Selected Letters

The 14 letters featured below have been chosen out of the more than 20,000 in the Bigelow correspondence files at Union College to suggest the breadth and depth of the collection. They range in date from the start of Bigelow’s professional career as a journalist, when he was in his 30s, through the last month of his life at the age of 94, when he was still actively involved in public concerns.

Salmon P. Chase to John Bigelow, 1 August 1851

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A leader of the young Republican party, Salmon P. Chase would go on to hold a cabinet position as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury and, eventually, a seat as a Supreme Court Justice. This letter shows Chase's early days as a politician, writing to Bigelow, editor of the Evening Post, or more accurately to one of Bigelow's literary personae, the gossip-mongering "John Brown, Ferryman." Many politicians and public officials fed Bigelow the political rumors that would have been inappropriate to report as straight news.

John Bigelow to William Cullen Bryant & Co., 5 January 1854

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Bigelow writes from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, while he is awaiting a vessel to take him home after his fact-finding mission there for The Evening Post. The city is in the midst of a cholera epidemic and few vessels have the crew to depart. Bigelow writes of providing support for the establishment of educational institutions in Haiti and notes, "I have been very well thus far and hope to continue so." It was on this return journey that Bigelow was introduced to the spiritual writing of Emanuel Swedenborg, whose work would influence Bigelow for the rest of his life.

Eliza W. Farnham to John Bigelow, 1856

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Farnham was a prison reformer and a matron at Sing Sing prison while Bigelow was working as a prison inspector for New York State. In this letter she seeks Bigelow's expertise as an editor in deciding where best to place the illustrations being added to the new American edition of Marmaduke B. Sampson's Rationale of Crime. Bigelow's interest not only in book illustration but in phrenology and the reading of character through physical appearances persisted throughout his lifetime. Farnham also reports indignantly on the high oratorical stance of a local parson preaching on "the distinction between judicial & providential blindness!!"

Charles Francis Adams Sr. to John Bigelow, 21 September 1863

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Adams was appointed foreign minister to Britain during the U.S.Civil War at the same time that Bigelow was stationed in Paris. Both men worked tirelessly to prevent Confederate agents from having war ships built for the conflict back in the United States. Here Adams writes of one such agent: "The information you furnish is curious and valuable. Mr. Bravé has played a bold game – and came much nearer to success than I could have imagined possible."

Thurlow Weed to John Bigelow, 16 April 1865

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Consummate politician and Republican party insider, Thurlow Weed worked with his close associate William Seward (Union College Class of 1820 and Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State) to obtain Bigelow his appointment to the French consulate during the U.S. Civil War. While Bigelow was away they wrote to each other frequently to discuss politics. In this letter, written on Department of State stationary two days after Lincoln was assassinated, Weed is clearly distraught: "Are we not 'in the midst of a Revolution?' The President Dead! The Secretary of State frightfully gashed about the Throat and Face." Despite his distress, Weed goes on to provide Bigelow with a succinct update on the situation in Washington.

John Bright to John Bigelow, 10 August 1865

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Bright was known even in 1865 for his association with the Anti-Cornlaw League and what would later come to be called Manchester Liberalism. He was also one of the few members of English Parliament to voice support for the North in the Civil War, and as a result he earned Bigelow's deep respect. As a contact in England, Bright was able to assist Bigelow in thwarting Confederate attempts to build ships or acquire loans in Britain. In this letter Bright discusses a list of Confederate bondholders in London, including a "W.E. Gladstone." Years later Bigelow would write a monograph about Gladstone's involvement in the issue.

Wilkie Collins to Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow, 7 March 1868

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Bigelow counted Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White, among his circle of literary friends in England, which also included John Forster and Charles Dickens. Bigelow's wife Jane enthusiastically supported such relationships and kept up an independent correspondence with a number of well-known literary figures and their family members. In this letter to Jane Bigelow, Collins comments on the trouble he is having with his health and the measures he is taking to complete The Moonstone: "In the intervals of roaring with pain (for I am not one of those Spartan men who don't cry out when they are hurt), there I lay, … Dictating fiction!!."

Charles Dickens to John Bigelow, April 1868

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Bigelow first met Dickens and other members of his literary circle when he traveled to London in 1860. The two men socialized once again when Dickens traveled to the United States in 1867-68 for one of his renowned reading tours, when Dickens made a particularly strong impression on both Bigelow and his wife Jane. Just as the reading tour was ending, Bigelow sent Dickens several copies of his newly-published edition of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, one for Dickens and others for their mutual friends in England. In his acknowledgement letter, Dickens alludes to the poor health that had begun to dog him during his tour: "My foot is so painful and so incommodes me in the action of sitting up, that I can hardly thank you (through the agency of pen, ink, and paper) for your book."

Samuel J. Tilden to John Bigelow, 23 August 1883

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Governor of New York, political reformer, benefactor of the New York Public Library and very nearly president of the United States, Samuel Tilden had a long life in politics. During much of that time Bigelow was at his side, from their days as boarders together in New York City until Bigelow executed Tilden's will. This letter, sent late in Tilden's life after he had retired from public life, suggests something of the enduring nature of their friendship: "I advise you confidentially that I have chartered a first-class Steam Yacht for 30 days beginning at 10 o'clock on Monday next. It is rather at cross purposes that you should be absent at exactly this time?"

John Milton Hay to John Bigelow, 5 May 1888

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Hay is best known now for his accomplishments as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, which include authoring the "Open Door" policy in regard to trade in China and acquiring the rights to build a canal through the recently formed nation of Panama. Before this, however, he was Bigelow's secretary while the older man served as Minister to France during the U.S. Civil War and was concentrating his efforts on stopping French support for the Confederate navy. The two men had a strong affection for one another, and their correspondence, kept up from the 1860s until Hay's death in 1905, is filled with exchanged compliments, notes on family, and, of course, politics. In this letter, sent after Bigelow published his account France and the Confederate Navy, Hay writes, "Nobody had so good a right to the matter as you, who can say, like Coriolanus, 'Alone, I did it.'"

Elizabeth Cady Stanton to John Bigelow, 20 July 1894

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One of the early leaders of the woman's suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped to organize the 1848 Seneca Falls convention. Bigelow was a supporter of women's suffrage and his many political connections made him the subject of appeals on this issue as well as on many others. In this letter Stanton asks Bigelow's support for a controversial proposal that would provide limited suffrage for women based on certain restrictions: "Perhaps an amendment based on an educational & property qualification for woman suffrage, might meet with more favor."

Theodore Roosevelt to John Bigelow, 6 January 1904

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As an old friend both of Roosevelt's Secretary of State John Hay and of the French engineer and Panamanian advocate Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Bigelow played a key part in securing U.S. rights to build a canal in Panama. When the province of Panama declared independence from Colombia, the U.S. Navy was conveniently on the scene to ensure the success of their revolution. In this personal letter to Bigelow written from the White House when the canal project was just getting underway, Roosevelt disavows his own or Hay's involvement in pre-authorizing any of Bunau-Varilla's efforts on behalf of the rebellion, but expresses admiration for the latter's sagacity in making an accurate "guess" as to his administration's sympathies.

Samuel L. Clemens to John Bigelow, 28 December 1909

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Bigelow wrote to Clemens on more than one occasion and most likely enjoyed his political opinions as much as his wit. (Bigelow had warned the American humorist to keep his guard up or the Democrats might run him for president when he wasn't looking.) Here Clemens writes to Bigelow acknowledging the condolences that Bigelow sent shortly after the death of Clemens' daughter Jean: "It is lovely of you – & like you – dear first Citizen, to remember the friend in trouble & say the good kind word. ... In some future day I shall ring at your door at 1 o'clock – without previous notice – & claim refreshment, by authority of the privilege you have granted me." Unfortunately the future meeting never took place: Clemens, who never recovered from his grief, died less than four months later.

Samuel Herbert Adams to John Bigelow, 7 November 1911

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In connection with his work on the establishment of the New York Public Library, Bigelow commissioned the artist Herbert Adams to create one of several sculptures of the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant (who had also been Bigelow's business partner, friend, and mentor). Adams was a renowned sculptor; his work can now be found adorning not only the New York City Public Library and Bryant Park behind it but the Library of Congress. He frequently asked Bigelow's opinion of his Bryant piece. This letter is written at the conclusion of the project. Adams says, "One of the privileges that the work has brought me, and one that I shall always remember with great pleasure, is that of meeting Mr. Bigelow."