Bidwell Lore – Ultracrepidarianism, Slavery, and The Age of Enlightenment, Part I

Welcome to week 26 of Bidwell Lore! This week we begin a new three-part series, still in the world of Barnabas and Mary, titledUltracrepidarianism, Slavery, and The Age of Enlightenment. Thank you Rick Wilcox for all of your work writing these articles!

Ultracrepidarianism: the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge. In my role of providing articles to the Bidwell Lore series I have mostly just recast and annotated information that is largely factual, not needing any particular analysis or interpretation, and for the most part, has not needed to be placed into the larger historical context. However, given that Ultracrepidarianism is a chronic and possibly fatal disease, I have chosen to pontificate in an area where I have little or no knowledge.  –Rick Wilcox

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries. Some consider the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 as the first major enlightenment work. French historians traditionally date the Enlightenment from 1715 to 1789, from the death of Louis XIV of France until the outbreak of the French Revolution. Most end it with the beginning of the 19th century. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the sovereignty of reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary source of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state.        

 In France, the central doctrines of the Enlightenment philosophers were individual liberty and religious tolerance, in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Catholic Church. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy—an attitude captured by Immanuel Kant’s essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment, where the phrase Sapere aude (Dare to know) can be found.” [1]

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving A Lecture at the Orrery, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 147 x 203 cm (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England)

This story starts before The Enlightenment takes hold in the Berkshires, beginning in Stockbridge, then in Western Massachusetts, touching Township # 1, back to Stockbridge, and finally Washington D.C.

In a Town of Stockbridge Town Meeting Book, there is an entry by town clerk Timothy Woodbridge under Records of Births in 1747: Cyrus, son of servants of Timothy and Abigail Woodbridge – parents Hanibal and Hannah, Oct 26th 1747. Timothy Woodbridge was a distant cousin of Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s first two wives. Servant was a euphemism for slave. Hanibal and Hannah were most likely of African descent, but not all slaves in Stockbridge were.  
What follows is the language from a 1762 deed transferring ownership of an enslaved Native American from John Dean, an early land speculator in Stockbridge, to Elihu Parsons, who owned a large farm on what is now Ice Glen Road. Jude, the woman referred to in the deed, was probably not a Mohican and one can only speculate on her journey that ended in slavery. Enslaved Native Americans were less common than enslaved Africans, mainly because it was more difficult to find them when they ran away. Large numbers of Native Americans were enslaved, but for the most part, they were then shipped to islands in the Caribbean. The importation of Enslaved Africans, coupled with their birth rate in the colonies would, by 1800, fulfill slaveholders’ needs ending the practice of enslaving Native Americans. Timothy Woodbridge and Timothy Edwards were both Justices of the Peace. Timothy Edwards’ father was the 18th century’s most famous theologian, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, who was a slaveholder himself.

“The subscriber John Dean in consideration of the thirty pounds to me in hand and truly said the receipt whereof I do hereby acknowledge do here by bargain, sell, sell over and convey to Elihu Parsons of Stockbridge his heirs and assigns a Indian woman tenant named Jude aged about thirty five years and do herewith deliver over the same Indian woman servant to be to the sole benefit and behoof of the said Elihu as his servant during his natural life and to his heirs and assigns and do hereby covenant and agree with the said Eilhu that I have good right to bargain and sell the said Indian woman for during her natural life in manner as aforesaid and that I will warrant her services accordingly against the lawful claims of all pervious whom even and I do hereby declare that at I do not know of any sickness or malady of body attending the said Indian woman. Witness my and seal this 13th Day – Stockbridge April 13, 1762, In the presence of Timothy Woodbridge.”

Almost 14 years later, Elihu Parsons made the following declaration, apparently in response to some question:
“Stockbridge Feby 10th 1776 – A true copy, Elihu Parsons
The within named Elihu Parsons of lawful age being duely sworn deposes and saith that he never heard that the within named Indian woman called Jude claimed at right to freedom – that we sold her to remain as servant during her natural life and that we believes she now remains a servant as a foresaid – and further this deponent saith not. Elihu Parsons
Sworn this 10th day of Feby 1776 Coram, Tim Edwards, Justice of Peace”

In 2005 Robert H. Romer, an Amherst College professor, wrote an article titled Higher Education and Slavery in Western Massachusetts. He seems to express surprise that there was a significant number of well-educated and fairly well-to-do members of the cloth in Western Mass. who owned slaves. It would appear that, as a group, they were best suited to own slaves, based on income and social standing. It is suggested by some scholars that in the minds of early English settlers the Old Testament provided justification for the ownership and subjugation of slaves.

Bidwell House Museum, Richard Greene leading a Housatonic Heritage Walk along the Royal Hemlock Trail, Fall 2018
The Bidwell House Museum

Based on all the documents we have available to us regarding the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell it seems safe to say he did not own or use slaves. Ironically, there is some evidence that his father’s shipping business may have been involved in the Triangular Trade. Thomas Bidwell shipped lumber from New England to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and shipped back molasses and rum.  The sugar plantations used large numbers of slaves, and the profits from the sugar, molasses, and rum were the economic engine.  As you may remember from an early edition of Bidwell Lore, Thomas Bidwell was lost at sea during a return trip from Barbados to Hartford shortly before Adonijah was born.

We can only speculate about what took place in his mother Prudence Scott Bidwell’s household on the issue of slavery. Records that are available to us about Prudence mention only property transactions following Thomas’ death. There were a series of land sales from 1719 to 1744 yielding only 62 pounds, 15 shillings over twenty-five years. Those records also indicate she did not remarry, so she maintained control over the family assets.

Now, back on task. I would again cite Romer’s article, which includes a table of “Slave Owning Ministers From the Connecticut Valley of Western Massachusetts.” He provides the ministers’ names, towns, tenures, Alma Mater, and year of graduation. Out of that list, it seems appropriate to mention a few names that may begin to sound familiar to readers of Bidwell Lore. All graduates of Harvard or Yale between 1683 and 1758: Nehemiah Bull [2] of Westfield; Ebenezer Devotion [3] of Suffield [4]; Jonathan Edwards [5] of Northampton (and Stockbridge); Samuel Hopkins [6] of West Springfield; Chester Williams, Hadley; John Williams, Deerfield; Stephen Williams, Longmeadow, William Williams, Hatfield. The latter four were related to Edwards, Partridge, and Gray families.

For those who were wondering if we would ever return to the point of the foregoing discussion: there was a seismic mid-18th century shift in the northeast and elsewhere, not only away from the enslavement of Africans, but toward the passionate embrace of abolitionism by large numbers of people. The Age of Enlightenment had arrived in the Berkshires. Evidence from 1806-07 letters between Barnabas Bidwell, who was in Washington while serving as a congressman, and his wife, Mary Gray Bidwell, who was back home in Stockbridge overseeing his law office, running the household, and caring for her mother and their eight-year-old nephew, Josiah Brewer, who they had adopted after the death of his father, speak to their passionate dislike for slavery. I wrote an article on the topic of the letters, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, which I titled: Barnabas Bidwell: America’s William Wilberforce? I had included the following letter from Mary to Barnabas:
“The subject of importing slaves I observe is brought up at your board. I am confident you will oppose with your utmost energy this wicked inhuman traffic. Assuredly this is first in the black catalogue of our crimes as a nation, and it must soon draw down the vengeance of an offended righteous God, not only upon the barbarous wretches who barter human flesh, their fellow men! – But upon all who do not bear testimony against this abomination. ‘Who stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but not be heard.’  I should not perhaps have written so much upon this subject if I had not known that your sentiments, my dear friend, were perfectly congenial to mine upon this important point.”
More letters on the slavery issue between Mary and Barnabas and how the Age of Enlightenment is reflected in these seismic changes will follow in Part II next week.

[1] Wikipedia, but heavily edited.
[2] Bull was married to Elizabeth Partridge, who was the sister of Colonel Oliver Partridge and also William Partridge of Pittsfield. William Partridge was husband of Jemima Bidwell Partridge, who was the daughter of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell and Jemima Devotion Bidwell.
[3] Father of Jemima Devotion Bidwell.
[4] Suffield is now part of Connecticut; it was then part of Massachusetts.
[5] Jonathan Edwards was distant cousin of Barnabas Bidwell’s wife Mary Gray Bidwell through the Williams family.
[6] Married to Jonathan Edwards’ sister, Esther.