Bidwell Lore – Barnabas Bidwell and James Madison

Welcome to week 30 of Bidwell Lore! Today we are sharing correspondence between Barnabas and Mary along with an important letter from Barnabas to James Madison and then at the bottom, you will see an 1810 discussion with President Madison about the possibility of Barnabas Bidwell ascending to the Supreme Court.

Barnabas Bidwell’s letters home to his wife, Mary, did not portend his leaving Congress later in the year 1807. He did, however, allude to health problems and the distance away from home as a motivation to find work closer to Stockbridge. His friend and fellow Republican, James Sullivan (1744-1808), was elevated from Attorney General to Governor of Massachusetts and offered Barnabas the position of Attorney General. In a letter to Mary, Barnabas wrote of the suicide of Governor’s son by firearm and how upset Governor Sullivan was by that turn of events, a tragedy, which may have contributed to Sullivan’s death in 1808.

From Washington City, January 1st, 1807, Barnabas writes: “Permit me, my dearest friend, to present you the compliments of the season. I most cordially wish you a happy New Year. This letter is the first paper which I have dated in the New Year. Indeed it is early in the morning. Today the House do not sit, having yesterday adjourned to Friday, to give an opportunity of complying with the custom of attending the President’s annual Levee [1] About 12 o’clock I intend to pay my respects to the chief magistrate, or more properly the Chief magistrate of the nation. After two hours attendance at the Levee, I am engaged to dine with Mr. & Mrs. Cutts [2]. But my first attention, on this anniversary, is due to the friend of my heart, the mother of my children, the companion of my life, the participator of my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows. Accept, my dear Mary, my most affectionate and cordial salutation. I am called to breakfast. Before another mail I shall write you again. A suitable remembrance to your Mama, the dear children, the family, and such of our neighbors, as honor me by enquiry after your bosom friend, Barnabas Bidwell”

A second letter from Washington City, January 2nd, 1807: “Dear Mary. Yesterday being the only Levee day in the year, according to the etiquette established under the present administration, I attended among the crowd and paid my respects to the President. There were, I think, more gentlemen than last year, but not so many ladies, there being fewer ladies in the city. The foreign ministers were there. Capt. Lewis [3] and his Mandane chief and other Indians. The squaws were poorly dressed and appeared ashamed. The ladies, generally, shook hands with them; but they did not seem to enjoy the scene, as the Chiefs did. I was introduced to Capt. Lewis, and had considerable conversation with him. He has engaged to spend an evening with us. Probably Congress will grant some reward to him and his companions. After the Levee I dined at Mr. Cutts’s lodging, and spent the evening very agreeably. My Rheumatism has nearly left me, and I am in other respects perfectly well.”

To James Madison [4] from Barnabas Bidwell, 27 June 1807:

Sir, Boston, June 27th. 1807

Having, in compliance with the wishes of my friends here, accepted the office of Attorney General of this Commonwealth, I have, of course, resigned my seat in Congress, and a Writ of Election, to supply the vacancy, is ordered by the State Executive, agreeably to the provision of the Constitution. It was with some hesitation that I concurred in this arrangement, notwithstanding my habitual preference of law to politics and a sincere desire to be in some situation favourable to the execution of a long contemplated work on the law of this State and of the United States. [5] For I could not but consider myself in a degree pledged to my constituents for another biennial term. My family had also consented to my absence from home for that purpose, and I felt a strong inclination to spend next winter in particular at the seat of government, in order, among other things, that I might have a voice, with my Republican brethren, in nominating candidates for the next election of President & Vice-President, in the expected case of a new nomination. But I have yielded to the opinion of friends and a sense of duty, and already entered upon the business of my new office, without, however, removing to this town at present, as I wish to make an experiment of the office before I determine upon a change of residence.
On taking leave, perhaps forever, of Washington, you will pardon my vanity in offering to yourself & Mrs. Madison a grateful acknowledgment of the polite and friendly notice, which I have experienced at your house, and an assurance of the high respect and esteem, with which I have the honor to be, Sir, your cordial friend & humble servant,
Barnabas Bidwell

Three years after his departure from Washington, Barnabas again becomes a topic of discussion with now President James Madison and politicians who believed Barnabas should be nominated to the US Supreme Court. This information all comes from the papers of James Madison, National Archives, University of Virginia.

To James Madison from Levi Lincoln, 12 April 1810, Worcester: 
Dear Sir
Permit me to congratulate you on the happy result of the recent elections in this State & in New Hampshire. Firmness, steadiness & united persevering efforts by the friends to the national government will complete our triumph, break down & scatter to the winds the mad & hopeless cause of the Northern Confederacy.[6]
I am informed that Judge Cushing is about resigning his seat as Judge of the Supreme Court of the U. States. I need not state to you how important it is in the opinion of republicans that his successor should be a gentleman of tried & undeviating attachment to the principles & policy which mark your’s & your Predecessor’s administration of the national government. It will form in some degree a countervailing action to that overgrown yet still encreasing influence in which federalism is intrenched in this State. Your [sic] are sufficiently acquainted with the prominent legal characters in this judicial District. Mr Bidwell’s standing in society, patriotism, professional qualifications are known to you. Please to excuse the liberty I have taken. My apology is the importance of the subject; my only motive the general welfare.
Let me ask you to make my grateful recollections acceptable to Mrs Madison, & believe me to be with the highest esteem & most sincere attachment your most Obedient Humble Servant,
Levi Lincoln [7]

On June 13, 1810, James Fenner [8] writes to Madison from Providence to report that Justice William Cushing will resign from the Supreme Court and suggests Barnabas Bidwell be nominated as his replacement. Bidwell’s appointment would, in Fenner’s words, “gratify our friends in New England, and afford no cause for censure to our Enemies.”

At the time of these conversations, Bidwell was serving as attorney general of Massachusetts and remained in that post until August 30, 1810. When an investigation of his accounts as Treasurer of Berkshire County, a position he had held in name only since 1791, exposed a shortage of about $10,000, he fled to Canada.  We will share that surprising story next week. 

Finally, on October 6, 1810, Levi Lincoln, writing from Worcester, reminds President Madison that he had earlier recommended the former attorney general of Massachusetts [Barnabas Bidwell] for the seat on the Supreme Court held by Judge Cushing. “Thanks now to an overruling Providence … that arrangement did not take place.” Levi also stresses the “importance to this part of the Union” of filling the vacancy recently created by the death of Cushing with “an enlightened, decided, & devoted republican” and therefore recommends Gideon Granger. He believes Granger is “ranked high” by “both descriptions of political characters” in Massachusetts, and in instances when he practiced before the court of Hampshire County, “he so acquitted himself & such was his display of ingenuity & Learning, as to extort from our Supreme Judges although of opposite politics, his eulogium in the face of the County.”

Next week we begin wrapping up our time with Barnabas Bidwell through the story of his incredible and unexpected political downfall.  

[1] Jefferson started the practice of having less formal gatherings to move away from the Federalist’s more regal events.
[2] Congressman Richard Cutts, whose wife Anna was the sister of Dolly Payne Madison, wife of future President James Madison, and friend of Barnabas Bidwell.
[3] Of Lewis & Clark fame. He was a personal secretary to Jefferson before going west. Ended his life by suicide.
[4] Madison was Secretary of State in the Jefferson administration 1801-1809.
[5] Barnabas’ first love was the law and he had hoped to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court upon the retirement of his friend, Judge Cushing.
[6] The Federalist Party.
[7] Levi Lincoln (1749–1820) had served in Jefferson’s cabinet as acting secretary of state until Madison took up his duties in May 1801 and as attorney general, 1801–4. He was also Lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, 1807–8, and was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1809. After Associate Supreme Court Justice William Cushing died in September 1810, Madison offered Lincoln the vacant seat on the court only to receive Lincoln’s refusal because he was going blind. Undeterred, Madison placed Lincoln’s name in nomination before the Senate on 2 Jan. 1811 but still could not persuade Lincoln to accept. Cushing was replaced by Joseph Story, who was the recipient of a letter sent by Adonijah Bidwell, Jr., donating money for the fire at Newburyport, Mass., the subject of a separate Bidwell Lore article over the summer.
[8] Fenner was the Republican governor of Rhode Island, 1807–11.