John Bigelow: November 25, 1817 - December 19, 1911


Bigelow family home in Malden, NY

The author, newspaper editor, Minister to France, and life-long public servant was born of two families established in America since the seventeenth century. His father Asa Bigelow married Lucy Isham in 1802. After moving into the Hudson Valley region, Asa Bigelow found employment first as a merchant in Saugerties, New York before starting up his own business. Together with his two brothers and Isham's father, Asa Bigelow purchased two hundred acres in the town of Malden, New York and made his home there. His son John Bigelow was born in 1817, the fourth of five children. John attended a boarding school briefly until his father discovered the schoolmaster was not, after all, teaching him. Thereafter Bigelow attended a local school until moving to Troy, New York to live with his sister Emmeline. At just 13 years old Bigelow was accepted into Washington College in Hartford, Connecticut. He schooled there for several years but grew increasingly dissatisfied with the progress of his education. After the school holidays in the spring of 1834, Bigelow joined his brother David at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

John Bigelow, 1838

At Union Bigelow was elected a member of Sigma Phi and invited to join the Philomathean society, an organization devoted to the discussion of law and politics and whose extensive library was his particular delight. Union's curriculum, which was highly innovative for the time, incorporated the study of modern languages, science, and technology with courses on religion, classics, and moral and intellectual philosophy. Its breadth and emphasis on the practical application of scholarly knowledge suited and undoubtedly fostered the range of Bigelow's interests, and he received the highest marks possible in nearly all of his subjects. His time at Union, however, ended unhappily. Reports vary as to exactly what happened, but by Bigelow's later account, it had to do with the fact that while on his final vacation home as a senior, he stayed a few extra days, apparently in part to prepare his speech on "Colonization" for the commencement activities. While he was away, Union distributed senior honors but failed to award any to Bigelow, citing a policy that seniors who were not on campus at the time were ineligible to receive them. Bigelow graduated but returned home incensed with the College administration in July 1835.

Catalogue of the Library of the
Philomathean Society, 1830

It would be another 30 years before he began to think kindly of the College again, but after that he spoke fondly of his time at Union on a number of occasions.

The young graduate soon travelled to New York City where he studied law, settling into the office of Robert and Theodore Sedgwick. Given his income and family allowance, Bigelow found accommodations at boarding houses with other aspiring professionals. It was here that he met Samuel Jones Tilden, future governor of New York and very nearly President of the United States, politically ambitious even then, as well as the young Harvard graduate Charles Eames, who would introduce him to homeopathy and invite him into the Column Club, a literary society much like the Philomatheans.

In 1838 Bigelow was able to find work in a seminary school for young women, where he gave lectures in "Defense of Novels" and "Newspapers as Civilizing Agents" and held an essay competition for his students titled "Cards as Civilizing Agents." These early lessons reflected the development of an unorthodox and independent mind, but also hint that the distinguished legacy Bigelow would leave can be read in the light and by the influence of letters.

Image Sources:
Malden Home: Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections, John Bigelow Collection
John Bigelow (1838): Bigelow, John. Retrospections of an Active Life, Vol. 1, 1909.
Union College Schaffer Library
Philomathean Catalogue (1830): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections


Bigelow's typewriter, a Blickensderfer No. 9

Bigelow's life as a writer began soon after his move to New York City following graduation from Union College. Ostensibly in the city to study law, it was his literary and not his legal career that would flourish. Editor of the Democratic Review John O'Sullivan published several of Bigelow's articles, including a scorching review of a classical dictionary and a formidable original essay titled "Lucian and his Age" (1842). The esteemed editor of the New-York Evening Post William Cullen Bryant took notice and selected Bigelow to edit material resulting in two books: Rambles on the Yucatan by Benjamin Moore Norman and Commerce of the Prairies, or Journal of a Santa Fe Trader by Josiah Gregg.

Bigelow was soon regularly publishing in O'Sullivan's Democratic Review and socializing with the literati of New York in such venues as Anne Charlotte Lynch's weekly soirees. In addition to Bryant, these gatherings would have acquainted Bigelow with Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and historian George Bancroft. Nevertheless Bigelow's eye was on the Post. Not the largest paper in circulation at the time, the Evening Post was one of the most influential, owing to Bryant's unimpeachable politics and powerful prose. When asked if he would be interested in editing the paper with Bryant, the pragmatic Bigelow, still dependent on the income from his law practice, held out for a full partnership. He did not have to wait long. On December 5, 1848, the Post announced its new partner.

William Cullen Bryant, c. 1878

After being taken on as partner, Bigelow brought the Post's finances in line with its reputation, weathering an economic recession in his first year as editor. The paper became a successful business and in 1853 moved into a new four-story office building. Bigelow also made more creative additions to the Post that helped to push the paper into the forefront of politics. As the slavery question rose in national attention the Post became an instrument opposed to the immoral institution. In 1850 and 1854, Bigelow traveled to Jamaica and Haiti, respectively, to deconstruct the prevalent racist notions about the fitness of former slaves for self-government. His correspondence on the conditions of the islands was subsequently published in the paper. Bigelow also initiated a column, written under the name of "John Brown, Ferryman," in which he gave voice to the political rumor and supposition he had gleaned from friends in high places but that he would be unable to include in standard news pieces. The more erudite though no less opinionated "Friar Lubin" was likewise crafted to skewer the literary and scholastic follies of Bigelow's contemporaries. Bigelow remained at the paper for twelve years, during the thick of the secession crisis in the United States.

Though Bigelow left the Post in 1860, Bryant would continue to influence him yet for many years. In his memoirs Bigelow writes, "For full twenty years after my daily intercourse with Mr. Bryant terminated by my retirement from the Evening Post and absence from the country, I would find myself frequently testing things I had done or proposed to do by asking myself, How would Mr. Bryant act under similar circumstances?" After Bryant's death in 1878, Bigelow delivered an address to the Century Association - a literary and cultural club to which both he and Bryant belonged - praising not just Bryant's prose and his integrity, but his sense of purpose as well. The Post, unlike many papers, sought not just to reflect political events, but "to teach and to lead" society, values which Bigelow held very dear.

Title Page, Autobiography
of Benjamin Franklin, ed.
by John Bigelow, 1868

Bigelow's literary career was not confined to his work with the Post, however. Over the course of his life he would write or edit nearly 40 books and countless articles on subjects ranging from sleep and religion to the value of the French monarchy. For a brief period of time in 1869, Bigelow was the editor for the New York Times. However, unhappy with the changes that journalism had undergone since his absence from it, he soon left. In addition, throughout their lives Bigelow and his wife Jane enjoyed acquaintance with esteemed authors and journalists in Europe and America, such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Bigelow's contributions to literature continued into his final years, with the publication of a tract supporting free trade as well as an essay titled "Is There Existence After Death?," both published in 1910.

One of the most significant of Bigelow's contribution to letters was the publication of his edition of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in 1868. Bigelow's edition was based upon his personal acquisition, while serving in the consulate in France in the 1860s, of Franklin's original manuscript materials for the memoir. After returning to the United States, he retreated to his Highland Falls home to begin work on the Franklin autobiography. With the assistance of his daughter Grace, Bigelow compared the original manuscript to the standard edition published in 1818 and discovered that over a thousand silent editorial changes had been made and that the 1818 edition was missing a crucial eight pages at the end. The restoration of this material was a source of pride, and it became an immediate literary success. Bigelow would oversee the publication of numerous editions of this work in his life time.

Image Sources:
Blickensderfer No. 9: Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections, John Bigelow Collection
William Cullen Bryant (1878): Bigelow, John. Retrospections of an Active Life, Vol. 1, 1909.
Union College Schaffer Library.
Franklin’s Autobiography (1868): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.


Bigelow's personal Bible and annotations

The 1850s were emotionally tumultuous years for Bigelow. In 1850 he returned from an assignment with the Evening Post in Jamaica and traveled to his childhood home in Malden to visit with his mother and father. After the first night of his visit his father, Asa Bigelow, passed away unexpectedly at 72 years of age. However, on his departure to Jamaica in early January he had left behind the young Miss Jane Tunis Poultney, whom he had met at a dance in November. He proposed to her and on June 11, 1850 they were married in Baltimore, Maryland, and Jane's presence in his life was no doubt a great comfort to him when his mother Lucy died just a few months later. In the coming years Bigelow saw the birth of his first children, Poultney and Grace, and also witnessed Poultney's death at only two years old.

At this time Bigelow took little comfort in the spiritual beliefs he had been raised with. In The Bible that Was Lost and Is Found, an essay addressed to his children written later in his life, Bigelow wrote, "I suppose I had pretty much ceased to regard the Bible as possessing any higher sanction than the writing of Marcus Aurelius or of Confucius, except that it taught a loftier and more comprehensive system of morals," and though he attended church it was "for literary rather than for spiritual refreshment" (The Bible that was Lost and is Found, 8).

The Bible that was Lost and
is Found, by John Bigelow, 1912

It was in this state that Bigelow traveled to Haiti in 1853 for the Post in an attempt to rescue the island nation from the racist assumptions held widely by Bigelow's contemporaries. However, his visit was extended by the outbreak of cholera in Port-Au-Prince. Bigelow traveled to St. Thomas to look for passage to the United States, but was again unsuccessful. Staying in a hotel and reading the Bible for recreation, Bigelow encountered a Danish man named Mr. Kjerulff. After striking up a conversation with Kjerulff on a Biblical passage, Bigelow was asked if he had ever read the Arcana Coelestia by "Swedenborg." Kjerulff attempted to describe this Swedenborg's thoughts on the passage, but Bigelow "failing entirely to understand what he was talking about" asked Kjerulff if he had a copy of the book. For the next two weeks Bigelow was absorbed in the writings of the Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and his interpretation of the Bible. One of the first things Bigelow did when he returned to New York was purchase Swedenborg's Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence.

Swedenborg's thoughts would continue to exert a defining influence on Bigelow's spiritual beliefs, and when Bigelow was asked in 1909 to list ten of the books most essential to his education he could name with certainty only the Bible and Swedenborg's twelve-volume Arcana Coelestia. One of Swedenborg's essential tenets is that true spiritual happiness is possible only by putting one's talents to use for others, and Bigelow, who always resisted fame and fortune for personal benefit, seems to have followed this guidance faithfully throughout his life. Despite his belief in the Swedenborg's teachings, Bigelow refrained from labeling himself a "Swedenborgian." Indeed, Bigelow arrived at his "beliefs" only through careful reading and reflection, taking an almost scientific approach in his assessment of the spiritual world. Bigelow wrote several of his own guides to Swedenborgian thought and often attended a Swedenborgian congregation when he was in New York City.

A man of his time, Bigelow also subscribed to some of the more controversial scientific beliefs of his era. In particular, he was a faithful adherent to homeopathy after being introduced to one of the first homeopathic doctors in America, Amos Gerald Hull (Union College Class of 1828), while Bigelow was still working toward a law degree in New York City in the 1830s. After Bigelow witnessing the results of Hull's recommendations, he adopted homeopathic medical practices exclusively ever afterwards, and even managed to convert his fellow-editor at the Post, William Cullen Bryant, to homeopathy.

Bigelow also embraced phrenology, the doctrine that outward physical appearance is indicative of character traits. No doubt phrenology dovetailed with the Swedenborgian thought that all causes are spiritual. Once Bigelow arrived at a belief, having arrived there only after rigorous personal analysis, very rarely would his opinion change. However, this was characteristic not of his stubbornness, necessarily, but rather his standard for proof; if an argument was capable of meeting his standards, he would adopt it and defend it without reservation.

Image Sources:
Bigelow’s Bible: Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.
The Bible that was Lost: Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.


John Bigelow, President
Lincoln's Second Minister
to France, 186

Bigelow's work at the Evening Post had given him the chance to champion the causes he believed in: he had supported the formation of the Republican Party - and indeed written the official biography of the first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Frémont in 1856 - and had taken strong stands against slavery. However, Bigelow emerged from the election of 1860 and the struggles which were then threatening to tear the nation apart anxious to be useful in other ways.

Fortunately, Bigelow's involvement in the Republican Party and its Free Soil antecedents helped to secure him a position when the Republicans took office in 1860. Lincoln's Secretary of State William H. Seward, Union College Class of 1820, was familiar with Bigelow from his work at the Post, where Bigelow had mounted a spirited defense of Seward against more radical elements in the Republican Party. It is likely that it was Seward himself who put forward Bigelow's name for a consulate position in Paris. Thurlow Weed, a close friend of the Secretary of State who had played a crucial role in Seward's political success, wrote to Seward after Bigelow had been at his post for over a year to say, "You did not make a mistake in your Consul to Paris. Mr. Bigelow has capacity and fitness for higher duties" (Frederick W. Seward, A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from his Letters, Vol. 3, 77).

Title page, Bigelow, John.
France and the Confederate Navy, 1888

Serving ably to influence French popular support for the North in the Civil War, Bigelow was eventually elevated to Charges d'Affaires in Paris. Bigelow helped arrest Confederate attempts to build naval vessels in Europe, working alongside Charles Francis Adams, minister to England, as well as European politicians, such as England's John Bright and Richard Cobden and Minister Drouyn de Lhuys and Edouard de Laboulaye in France. Representatives of the Confederacy would contract foreign agents to acquire and build ships. These vessels were then moved through the ports of multiple countries, making them difficult to track and tying up U.S. officials in a quagmire of international treaties. Despite these difficulties, Bigelow was largely successful in his efforts. In 1888, Bigelow published an account of these labors, titled France and the Confederate Navy.

Bigelow, with his wife Jane and their five children, found Paris to be a stimulating center of culture. Though their youngest boy Ernest was yet too small to attend school, the rest of the children, including Grace, John Jr., Poultney (the second of the same name), and Jenny schooled in France. A third daughter, Annie, was born in Europe in 1863. Jane became known as a vibrant presence at social gatherings. But in 1865, after Lincoln's assassination, Jane returned to the United States with Jenny, while Bigelow remained at his diplomatic post with the other children. Sadly, young Ernest died of a fever shortly after Jane left for the United States. Their last child and daughter Flora was born in 1868 after the Bigelows were reunited in America.

Advertisement for the
International Exposition
at Brussels, 1888

Bigelow briefly remained in his position in Paris at the conclusion of the Civil War, however, to negotiate the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico. At the time he was criticized for not taking a harder line with France, and though he resigned from his position, the false rumor circulated that he had been asked to step down.

Bigelow was dismayed to return to a United States as divided as it had ever been. Radical Republicans, including his old friend Charles Sumner, were struggling against the conciliatory approach to the South taken by President Andrew Johnson. Already they had instituted measures requiring the President to confirm his appointments and cabinet members with Congress, and in 1868 they would impeach Johnson. To a friend Bigelow wrote, "I am struck since my return by the intolerance of the people of all conditions upon political questions. It is as much as the oldest friendship is worth, to differ with any body about anything political"(Retrospections, Vol. 4, 41).

Through the remainder of his long life Bigelow enjoyed the prestige abroad that his position in France had garnered him. When he relocated his family to Germany for several years in 1870, he benefited from the company of American minister George Bancroft, who introduced Bigelow to Prussian high society on the cusp of German unification. Thus Bigelow met principal figures in Germany's internal political struggles, such as Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of a unified Germany, and Georg von Bunsen, a Liberal leader in the Reichstag, and as such an opponent of Bismarck. Bigelow also became acquainted with less politicized figures, such as Carl Abel, a philologist, with whom Bigelow would maintain a lengthy correspondence until Abel's death in 1906.

In 1888 Bigelow represented the United States at the World Exposition in Brussels. Bigelow also never abandoned a habit of frequent trips to Paris, even as the city changed and he increasingly came to rely on the support of his daughter Grace. Bigelow undertook his final visit to Paris when he was 92.

Image Sources:
John Bigelow (1865): Bigelow. Retrospections of an Active Life, Vol. 2, 1909. Union College Schaffer Library.
France and the Confederate Navy (1888): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.
International Expo at Brussels (1888): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections, John Bigelow Collection.


Proverbs from Bigelow, John. Wit and Wisdom
of the Haytians, 1877

With an interest in influencing his country, and no doubt influenced by his bright young friends at the boarding houses in New York City, Bigelow became involved in politics early in his life. With editor of the Democratic Review John O'Sullivan and fellow boarder Samuel J. Tilden, he edited a Democratic newspaper, Morning News, championing Silas Wright in the 1844 contest for governorship of New York. When Wright won, Bigelow got his first taste of patronage, receiving an appointment as inspector of the state prison at Mount Pleasant, NY, known as Sing Sing. Bigelow worked within the reform movement against the prevailing notion of prison as for the confinement of society's dangerous elements and sought to integrate the philosophy of reform leaders, such as Eliza W. Farnham into actual prison practices.

John Hay, c. 1897

In his position as editor of the Evening Post, Bigelow made full use of the paper to stand in opposition to slavery and to those in favor of its extension. Travelling to Jamaica in 1850 for the paper, Bigelow undertook a systematic analysis of the island's economics. The book published as a result of his work, Jamaica in 1850 offers a rigorously supported explanation for the island's poverty that challenged the racist assumptions about freed slaves held by many in Bigelow's era. The text even now is considered authoritative. In 1853, Bigelow again left the United States with similar intentions, this time travelling to Haiti. Although he applied himself in like scientific fashion, Bigelow's curiosity about the country involved all aspects of its politics and social life, and he left with an impression of Haitian culture that would emerge two decades later in his published collection of Haitian proverbs.

Bigelow had been an early supporter of the Free Soil movement along with his friend Tilden. His editorials likewise offered trenchant criticism of measures to bring more slave states into the Union, such as the Missouri Compromise in 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Bigelow also helped to bring the anti-slavery Senator Sam Houston of Tennessee to the North for a speaking tour. As the 1856 presidential election approached, the burgeoning Republican Party had gained enough strength to put forward a candidate: John C. Frémont, an explorer and military officer. In addition to offering support in the Post Bigelow wrote Frémont's official campaign biography.

Bunau-Varilla, Philippe. Nicaragua
or Panama, 1901. Author’s
presentation copy to John Bigelow.

Though Frémont was unsuccessful, the Republican Party continued to grow and in 1860 Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

As he grew older, Bigelow often made use of his public stature and the connections he had made over a life in politics to support the issues important to him. One of his most lasting achievements in his late career involved the construction of the Panama Canal. While in France the statesman had come to know Philippe Bunau-Varilla, an engineer who would lead the French efforts to construct a canal through Panama, a part of Colombia at the time. Years later when Bigelow's secretary at the French legation, John Milton Hay, became Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, Bigelow naturally put the two men in contact with one another. Bigelow used his influence to encourage his friend Hay to consider the Panama route over competing designs to build a canal through Nicaragua. When Panamanian revolutionaries declared independence from the state of Colombia in 1903, the U.S. Navy, under Hay's direction, was present to deter Colombian forces. Bunau-Varilla was also conveniently named an official representative of the new government. On November 18, 1903, a treaty was signed between Hay and Bunau-Varilla granting the U.S. control over the Panama Canal Zone and the rights to construct a canal through the territory. The treaty would be ratified by both countries. Bigelow, at the time, was 85 years old. Bunau-Varilla would ever after consider Bigelow "Mon grand et noble ami."

Image Sources:
Wit and Wisdom of the Haytians (1877): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.
John Hay (1897): Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-48334).
Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Nicaragua or Panama (1901): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.

New Yorker

Early view of Gramercy Park.

Despite both personal and official relocations to other countries - in addition to travelling extensively throughout his life, Bigelow lived for an extended period in Germany in the 1870s as well as in France during the Civil War - New York State remained home. He eventually had two primary residences in New York that he and his wife Jane shared with their six children: Grace, John Jr., Poultney, Jenny, Annie, and Flora. (Two other sons, the first to be named Poultney and another named Ernest, both died when they were toddlers). Bigelow traveled between them seasonally, carrying his work back and forth and entertaining visitors, receiving shipments of books, and conducting his correspondence at whichever location he happened to be.

The first home was in Highland Falls, a village on the Hudson River just south of West Point. It became known as "The Squirrels," for the money Bigelow had managed to squirrel away while working for the Post. At his home in Highland Falls he compiled his famed edition of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography based on an original manuscript he had acquired in Paris. It was here also that he housed much of his vast library, though it could only be accommodated through periodic additions to the home.

Samuel Jones Tilden, c. 1874

The other Bigelow home stood in New York City's Gramercy Park, the legendary residential district in Manhattan. The residence was a gift of Samuel J. Tilden, given not to Bigelow, as Tilden knew he would refuse it, but to Bigelow's daughter Grace. Here Bigelow would witness the death of his wife of 38 years. In November of 1888 the New York Herald-Tribune reported that Jane was in ill health. She did in fact suffer from Bright's disease; however, she spiritedly answered the paper, calling on the reporter to correct him, "I wish you would say that I have not been confined to my room at all, and take drives daily in the park" and stating also that a number of friends had called on her and been agreeably disappointed to see how well she was doing. However, the independent and witty Jane would pass away in February of the following year. Bigelow telegraphed their children to say "What was mortal of your mother died this morning at 7:15 o'clock." Attendance at her funeral included many illustrious friends, such as J.P. Morgan, John Jay, and former Mayor of New York Abram Hewitt.

It was also in New York that Bigelow got his first taste of politics as a prison inspector at Sing Sing and in New York that he first sunk his teeth into the intrigue of party politics. Thus it was only natural that when Bigelow returned to the United States in 1872, growing restless from a leisurely life in Germany, he would reenter New York politics.

Bigelow received an appointment from his friend Samuel Tilden, then governor of New York, to a governmental board investigating recent fraud related to canal construction in the state. His service was noted by both his own Republican Party and appreciated by Tilden, a Democrat, and Bigelow became an attractive political figure in his own right. Tilden sought him for Secretary of State and Bigelow obliged, leaving behind the Republicans in favor of the Democrats. Tilden's years were marked for his reform platform, and his struggles against corrupt machine politics earned him national attention. Bigelow went on to play a major role in Tilden's bid for the presidency in 1876. If the results of that disputed election had favored Tilden instead of the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Bigelow could very well have been U.S. Secretary of State.

John Bigelow Plaza in front of the New York Public Library, 2011

New York was also the site of Bigelow's best remembered contributions to the civic life of the nation. He was a consummate networker and was always ready to lend his time and support to projects he deemed useful. When Tilden passed away in 1886 he left a substantial fortune, some $5,000,000, to be dedicated to the construction of a public library in New York City, naming Bigelow one of the executors of his will. This was no easy task; Tilden's descendents contested the will and the board of what became the Tilden Trust met with frequent conflicts in selecting a location for the library and in developing the terms by which it was joined with the already established Astor and Lenox libraries.

Dutifully, the board made progress until the New York Public Library, destined to become the largest public library in North America, was opened in May, 1911. In a speech that Bigelow, the first president of the library, delivered at the opening ceremony he revealed that Tilden had doubts about enabling the consumption of so-called "imaginative literature" (fiction). Bigelow, however, reminded him that most likely the first "writing that ever made lodgment in his mind" was Mother Goose, and it was Mother Goose that paved the way for more serious interests. Tilden kept the library in his will.

The New York Public Library was not the only institution in his home state to benefit from Bigelow's commitment to public services. He donated some of the Franklin manuscript materials that he had acquired in the 1860s to J. P. Morgan's new rare book library on 36th and Madison Ave in New York in July, 1906. Bigelow was a longtime trustee and member of several committees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which he donated a large collection of Franklin materials gathered by his friend and fellow Franklin enthusiast W. H. Huntington. He also served on the New York Chamber of Commerce and as a trustee of the New York Law School. He became nothing less than a local celebrity and was frequently fêted as the state's "First Citizen."

Bigelow supported similar endeavors simply by extending a willing ear and an inexhaustible store of advice to his friends and acquaintances. Frederick Law Olmsted, for example, wrote Bigelow frequently in the 1860s about his difficulties with New York City government as he attempted to design and construct what would become Central Park. The Century Club, based in New York City, afforded Bigelow the opportunity to mingle with literary and cultural figures, such as William Cullen Bryant, Calvert Vaux, Olmsted, and William Dean Howells, and mix himself up energetically with whatever cultural projects they might be undertaking. He was still president of the Club at the time of his death in 1911.

Image Sources:
Gramercy Park: Ephemera photo pasted into Brooks, Gladys. Gramercy Park:
Memories of a New York Girlhood (1958). Union College Schaffer Library.
Samuel Tilden (1874): Bigelow, John. Life of Samuel Tilden, Vol. 1, 1895.
Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.
John Bigelow Plaza (2011): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections, Digital Picture File.


John Bigelow in the
Union Worthies series, 1955

As his official duties grew less strenuous late in his life, Bigelow split his time between his homes in Highland Falls and Gramercy Park. Increasingly he came to rely on his daughter Grace, a major support for her aging father and his family, a responsibility she had begun to take on in France in the 1860s. She accompanied him to events and traveled with him on his frequent trips to Europe, the last of which he took at the age of 92. He fell ill, however, after his appearance at the opening of the New York Public Library in the spring of 1911 and never fully recovered. A kidney ailment claimed Bigelow's life at his home in Gramercy Park on December 19, 1911, less than a month after his 94th birthday.

Newspapers published lengthy tributes as well as obituaries, and hundreds of letters and telegrams poured into Gramercy Park and The Squirrels with astonishing speed from around the world: from the White House to London and Paris; in German, French and English; from men and women representing every aspect of Bigelow's long life of service. A memorial was held in both New York City, where his memory attracted the attendance of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (with whom he traditionally gathered to celebrate a shared birthday), industrialist J.P. Morgan, New York City mayor William Jay Gaynor, president Charles Richmond of Union College, naturalist John Burroughs, reformer Charles Henry Parkhurst and the great American author William Howells, among many others. Another service was held at Highland Falls, where Bigelow was buried in the family plot.

JClapp, Margaret.
Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow, 1947

Bigelow received an honorary degree from Union in 1868, but he has additionally been remembered in numerous ways by his alma mater. Soon after his death, a fund-raising effort was begun by his friends at and beyond Union to memorialize him in a building and an endowed professorship on campus. Although the building never materialized, the John Bigelow Professorship of History was established in 1916. The position is currently held by Mark Walker, whose research specialty - modern European history, with a particular emphasis on modern German history and the history of ideas - matches many of Bigelow's own interests.

In 1947, Margaret Clapp published a revised version of the dissertation she had written for Columbia University, John Bigelow: Forgotten First Citizen, painting the picture of a singular person: "Shrewdly practical, and an intellectual; worldly, yet with other-worldly interests; a natural aristocrat who believed in democracy." Her book would win the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in the following year and garner her national recognition, and partially as a result of this success Clapp went on to become president of Wellesley College.

John Bigelow at “The Squirrels,” c. 1905

A number of additional commemorative efforts at Union arose in the 1950s, coinciding with the gift of over twenty-thousand letters in Bigelow's correspondence file as well as several thousand books (constituting approximately 1/3 of his vast personal collection) and miscellaneous documents relating to the various projects he was involved in throughout his life. Union's celebration of its 160th Founder's Day in 1955 was dedicated to Bigelow and featured addresses by Clapp and L. Quincy Mumford, the Librarian of Congress, whose remarks were included in the College's Union Worthy series shortly thereafter.

More recently, the College has established the John Bigelow medal, also awarded at its annual Founder's Day Celebration, to honor those who have contributed to the advancement of humanity. The medal was first awarded in 2008 to Paul LeClerc, then the Director of the New York Public Library, which Bigelow was instrumental in founding. Bigelow has recently also been named and featured as a Union Notable and is recognized as one of Union's most distinguished graduates.

Image Sources:
Union Worthies (1955): Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections.
Margaret Clapp, Forgotten First Citizen (1947): Union College Schaffer Library.
John Bigelow (1905): Bigelow, John. Retrospections of an Active Life, Vol. 3, 1909. Union College Schaffer Library.

John Bigelow, November 25, 1817 - December 19, 1911: Student, Writer, Believer, Diplomat, Advocate, New Yorker, Remembered. By Matthew Connolly, Schaffer Library, Union College, February, 2012.


Bigelow research materials

The bibliography compiled here in a PDF document contains over five hundred entries and is meant as a wide-ranging resource for continued research on John Bigelow. Material held both at and beyond Union College is included along with links to digital documents. Direct access via this site to documents held in commercial databases may be restricted to members of the Union College community.

The bibliography is divided into four main sections for ease of use:

  1. Archival resources, which include major manuscript collections of Bigelow material, as well as
    collections of Bigelow’s contemporaries that include original correspondence from or to Bigelow;

  2. Works by Bigelow, including his memoirs, monographs, chapters, edited volumes, articles and
    letters to the editor of selected newspapers;

  3. Primary resources, which include newspaper articles as well as published accounts and memoirs
    by Bigelow’s associates. Included in this section as well is a list of documents in the Congressional
    Serial Set that represent Bigelow’s official correspondence for the U.S. State Department when he
    served as a Minister to France.

  4. Scholarly or secondary resources.

The bibliography is comprehensive, though not exhaustive; selections were limited to those resources that offered a substantive contribution to knowledge about Bigelow or his activities. Left on the cutting room floor were documents such as newspaper notices of travel, hotel stays, and most, though not all, notices of attendance at high profile society events.

Image Sources:
All images: Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections, Digital Picture File.