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

Welcome to week 28 of Bidwell Lore! This week we finish the three-part series Ultracrepidarianism, Slavery, and The Age of Enlightenment.  Last week we also started a three-part series in our Friday email about the history of the Mary Gray Bidwell portrait we have used to illustrate many of these recent emails.  You can read part I of that series HERE.  

The wheels of government turned slowly then as they do now. The following letters lift the veil, ever so slightly, on the debate that eventually allowed for the end to the importation of slaves.

Barnabas writes to Mary from Washington, January 2, 1807: “In the National Intelligencer of today, which will be the Gazette of next week, a summary of our debate; on one day, on my motion to strike out of the Slaves Bill the principle of a forfeiture of the persons imported as slaves, is given but on one side it is nothing more than my speech almost verbatim, except that it is stated in the third person. Your old friend Mr. Barker made a speech against my amendment, but, before the debate was finished, became convinced, so that he voted with us. But we were out-voted.  The Bill as reported from the Committee of the whole, has not been acted upon in the House. I shall renew my motion, first to strike out the forfeiture, and if that shall be negatived as I expect it will be then to strike out the sale of them as slaves, and have the yeas and nays entered on the Journal, to justify my vote against the passage of the Bill with that abominable principle in it. Various arguments have been used with me by its friends to induce me to withdraw my opposition. But I shall not. It is possible yet to prevent such a stain upon our Statute books; and so long as a possibility remains, I shall feel it my duty to use all reasonable exertions. I find that the President, Mr. Gallatin and other gentlemen of high respectability, out of the House, have the Southern gentlemen ought to unite in the plan I have proposed. But it is a great object with the Slave-holders to get a law of the U.S. to sanction their principle; and many eastern pretenders to a love of freedom aid them in the measure.”  

Washington, January 7, 1807. Barnabas writes: “Dear Mary, I am fatigued with another day’s discussion of the Slave Bill. I renewed in the House the same motion, in substance, which I made in Committee of the whole, to strike out from forfeiture, the word cargo, which consists of slaves. I ought perhaps, to state that in the Committee of the whole, a question is never taken by yeas and nays, so as to appear in the Journal. That can be done only in the House. My object in renewing the motion was to record my name on the Journal. The amendment was negatived, as I expected. I then moved to add to the Bill this Proviso, ‘Provided that no person shall be sold as a slave by virtue of this act.’ On that amendment I called the yeas and nays. There were 60 yeas and 60 nays. The Speaker [1] gave the casting vote in the negative. My Revd. Colleague, Mr. Taggart [2] was in his seat just before the vote was taken; but went out. Had he staid, and voted with us, there would have been a majority. It was thus in his power, probably, to have saved the U.S. from what I consider the greatest reproach which has ever occurred in our government. His absenting himself had the same effect, as to the provision of the Bill as if he had staid and voted, like a man, against us. The bill was ordered to be engrossed for a third reading tomorrow. I shall vote against the passage of it; and if it passes, feel free from all responsibility for it. It is possible the Senate may arrest it, and save the nation from disgrace. My path of duty has been plain, although not pleasant. Having a letter to write to Judge Bishop, in answer to a very friendly one from him, I must close with assurance of the sincerest affection and esteem of Dear Mary, Your friend and husband, Barnabas Bidwell

That gentlemen, who are habituated to slavery, should vote in favor of selling these unfortunate persons, under the authority of the U.S., is natural. It sanctions their own practice. But, that a Representative of a state, like Massachusetts, having no slaves should aid them, is a paradox.
I am sensible that I have offended several of the southern gentlemen by the part I have taken in this business. I have been sorry to displease them. But I have a conscience to satisfy, and a God to answer to for my conduct.”

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

Mary’s letter from Stockbridge, Jan. 13th, 1807: “Last Friday, my dearest, best friend, I had the unexpected gratification of your affectionate salutation at the commencement of the New Year. Accept in return the warmest gratitude of my heart – a heart truly yours – Yours by every tender and endearing tie! Each returning year has indeed brought me additional cause of tenderness and gratitude – affection for the best of husbands, and gratitude to the disposer of all events for bestowing such a friend, upon a creature so forgetful of his mercies, but who wishes to appreciate as she ought the value of this blessing while it is indulged. Not merely the first – but the labor of my pen on the first day of the year, was devoted to the friend of my heart, in particular you may observe my attention is not inferior to yours.

You will not expect a tedious letter today, when I tell you we expect a wedding here this evening. Mr. Vallett and his bride elect, avail themselves of my invitation to have the mystic rites, performed under our roof. No company is to be admitted, and the youthful pair return to Mrs. Spring’s [3] after supper. Such are the present arrangements. In the course of this week Aunt removes to Lee. She has all the delicacy upon this subject of a modest girl of fifteen. She cannot even be persuaded that the children of each, should witness the ceremony though she joins us in wishing the master of the mansion could honor their nuptials by his presence. The day is extreme, my ink tho in the room where we kept a fire was so congealed, I was obliged to thaw it on coals. Doct. West, of course, apprehends he cannot come out. If you was with us his presence would be superfluous, but as I have not given you a seasonable invitation, I shall take no umbrage if you do not attend, much as I wish for my cicisbeo. [4] 

Capt. Whitney remains very ill. The acute pain he suffers is beyond description, equaled only I am told by the most agonizing scene of female distress.
Col. Burr, rumor declares is in possession of N. Orleans, etc., etc. What does Mr. B. write on the subject? Is a frequent inquiry. Mama replies ‘Nothing, for fear we should tell something’ Sally, in a whisper to me observes, “Papa is more unwilling to trust us than Col. Danforth.’ You see our jealousy.

Mama, Aunt the bride, Hunt (I presume tho gone to Lee with our woodmen) and our dear trio of juniors greet you with respect and tenderness and heartfelt benedictions. My heart is not less eloquent than theirs, on a subject of this nature, however inadequate the language of this little instrument, which can only in common-place terms, assure you, that you are truly, the dearest and best friend, of M.B.

From Barnabas, Washington, January. 17th, 1807: “Dear Mary, I have just been attending a meeting of the Committee of 17, one from each state, on the subject of the Slave Bill. As the House had determined upon the principle of forfeiting persons imported contrary to the proposed prohibition, it appeared to me necessary to provide for their disposition. I moved in the Committee today this section;  ‘And be it further enacted, that all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of colour, as may be forfeited by virtue of this act, shall, at the expense of the U.S., be conveyed to such place or places, within the U.S. as the President thereof may direct, and there indentured as apprentices or servants, or otherwise employed, as the President may judge most beneficial for them, and most safe for the U.S. Provided that no such negroes, Mullattoes, or persons of colour shall be indentured or employed as aforesaid except in some State or territory, in which slavery is not permitted, or in which provision is now made for a gradual abolition of slavery, nor in any State in which such persons are not permitted by law to be indentured or employed as aforesaid, and, if any negroes, mulattoes, or person of colour, when so indentured or employed, shall be under the age of 14, the term of such indenture or employment shall not extend beyond  the age of 21 years, and if above 14, the term shall not exceed 7 years.’    
 This proposition has just been adopted by the Committee, and a sub-committee appointed to redraught the Bill conformably to it. Whether it will be adopted by the House, I cannot say. I need not apologize to you for stating, so egotistically my exertions on this subject, which has so deeply interested my feelings. The sub-committee have called on me to attend to the business assigned. I must therefore, bid you a hasty adieu. B. Bidwell”

From Barnabas, Washington, February 16, 1807: “Dear Mary: The House of Representatives have just past the Slave Non-Importation Bill, sent from the Senate, with some amendments. It was not exactly conformable to the opinion of perhaps anyone member. It certainly was not agreeable to my wishes in several particulars; but it was the best that could be obtained; and I gave it my vote. There were 113 yeas and I think only 5 nays. The Bill prohibits the importation of slaves and divests the importer of all right in the person imported; but makes no provision for a disposition of them, if any of them should be imported contrary to the provisions of the Bill. My health is good. My attention is called to a subject of debate. Adieu. Most sincerely and affectionately, yours, B. Bidwell.”

On March 2, 1807, Congress enacted a law to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States … from any foreign kingdom, place or country.” Signed by President Jefferson, the ban took effect on January 1, 1808. By the time the lawmakers acted, every state except South Carolina had already abolished the slave trade. With a self-sustaining population of more than 4 million enslaved already living in the slave-owning states, some Southern congressmen joined with Northerners to enact the ban on the importation of slaves. However, internal slave trading throughout the South remained unimpeded by the legislation. Children of slaves also became slaves, ensuring a growing slave population. Although the act, by 1807, was largely symbolic, it became a tipping point for a struggle towards abolition that would last for almost 60 years.

There are some interesting parallels between Barnabas Bidwell and William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, the English politician largely responsible for ending the slave trade in England through the Slave Trade Act 1807, which was enacted 25 March 1807, was born two years before Barnabas, dying in the same year, 1833. Wilberforce lived just long enough to hear that Parliament had passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. [5] 

Barnabas Bidwell did not have the same satisfaction as Wilberforce. His 1807 bill ending the importation of slaves to America was likely approved because the Southern state congressmen knew that there was a sufficient population of slaves to meet the needs of slave owners. The bill was signed by President Jefferson on March 2, 1807. It took another sixty years for the abolition of slavery, coming only at the close of the Civil War, some 30 years after the British Empire had ended slavery and thirty years after Barnabas’ death.

Next week we will delve into correspondence between Barnabas Bidwell and Thomas Jefferson.

[1] Nathaniel Macon, North Carolina.
[2] Samuel Taggart, a Federalist and Mass Congressman.
[3] Mary Bidwell’s aunt (Sarah Spring Gray’s sister).
[4] The escort or lover of a married woman, especially in 18th-century Italy.
[5] The comparison between Bidwell and Wilberforce was done somewhat tongue-in-cheek as Wilberforce with great passion made the abolition of slavery his life’s work at great risk to his health.