Bidwell Lore – Love, Marriage, and Politics in the Early Republic, Part I

Last week we shared with you some correspondence between Barnabas and Mary while Barnabas was in Washington and Mary in Stockbridge. This week we are beginning a three-part series about the lives of Barnabas and Mary.

On February 16, 1801, in Washington City, after the 35th ballot by the Electoral College and upon receiving word from Aaron Burr that he would not make a deal with the Federalists in order to secure enough votes to become the next president, Speaker of the House of Representatives Theodore Sedgwick declared, “The gig is up.” The following day Thomas Jefferson garnered the needed votes to ensure his elevation to chief magistrate.  That date, at least symbolically, marked a shift in the balance of power from the Federalists to the Republicans.  Both Theodore Sedgwick’s wife, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, and Aaron Burr were cousins of Mary Gray Bidwell and they would, in the future, touch Mary and Barnabas Bidwell’s life.
On February 21, 1793, The Rev. Richard R. Eliot, Minister of the Gospel, joined Mary Gray, 29, and Barnabas Bidwell, 32, in marriage at Watertown, Mass.  Soon after that ceremony, they journeyed to Stockbridge. Their new home, The Elms, a house purchased by Barnabas a year earlier, was located at what is now the corner of Main and Pine Street, and as we mentioned in a previous Bidwell Lore, was the former home and store of Timothy Edwards, son of Rev. Jonathan Edwards.

The Elms on Main Street in Stockbridge
The Elms as it looks today, Barnabas and Mary’s former home in Stockbridge

Prior to his marriage, Barnabas had studied law under Judge Theodore Sedgwick in Stockbridge. Sedgwick was a staunch Federalist, whose amazing political career began in 1780 in the Massachusetts State Senate in Boston.  He then moved to the halls of Congress, where he rose to the office of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and later became a U. S. Senator and President Pro Tem of the U.S. Senate.  After his time in Washington, he became a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from 1802 to 1813.
Barnabas Bidwell and Judge Sedgwick, who had mentored Barnabas’ early legal and political career, eventually had a falling out and history hints at several political scenarios that may have caused that split.  Or it may simply have been that Barnabas saw the rapidly growing popularity of the Republican Party as more beneficial to his political ambitions. Despite the strain to their relationship, family ties would link the two: Mary Gray Bidwell’s mother, Sarah Spring Gray, known as Aunt Gray to the Sedgwick children, was a first cousin of Pamela Dwight, the daughter of Abigail and General Joseph Dwight. Pamela Dwight was married to Judge Sedgwick. Sarah Spring Gray, Mary Gray Bidwell, and Barnabas Bidwell frequently socialized with the Sedgwick family, maintaining a close friendship and family ties despite the political differences between Theodore and Barnabas.

Bidwell House Museum Green Entrance Hall and Stairs
The front hall of the Bidwell House. Barnabas would have climbed these stairs each night as he went to bed.
Photo credit – David Dashiell

As we outlined in our introduction to Barnabas Bidwell (1761-1833) on August 18, he was the second son of the Rev. Adonijah and Jemima Devotion Bidwell.  Barnabas graduated from Yale College, studied law at Brown University, was admitted to the bar in 1805, and commenced practice in Stockbridge. He served in the State Senate from 1805-1807, was elected to the Ninth and Tenth Congresses and served from March 4, 1805, until his resignation on July 13, 1807. He served as Attorney General of Massachusetts from June 15, 1807, to August 30, 1810. In the absence of other viable Republican candidates, Barnabas also served for almost 20 years as Berkshire County Treasurer [1], beginning in 1791. This is the same period of time he held the other political offices, a decision that would later come back to haunt him. Bidwell moved to Canada in 1810, settling in Kingston, Ontario, where he practiced law, dying in 1833.
Barnabas’ political life could only be described as meteoric. A short time after he began serving in Congress, he became a personal friend of and floor manager in the House of Representatives for President Thomas Jefferson. Barnabas’ life, as described in letters to Mary, was a fascinating snapshot into the early political life of Washington City. This was the environment that embraced Mary Gray Bidwell during the brief 15 years of their life together. 
In 1806, at the same time that Barnabas Bidwell was becoming one of the most influential political figures in Washington City, Sir Walter Scott was authoring a poem that included the words “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Barnabas was soon to be caught in a political web, and some 200 years later it is hard to know who was the spider and who was the fly.
In 1810, just as Barnabas was being considered by President James Madison as a likely candidate for a seat on the U. S. Supreme Court, replacing his friend Judge Cushman [2], questions came up about the management of funds in the Berkshire County Treasurer’s office. Barnabas had been treasurer in name only since 1791, allowing his clerks to run the office in his absence. New England was still a Federalist stronghold and the Berkshire County Clerk of Courts, Joseph Woodbridge, a Federalist who issued Barnabas’ arrest warrant, had studied law under Barnabas’ former mentor, Judge Sedgwick.
Aristotle in his Poetics suggests that a tragic hero must evoke in the audience a sense of pity or fear. He establishes the concept that the emotion of pity stems from when a person receives undeserved misfortune and fear comes when the misfortune befalls a man like us. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero ought to be a man whose misfortune comes to him, not through vice or depravity but by some error of judgment, often clouded by hubris. Some of the evidence suggests that Barnabas Bidwell was just such a tragic figure.

Although not a tragic figure, Mary did live a life of considerable suffering and loss that was common to so many people whose lives were touched by the hardships of late 18th and early 19th century in America. Certainly, her premature death at age 43 in 1808 saved her from being awash in the tides of misfortune that swept over her husband Barnabas in 1810.   

Next week we will share Part II of Love, Marriage, and Politics in the Early Republic

[1] Bidwell held the office for a number of years, probably never setting foot in the office and allowing the clerks to run the day to day business. Mrs. Charles A. Bidwell, letter of May 25, 1942: “…I found in the Registry of Deeds office in Pittsfield the Power of attorney which he gave to his attorneys, whereby he turned over his estate to settle all reasonable claims before he left the country. The Clerk of Courts found that the sum he was accountable for was but $303.64. The Federalist newspapers’ spread the story that he absconded with $12,000.00 and that information Is still being repeated by historians and biographers. The book keeping had been done by several clerks in his absence in Washington and Boston, as he was county treasurer while he was a Congressman.”

[2] While in Washington D.C. serving as congressman Barnabas would on occasion have tea with Judge Cushman and his wife, mentioning those visits to Mary by letter.