Bidwell Lore – Would We Have Florida Without Barnabas Bidwell?

Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 130! This week we will share a short story about Barnabas Bidwell and his role and making Florida part of the United States.

Florida? Thank Barnabas Bidwell for Disney World
Rick Wilcox

We are sharing a short story this week about work done by Barnabas Bidwell (1761-1833), who you may remember was the son of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell (1716-1784), and Jemima Devotion Bidwell (1727-1771). We ran a long series on Barnabas Bidwell in 2020 starting HERE.

To summarize his biography, Barnabas graduated from Yale College in 1785; studied law at Brown University, Providence, RI; 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. Bidwell moved to Canada around 1815, settling in Kingston, Ontario, practiced law there, and died in 1833.  Bidwell served for a number of years as Berkshire County Treasurer [1], beginning in 1791, during the same period of time he held the other political offices.

Barnabas and his beloved wife Mary lived at 27 Main Street in Stockbridge (The Elms) and while there in the 1790s he erected a law office next to the house, which later became the law offices of Jonathan Edwards Field.  Letters between Barnabas and Mary mention different law clerks working in the law office in Barnabas’ absence. Their son Marshall Spring Bidwell (1799-1872) and daughter Sarah Gray Bidwell (1796-1864) shared their home with their cousin Josiah Brewer (1796-1872), who was the future father of U.S. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer. Josiah’s father, Eliab Brewer, an attorney, had died in 1804 and his mother Theodosia, Barnabas’ younger sister, had asked that Barnabas and Mary take him in (She had five other children).

The Elms, home of Barnabas Bidwell. Yellow, 3-story, center hall colonial home
Barnabas and Mary’s home in Stockbridge as it looks today

From Stockbridge on March 31, 1806, Mary Bidwell writes to Barnabas: “Again, my dear friend, I write from the chamber of sickness. I hope, however, soon to exchange it for a less gloomy apartment, for gloomy it is, notwithstanding the uniform calm, cheerful submission of the dear invalid. As our election approaches, the annual slanders, calumny and detraction of the Federal presses, are hurried into circulation with a zeal and activity worthy of a better cause. For the honor of the Republican cause, I hope, such weapons will be exclusively Federal. This night there was Republican caucus at the building denominated ‘The red school house.’ General attendance has been given, and Mr. Hunt, who has just gone out of the chamber, assures me, he has never observed such a spirit of firmness indignation and resolution, as in this assembly. With pain I add, that Mrs. Sedgwick’s derangement returns with her increasing strength.”

From Washington, April 2, 1806, Barnabas responds: “Although your last letter, which has reached me, gave encouraging information, respecting your mama’s health, I cannot divert myself of anxiety on that subject. The course of the mails does not authorize an expectation of another letter for several days. The time of our adjournment is no more certain that when I wrote last. The day before yesterday the injunction of secrecy was (Prematurely I think.) taken off by the House of Representatives from our confidential proceedings. I am, therefore, at liberty to inform you that the principal subject of those proceedings was our relations with Spain. The leading measure advocated by Mr. Randolph was to authorize the President to raise an additional army to repel Spanish aggressions, chastise the same, the object of which was to take the Floridas by force. The measure, which I moved, and which was adopted, was an appropriation of two millions of dollars for the purpose of defraying any extraordinary expense attending to our intercourse with foreign nations, the object of which was to enable the President to commence with effect a negotiation for the purchase of the Spanish territories east of the Mississippi [2]. The details which are various, will be seen in the Journal, which is now published. Many of us thought it ought not be disclosed at present, lest the disclosure should defeat the negotiation. But a small majority voted in favor of publishing it. I expect the Federalist and Randolphites will exert themselves to make an impression on the public opinion, altho I have no fear on that score. I have sent a trunk of books, papers, etc. to Alexandra, to be forwarded by packet to New York, and mean to have everything in readiness to start immediately after the close of the session.”    

According to congressman Silvio Conte in June 1987, Bidwell’s close relationship with Jefferson made a big difference in the negotiations: “His close alliance with President Jefferson earned him the title of ‘sworn interpreter of executive messages.’ This was first demonstrated by his maneuvering in the President’s attempts to acquire the territory of Florida from the Spanish. Jefferson was distressed with the remarkable bargain he received in the Louisiana Purchase – finalized two years earlier – because he felt the land could be only of minimal use to the rest of the country. The piece of land he would have preferred was a Spanish strip known as West Florida, which included the harbor of Mobile Bay. The President was prepared to pursue several avenues to obtain this parcel. However, he needed the collaboration of Congress to appropriate funds for any strategy that he might adopt. It was Barnabas Bidwell who realized the importance of this purchase and facilitated a $2,000,000 appropriation.”

Along with Barnabas Bidwell, Jefferson worked with a number of representatives on the deal and often met at the home of Albert Gallatin [3] in addition to the regular dinner parties Jefferson hosted in the Executive Mansion.

Were it not for the efforts of Barnabas Bidwell, Florida might have not become part of the United States in the early 19th century and family vacations may have looked very different in the 21st century!

1.  Bidwell held the office for almost 19 years, likely seldom 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 bookkeeping had been done by several clerks in his absence in Washington and Boston, as he was county treasurer while he was a Congressman.”

2. Family lore suggested that Barnabas Bidwell helped President Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase. However, that happened in 1803 at a cost of $15 million dollars. Bidwell was not yet in Congress, as he served from 1805-07. “…Or maybe the road to Florida ran through Paris after all. Napoleon, having abandoned his plans for American empire, planned instead to expand his European empire. But expansion meant war, and war meant cash. Napoleon had earned $15 million from the sale of Louisiana; would the prospect of some millions more induce him to compel Spain to yield Florida, not from its owner, but from a third party? In January 1806, meeting in a secret session, they voted to appropriate $2 million for France to make the deal.” James Madison, Richard Brookhiser, 2011.

3. Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin (January 29, 1761 – August 12, 1849) was a Swiss-American ethnologist, linguist, politician, diplomat, congressman, and the longest-serving United States Secretary of the Treasurer. In 1831, he founded the University of the City of New York, now New York University. Born in Switzerland, Gallatin immigrated to America in the 1780s, ultimately settling in Pennsylvania. He was politically active against the Federalist Party program and was elected to the United States Senate in 1793. However, he was removed from office by a 14–12 party-line vote after a protest raised by his opponents suggested he did not meet the required nine years of citizenship. Two years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives and served in the fourth through sixth Congresses, becoming House Majority Leader. He was an important member of the new Democratic-Republican Party, its chief spokesman on financial matters, and led opposition to many of the policy proposals of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. He also helped found the House Committee on Finance (later the Ways and Means Committee ) and often engineered withholding of finances by the House as a method of overriding executive actions to which he objected. While Treasury Secretary, his services to his country were honored in 1805 when Meriwether Lewis named one of the three headwaters of the Missouri after Gallatin.