Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 131! This week we are sharing a story about Reverend Adonijah Bidwell’s great-grandson, who went on to serve as a Justice on the Supreme Court.
Brewer, Field, and Brown: Elm Street to the U.S. Supreme Court
The Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s great-grandson, David J. Brewer, was born in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) on June 20, 1837. David’s parents were Josiah Brewer and Emilia Field Brewer. Josiah was the second son of Theodosia Bidwell Brewer, Reverend Bidwell’s youngest daughter. You can read more about Theodosia HERE.
Josiah Brewer was valedictorian of his class at Yale in 1821. He studied at Andover Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1826. Two months after his marriage to Emilia Field, early in 1830, the New Haven Ladies Greek Association sent Josiah and Emilia to the Mediterranean where he established the first mission school for girls in Greece. Thirteen-year-old Stephen Field, Emilia’s little brother, accompanied them, because his older brother David Dudley Field, Jr., thought it might prepare Stephen for a career as a professor of Oriental languages. Rather than settle in Greece, Brewer decided to do his work in Smyrna, Asia Minor, staying there until 1839. While there they also set up “a printing press and a newspaper, and did much to give an impetus to education throughout the Turkish empire.”
Rev. Josiah Brewer took a strong stand against slavery, editing antislavery periodicals and aligning himself with the free-soil wing of the Democratic Party. In 1848 he supported the presidential candidacy of John P. Hale of the Liberty Party. By 1856 he had switched his political loyalty to the new Republican Party. Brewer organized the Union Mission Society, later called the American Missionary Association, which attracted many black members. It seemed likely that his politics would have influenced his son, David, but the evidence seems to challenge that assertion.
Moving back to Stockbridge, we can relate a story about David J. Brewer. Elm Street in Stockbridge was once called Academy Street and the local school, or academy, rested on a site that later became the 1898 Hose Company Number 1 firehouse of Norman Rockwell fame and is now a guesthouse owned by the Red Lion Inn. The story, possibly apocryphal, is that three U. S. Supreme Court Justices who all sat on the U.S. Supreme together, also attended the little schoolhouse in Stockbridge. They are Henry Billings Brown, David J. Brewer, and David’s uncle, Stephen Johnson Field.
David Josiah Brewer, 1837-1910, served on the court from 1890-1910, his term ended at his death
Henry Billings Brown, 1836-1913, served on the court from 1891-1906
Stephen Johnson Field, 1816-1899, served on the court from 1863-1897
Here we share a bit more about Brown and Field.
In Charles A. Kent’s Memoir of Henry Billings Brown: Late Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he presents a sketch from Brown himself in which he writes: “I had a natural fondness for machinery and was never so happy as when allowed to ‘assist’ at the sawing of logs and shingles and the grinding in my father’s mills. Indeed, it is not at all improbable that I should have succeeded him in his business, had he not decided in 1845 to sell his entire plant and move to Stockbridge – the adjoining town. Upon our removal to Stockbridge in 1845, I was entered as a scholar at the Academy and begun the study of Latin, which I always thought and still think, should be the foundation of the intellectual equipment of every educated man…. The school was an excellent one, and I was quick to perceive that the pupils were of a class much superior to the factory children I had met in the District School at South Lee. Stockbridge was then as now one of the most beautiful of New England villages, the centre of much literary and civic activity.”
Stephen Johnson Field was the son of the Rev. David Dudley Field, Sr., the fourth minister to the Town of Stockbridge and, as we mentioned above, brother to Emilia Field Brewer. There are references to Stephen attending the little red schoolhouse, but there were many little red schoolhouses in Stockbridge. David J. Brewer, Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s great-grandson and Stephen Johnson Field’s nephew, is a little harder to pin down as his parents led a somewhat nomadic life. I will give him a pass, as he no doubt spent time in Stockbridge, and move on to a short story about their life on the court.
Probably the most notable case during the tenure of all three Justices, Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. The case stemmed from an 1892 incident in which African American train passenger Homer Plessy refused to sit in a car for Blacks. It would be fair to say it was one of the worst, if not the worst, decisions in the history of the court relating to issues of racial equality.
Henry Billings Brown, who wrote the majority opinion in that case, opened his own memoirs with the following words: “I was born of a New England Puritan family in which there has been no admixture of alien blood for two hundred and fifty years. Though Puritans, my ancestors were neither bigoted nor intolerant – upon the contrary some were unusually liberal.” Ironic, as he never seemed to see the glaring disconnect between that statement and his majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. Stephen Johnson Field joined Brown in the majority opinion.
Brewer, whose father Josiah, we have already noted, was an abolitionist, had enlisted in the cause of antislavery as a youth, and in 1858, at age 21, had joined the migration of antislavery New Englanders to “Bloody Kansas.” During the arguments for Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice Brewer was traveling to Kansas for the funeral of his daughter and chose not to participate. When the court voted 7-1 to uphold the doctrine of separate but equal, the only challenge came from Chief Justice John Marshall Harlan a former slaveholder from Kentucky. In a separate decision, his Berea College dissent, Harlan wrote: “Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race that an American government, professedly based on the principles of freedom, and charged with the protection of all citizens alike, can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of their voluntary meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective race?”
J. Gordon Hylton, of Marquette University Law School, in a 1991 article entitled “The Judge Who Abstained in Plessy v. Ferguson: Justice David Brewer and the Problem of Race,” noted: “Of course, the fact that a Northern judge in the late nineteenth century, even one who held strong abolitionist views in his youth, would adopt an attitude of indifference towards the civil rights of African-Americans was not in itself remarkable. Large numbers of formerly anti-slavery Northerners ‘gave up’ on the cause of African-American civil rights in the aftermath of Construction and acquiesced in the restoration of white supremacy in the South. White liberals began a steady retreat on the race issue.” Other sources suggest that the court at that time changed the law in small increments and that Plessy v. Ferguson was just too great a reach for the justices in a time of so much racial unrest.