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

Welcome to week 27 of Bidwell Lore! This week we continue the three-part series Ultracrepidarianism, Slavery, and The Age of Enlightenment.

Congressman Barnabas Bidwell, often a dinner guest of President Thomas Jefferson, was one of two floor managers in the House of Representatives. As floor manager, he was often referred to by Federalists as “the sworn interpreter of executive messages.” Bidwell appears to have played a significant role in the passage of the bill that ended the importation of slaves into the United States.    
William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) – who I referred to briefly in Part I – was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He began his political career in 1780, eventually becoming the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812). In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Portait of William Wilberforce (1794) by Anton Hickel.  Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

Both Bidwell and Wilberforce were products of The Age of Enlightenment, that cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. With its purpose to reform society through the use of reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method, it helped to spark the American and French revolutions while creating a significant shift in many people’s attitude toward slavery.
Ephraim Williams, Jr., whose bequest established Williams College, was the nephew of the Rev. William Williams. Rev. Williams was the son-in-law of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, a “River God” who was referred to as “The Pope.” The Stoddard and Williams families controlled the politics and religious practice of Western Massachusetts. Ephraim Williams, Sr., brother of Rev. Williams, was surrounded by a family of clergy and was raised in Puritan New England, a world that had long found biblical justification for slavery.  Ephraim Williams, Sr.’s cousin, Rev. Jonathan Edwards, who often preached fire and brimstone not unlike his famous sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, shared commonly held belief that faith and not reason should guide one’s life.
The stark difference between the beliefs of Ephraim Williams, Jr. and Sr., and Barnabas and Mary Gray Bidwell on the issue of slavery are graphically expressed in Ephraim Williams, Sr.’s 1755 will, in which he had enumerated cattle and negro servants in the same category: “I give and bequeath unto my beloved brothers, Josiah Williams, and Elijah Williams, and the heirs of their bodies my homestead at Stockbridge, with all the Buildings and Appurtenances there unto belonging, with all the Stocks of Cattle and Negro Servants now upon the place, to be Equally Divided between them…” 

Mary Gray Bidwell was Ephraim Williams, Jr.’s niece and also a child of the Age of Enlightenment.  She was provided a liberal education while living at the Watertown, Mass., home of her uncle, Dr. Marshall Spring. All of those influences appear to be reflected in the letters between Mary and Barnabas Bidwell.

Barnabas Bidwell appears to have come from an equally enlightened environment. Both Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s will and his death inventory are free of any mention of slaves, suggesting any help he had was hired and labored for wages. Barnabas’ words and deeds, found below, seem to support that contention.

The first very passionate letter, written in 1805, from Mary to Barnabas on the topic of slavery ended the article: Barnabas and Mary Bidwell, Ultracrepidarianism, Slavery, and The Age of Enlightenment – Part One. Additional letters on the topic of slavery follow:

Washington, February 5, 1806, from Barnabas: “Yesterday the House was engaged in debating Mr. Sloan’s Bill for laying a duty of ten dollars a head on the importation of slaves into the United States. I moved an additional section, to prohibit the importation after the last day of December 1807, and assigned my reasons at large. It was opposed, as inexpedient, and also upon a doubt as to the constitutionality of legislating on the subject, until the year 1808.” [1]

Washington, March 7th, 1806: “Day before yesterday Mr. Gregg’s Non-importation Resolution was called into discussion. Mr. Gregg opened the debate by a sensible speech in favour of the Resolution. Mr. Clay followed on the other side. He was succeeded by Mr. Crowninshield, in support, and Mr. J. Randolph [2] in opposition. Mr. Randolph was near three hours. His speech was a most violent declamation, in which he attacked the present and former administration, Republicans and Federalist, friends and foes. He alluded satirically to what had passed with closed doors. Declaimed much against France and Spain and applauded Great Britain. He condemned our neutral carrying trade as fraudulent and not worthy of protection. Yesterday the debate was renewed. Mr. Nathan Williams of New York, Skinner’s brother-in-law, made a handsome speech, in favour of the Resolution, and Mr. Masters against it. Mr. Smilie made an excellent speech in support of it and Mr. J. Randolph, a long speech against it. The debate will be renewed this day. So many gentlemen appear impatient to speak, I shall not speak, I believe, today. The Federalists are opposed to the measure. Many of the Southern Planters think it will affect the market of their cotton and tobacco. I do not expect a majority in favour of this Resolution; but I hope some efficient measure will be adopted. My attention is now required, and I must say, my dearest friend, adieu. B. Bidwell”

From Barnabas on December 2, 1806: “in his annual message to Congress, widely reprinted in most newspapers, President Thomas Jefferson denounced the ‘violations of human rights’ attending the international slave trade and called for its criminalization on the first day that was possible [3]. He said: “I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.” [4]

From Stockbridge, December 16, 1806. Mary writes: “ ‘Old Winter comes on with a frown, A terrible frown for the Poor.’ Last Friday night and the Thursday week preceding we had more tremendous winds than for years past. With you my dear friend, I resume it is mild and calm. The first tempest alluded to unroofed one of Mr. Hopkins’ out buildings and injured our worthy friend Mr. Hyde, drove in the windows of an apartment where his children slept, and damaged other parts of his mansion. Yesterday Mama, Sally and your old rib [5] drank tea with Mrs. And Miss Edwards. I have never seen the Squire more courteous, attentive and agreeable. Polite enquires for you were not omitted. Burr, had mentioned in a letter to his sister your calling upon Mr. Dubois. [6] The defeat of the Prussian Monarch, which Mr. Edwards had just heard, occasioned some very candid judicious remarks, ‘Bonaparte he thinks is an instrument in the hands of Providence to reduce the Anti-Christ, and probably, the revolution in France will either in this, or succeeding generations, restore the Jews to Palestine, and render that despised people more respected, as the French were the first government that ever noticed this persecuted nation with any civility.[7]  Charles has been obliging and pleasant generally since you left home. Tho Hunt, I believe, is not perfectly satisfied with his maneuvers abroad. He is now unwell, tho not really sick. Yesterday he was too much indisposed to labor and spent the day at his father’s. Our little boys harnessed the horse, and waited on us both out and back.”

Washington, December 17th, 1806, Barnabas writes: “My dearest friend, Your kind letter of Dec. 9th was handed to me today, in the midst of a debate, in which I am deeply engaged. It was on the subject of prohibiting the African slave trade. A section was reported in the Bill, declaring persons, imported as slaves, to be forfeited, and to be proceeded with as forfeitures under our revenue law, that is to be sold under the authority of the United States, as property, that is as slaves. I yesterday supported a motion to add, after the word forfeited ‘and entitled to his or her freedom.’ After a long debate, it was negated by the Committee of the whole. Today I moved to strike out all forfeiture of them as property. A most animated debate ensued, in which we spent most of the day. Confident of the soundness of my position, that the U.S. ought not take them from their importers, forfeit and sell them as slaves, and put their prices into the public treasury, I have expressed myself with more than usual, perhaps more than was prudent. We did not take the question, but rose, and recommitted the Bill to a Select-Committee.”

Ultracrepidarianism aside, we can debate the timing and impact of The Age of Enlightenment in America, but it is clear Mary and Barnabas represented a new age to be further explored in Part III.

[1] Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution: “The migration or importation of such persons as the several states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the legislature prior to the year 1808.” Without that 25-year clause, not all of the states would have approved the constitution.
[2] Randolph was from a branch of the family that suffered significantly from mental health issues and spent a great deal of his time on the House floor in similar rants.
[3] January 1, 1808, Article 1, Section 9, of the Constitution.
[4] Jefferson, a slaveholder, was taking a safe position as by 1808 the slave population was great enough to be self-sustaining, and would meet the needs of all slaveholders without further importation.
[5] Old Testament, Eve was made from the rib of Adam.
[6] Squire Timothy Edwards, son of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, was Vice President Aaron Burr’s uncle.
[7] For Puritans, the Anti-Christ was the Pope and his demise and the restoring of Jews to Palestine would be the fulfillment of the Bible scripture.