friends and, along with some of them - Charles Eames, Samuel Jones Tilden, Parke Goodwin - wrote articles for William Cullen Bryant's anti-slavery newspaper, the New York Evening Post, and for John O'Sullivan's Democratic Review. Law business was slow and he edited books, B.M.Norman's Rambles Through Yucatan, and Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies, and suffered when Van Buren lost his reelection bid to the Whig Harrison -Tyler ticket in 1840. An editor on the Morning News, with Tilden, he also worked on the unpopular prison reform and wrote articles advocating political reform. The poet Bryant, looking for time off, offered Bigelow the editorship of his Evening Post, and in 1848 he bought a 1/3 interest in the paper and also in the associated commercial press, with borrowed money. He ran the distinguished paper, founded by the Federalist Alexander Hamilton in 1801 (still in existence as the New York Post, subsequently associated with the names of Carl Schurz, Thomas Lamont, Dorothy Schiff and now Rupert Murdoch), on Bryant's Democratic/Barnburner principles.
To summarize XIX Century party politics, Washington's first cabinet was split, with Hamilton's Federalists advocating centralized government, encouraging industry and protecting the merchant and landowner interests. The opposing Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans (later Democrats) took over in 1800 and grew more radical under Jackson in 1828, but divided over the issue of slavery. The 1820 Missouri Compromise Act admitted Maine as free and Missouri as a slave state, and limited slavery to below 36th Parallel. Southern Democrats blocked the admission of new anti-slavery states in the West, causing a split in the party. The opposition party, anti-Jacksonite Whigs (formerly National Republicans), led by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, also split during the 1848 slaveowner Zachary Taylor's campaign and many joined the Democrat anti-Slavery Barnburner and Free-Soiler faction. Barnburners were Democrat radicals, and took the name from a Dutch farmer who burned his barn to get rid of rats.
Bigelow opposed a third party, and broke away from the Democrats only when Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced legislation (subsequently the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854) to solve the slavery issue in the territories by local decision (dubbed "squatter sovereignty" by the opponents). In "bleeding Kansas" this resulted in armed warfare, culminating in the 1856 massacre of five pro-slavers by the abolitionist John Brown. In the East anti-slavers of both parties immediately formed a Republican party, and after much dispute between the supporters of the Whig New York Sen. William H. Seward and the Free-Soiler Gov. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, chose a political novice, a military man and the explorer of the West, California Sen. John C. Fremont, as their Presidential candidate for 1856. To help the cause, Bigelow wrote his campaign biography. But the people elected a conservative Democrat, James Buchanan. Tilden, by then a successful corporate lawyer, had stayed away, continuing to build his power in the Democratic organization of New York (an Assemblyman, he became the Democratic State Chairman, fought the Tammany's Tweed Ring in 1866 and went to Governorship in 1874).
Bigelow continued to build his paper. Having married Jane Poultney in 1850, the parents of three children (eventually there were eight, six surviving early childhood) decided to move out of their 14th Street quarters and in 1857 bought a house in Highland Falls, below West Point, with John commuting by ferry to the City. The country was prosperous, and the stock market was flush. But John was cautious, and when Erie Railroad (much plagued by the fraudulent speculators Daniel Drew, Jay Gould and James Fisk maneuvering around Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt for control) elected a new president at the unheard of salary of $25,000 a year, he editorially cautioned industry to pay good men well for their services, but not to let them play the stock market for their own profit and for the company's loss. (An interesting observation 140 years before America found out that linking corporate CEO's bonuses to the quarterly market performance of the companies' stocks can result in destructive downsizing, trimming of payrolls and selling off of low-profit subsidiaries that wreak havoc with lives for the sake of a short-term profit. What would he have thought of major stockholders like CALPERS pressuring CEOs for quick gains, and of travelling gunslinger CEOs like "Chainsaw" Albert J. Dunlap moving through paper companies with his axe, then selling off his most recent employer?). On the heels of his observations came the market crash of 1857, initiated by the collapse of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, which had lent bankers' deposits to the unsound railroads (an early example of bankers abusing insureds' monies that eventually led to the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933, keeping the bankers away from widows' and orphans' funds. This is now under attack by the deregulators in the Congress.Imagine how many more Third World bonds Walter Wriston could have floated if he had insurance assets under his control!). Banks and railroads fell apart, and the jobless marched on Wall Street, demanding a "right to a living." The corrupt populist Mayor Fernando Wood bought 50,000 barrels of flour, to be sold to the poor at cost, much to Bigelow's distress, who worried about creating a pauper class that would never grow smaller (FDR had the same fears), and objected to government "buying up our criminals, hiring them to respect the laws, or they will rob you." With Gramercy's Samuel B. Ruggles and Peter Cooper he sponsored a series of lectures on poverty, advocating private donations to help the poor (think of Lamar Alexander). When Horace Greeley advised young men to go West and return to farming, our visionary foresaw farm overproduction, and a capitalist invasion of large scale mechanized agriculture, all overwhelming the family farmer (think of FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 and subsequent laws which have not prevented the decline of the family farm). His recommendation for the West-bound was to engage in "prosecution of the useful and ornamental arts" in the best industrially developing towns.
With the Post running smoothly, the Bigelows spent 18 months in Britain and the Continent, meeting the literati and the powerful, returning mid-1860. Six months later John sold his profitable share in the paper to Bryant's unworldly son-in-law Parke Goodwin. The sale made sense only to Bigelow, who wanted to retire (he had accumulated enough to continue to live on a modest scale), and to write a major work on the relations of Church and State through a biography of the Catholic Archbishop Fenelon. He bought a house at 69 East 23rd Street and dug into history.
But it was not to last. When Pres. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, seven Southern states seceded (with four more joining later), forming the Confederate States of America (1861-65), and on April 12, 1861 the Confederacy attacked and destroyed Fort Sumter, S.C. A week later 100,000 New Yorkers met on Union Square, to express their outrage. Bigelow was one of the leaders. The war was on, the Union was in danger, and his country wanted him to serve where his talents were needed - in Europe, where agents of the Confederacy were stirring French and British public opinion towards a war against the Union.
An acknowledgment of sources will follow the 3rd installment of this series.
LOOKING BACK by Wally Dobelis
The Bigelow Papers Part II
John Bigelow and family left 69 East 23rd Street for Paris in August 1861, to do his duty in the Civil War, at the request of Secretary of State William H. Seward, a former political enemy and a subsequent friend and confidante. Even though his lowly title was that of a Consul of the U.S., John's direct instructions were to work on the French and British public opinion, counteracting Confederate propaganda in a hostile environment. He was to be the Union's spin doctor, putting the proper interpretation on sometimes contradictory Government declarations and Congressional resolutions. European cotton manufacturing industry was in a depression because of the Union blockade of Southern ports, unemployment was rampant, and Confederate agents were managing to place clandestine orders for ships with builders, while the governments closed their eyes and maintained outward neutrality. The ambassadors, Charles Francis Adams, son of President John Quincy Adams, in London, and ex-Vice Presidential candidate William L. Dayton in Paris, both ex-Whig tariff advocates, were no opinion molders, and the Confederacy was advocating free trade, much to the liking of English and French manufacturers. Dayton was not even willing to learn French. Bigelow, who had sharpened his language skills during a recent 19 month trip through Europe, knew the literati and politicians personally and through their publications during his 12-year editorship of his scholarly newspaper, the Evening Post.
Bigelow was the right man for the job. Pictures of his middle years show a handsome tall man (over 6 ft.), with a watchful expression. (He acquired the largest mutton-chop whiskers ever seen, even among the beard-proud Victorians, in later life. The copy of the 1900 Emke portrait hung in a position of honor on the 2nd Floor balcony of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street shows the same alertness.)
Bigelow had to be active and alert. Unlike his eminent propagandist predecessors during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, a mere consul had no entry to high government quarters. A meager staff of two worked on passports, wills, estates and problems of destitute Americans while the Consul pursued the politicos and opinion-molders. Undaunted by a skimpy $4,000 salary, he spent personal funds for office expenses while working on the main task - Union propaganda.
He had unexpected help from the Confederacy, which declared an embargo of cotton exports, in the hope that it would force England and France to recognize their independence, threaten war and demand peace. When French and British public opinion was roused by the Trent affair - a Union warship had searched a neutral British ship and removed two commissioners of the Confederacy, James M. Mason and John Slidell, Bigelow wrote a masterful letter in the name of the most respected American then visiting Paris, Gen. Winfield Scott. It explained that the Americans had performed a legal act often exercised by the English, that of searching a neutral ship suspected of carrying contraband of war, and becried the absence of adequate international laws protecting neutrals. The letter was widely published and well received. He had other successes - paying a Fr. 600 monthly subsidy to a French journal, L'Opinion Nationale, to keep it afloat and to insure a steady stream of favorable articles that could be reprinted; supporting a British ministers' conference condemning slavery, and having Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation 1838-1839 published. Fortunately some funds were available from the shadowy Union paymaster Henry S. Sanford, Minister to Belgium. Old friends and accessible journalists were supplied with stories; government officials and informants were cultivated, and eventually Bigelow compiled Les Etats Unis d'Amerique en 1863, a noncontroversial encyclopedia to give factual pro-Union material for writers. It made profits, was translated and reprinted in Germany and pirated in Italy and Spain. Bigelow needed some successes. The Confederate propagandist Henry de Hotze in London was unceasingly writing articles and supplying news story specifications for a newspaper that he published, The Index, ostensibly written by Englishmen for Englishmen. Its part-time writers, key contributors to popular London press, were free to rehash the material, and thus articles sympathetic to the South found their way into British, Continental and even North American periodicals. Emperor Napoleon III, who had favored a joint recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France, in Fall 1862 formally asked Britain and Russia to join him in urging a six-month truce. And Slidell had in his corner two Members of Parliament, James A. Lindsay, Britain's largest shipbuilder, and John Roebuck of Laird Bros, who made a sham sale to M. Brave, a French Deputy and head of Brave et Cie., of a Confederacy-bound ship ostensibly built for the Pasha of Egypt. But Bigelow and the ambassadors managed to have the warships Florida, Alexandra and other Confederate purchases tied up in British and French ports by legal proceedings, thus delaying deliveries. Meanwhile, bloody Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 showed the Europeans that the fortunes of war favored the Union, and circulars distributed by Bigelow offering land to European immigrants under the Homestead Act were bringing European recruits into the States and the Union army. Nevertheless, half a dozen ships were still in the construction docks of French shipyards, under contract for the Confederacy.
In Spring 1864 Bigelow's office was elevated to Consulate General, after he had written a report to Seward about professionalization of civil servants, which in a roundabout way led to the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Act, passed after a dissatisfied office seeker shot President James A. Garfield. When Ambassador Dayton died in late 1864, Bigelow was appointed charge d' affaires and eventually, in April 1865, Minister, three weeks before the assassination of President Lincoln. The war was over, but Napoleon's ambitions were still a problem. In 1863 he had given the crown of Mexico to Emperor Maximilian, brother of Franz Joseph of Austria. This came about because in 1861 France, Britain and Spain had invaded Mexico (the latter two soon withdrawing), to collect unpaid war bonds' interest from Benito Juarez' War of the Reform (1857-61). US Congress, otherwise occupied, did not express its opposition until April 1864 (the Dawes Resolution). Bigelow was incurring French anger for pre
ssing for troop withdrawal, and Congressional ire for being too slow. The French finally withdrew their forces from Mexico, in 1867, and Maximilian was captured and shot. Bigelow, who stubbornly clung to his beliefs that "we do not want any territory faster than it will come to us by the voluntary actions of its population; we do not mean to fight for the Monroe Doctrine, because it is illogical and absurd for a nation to attempt to propagate democracy by arms," resigned his office in December 1866, after he had obtained a withdrawal date from the French.