Barnabas Bidwell, America’s William Wilberforce?

By Richard Bidwell Wilcox

Adonijah Bidwell’s son Congressman Barnabas Bidwell (1761-1833), often a dinner guest of President Thomas Jefferson, was one of two floor managers in the House of Representatives for the President. As floor manager, he was often referred to as “the sworn interpreter of executive messages.” Bidwell appears to have played a significant role in the passage of the bill that ended the importation of slaves into the United States.

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He began his political career in 1780, eventually becoming the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812). In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 26 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Both Bidwell and Wilberforce were products of the Age of Enlightenment, that cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. With its purpose to reform society through the use of reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method, it helped to spark the American and French revolutions while creating a significant shift in many people’s attitude toward slavery.

Puritan New England had long found biblical justification for slavery. Some 18th-century wills listed cattle and Negro servants in the same sentence.

Mary Gray Bidwell, wife of Barnabas Bidwell, was also a child of the Age of Enlightenment and was provided a liberal education while living at the Watertown, MA home of her uncle Dr. Marshall Spring. Those influences appear to be reflected in the letters between Mary and Barnabas Bidwell, quoted below.

“The subject of importing slaves I observe is brought up at your board. I am confident you will oppose with your utmost energy this wicked inhuman traffic. Assuredly this is first in the black catalogue of our crimes as a nation, and it must soon draw down the vengeance of an offended righteous God, not only upon the barbarous wretches who barter human flesh, their fellow men! – But upon all who do not bear testimony against this abomination. ‘Who stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but not be heard.’ I should not perhaps have written so much upon this subject if I had not known that your sentiments, my dear friend, were perfectly congenial to mine upon this important point.”

So wrote Mary Gray Bidwell on December 23, 1805 in one of a series of letters between Mary and her husband while he served the First Western District of Massachusetts in Congress.

Barnabas Bidwell appears to have come from an equally enlightened environment. Both Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s will and his death inventory are free of any mention of slaves, suggesting any help he had was hired and labored for wages. Barnabas’ words and deeds, found below, seem to support that contention.

Washington, February 5, 1806 from Barnabas:

“Yesterday the House was engaged in debating Mr. Sloan’s Bill for laying a duty of ten dollars a head on the importation of slaves into the United States. I moved an additional section, to prohibit the importation after the last day of December 1807, and assigned my reasons at large. It was opposed, as inexpedient, and also upon a doubt as to the constitutionality of legislating on the subject, until the year 1808.”

Washington, March 7, 1806:

“Day before yesterday Mr. Gregg’s Non-Importation Resolution was called into discussion. Mr. Gregg opened the debate by a sensible speech in favour of the Resolution. Mr. Clay followed on the other side. He was succeeded by Mr. Crowninshield, in support, and Mr. J. Randolph in opposition. Mr. Randolph was near three hours. His speech was a most violent declamation, in which he attacked the present and former administration, Republicans and Federalist, friends and foes. He alluded satirically to what had passed with closed doors. Declaimed much against France and Spain and applauded Great Britain.

He condemned our neutral carrying trade as fraudulent and not worthy of protection. Yesterday the debate was renewed. Mr. Nathan Williams of New York, Skinner’s brother-in-law, made a handsome speech, in favour of the Resolution, and Mr. Masters against it. Mr. Smilie made an excellent speech in support of it and Mr. J. Randolph, a long speech against it. The debate will be renewed this day. So many gentlemen appear impatient to speak, I shall not speak, I believe, today. The Federalists are opposed to the measure. Many of the Southern Planters think it will affect the market of their cotton and tobacco. I do not expect a majority in favour of this Resolution; but I hope some efficient measure will be adopted. My attention is now required, and I must say, my dearest friend, adieu. B. Bidwell”

On December 2, 1806, in his annual message to Congress, widely reprinted in newspapers, President Thomas Jefferson denounced the “violations of human rights” attending the international slave trade and called for its criminalization on the first day that was possible (January 1, 1808). He said:

“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.”

Continuation from the Fall 2014 Newsletter

Washington, Dec. 17th 1806:

“My dearest friend, Your kind letter of Dec. 9th was handed to me today, in the midst of a debate, in which I am deeply engaged. It was on the subject of prohibiting the African slave trade. A section was reported in the Bill, declaring persons, imported as slaves, to be forfeited, and to be proceeded with as forfeitures under our revenue law, that is to be sold under the authority of the United States, as property, that is as slaves. I yesterday supported a motion to add, after the word forfeited ‘and entitled to his or her freedom.’ After a long debate, it was negated by the Committee of the whole. Today I moved to strike out all forfeiture of them as property. A most animated debate ensued, in which we spent most of the day. Confident of the soundness of my position, that the U.S. ought not take them from their importers, forfeit and sell them as slaves, and put their prices into the public treasury, I have expressed myself with more than usual, perhaps more than was prudent. We did not take the question, but rose, and recommitted the Bill to a Select-Committee.”

Washington, January 2, 1807:

“In the National Intelligencer of today, which will be the Gazette of next week, a summary of our debate; on one day, on my motion to strike out of the Slaves Bill the principle of a forfeiture of the persons imported as slaves, is given,; but on one side it is nothing more than my speech almost verbatim, except that it is stated in the third person. Your old friend Mr. Barker made a speech against my amendment, but, before the debate was finished, became convinced, so that he voted with us. But we were out-voted. The Bill as reported from the Committee of the whole, has not been acted upon in the House. I shall renew my motion, first to strike out the forfeiture, and if that shall be negativaed as I expect it will be then to strike out the sale of them as slaves, and have the yeas and nays entered on the Journal, to justify my vote against the passage of the Bill with that abominable principle in it. Various arguments have been used with me by its friends to induce me to withdraw my opposition. But I shall not. It is possible yet to prevent such a stain upon our Statute books; and so long as a possibility remains, I shall feel it my duty to use all reasonable exertions. I find that the President, Mr. Gallatin and other gentlemen of high respectability, out of the House, have the Southern gentlemen ought to unite in the plan I have proposed. But it is a great object with the Slave-holders to get a law of the U.S. to sanction their principle; and many eastern pretenders to a love of freedom aid them in the measure.”

Washington, January 7, 1807:

“Dear Mary, I am fatigued with another day’s discussion of the Slave Bill. I renewed in the House the same motion, in substance, which I made in Committee of the whole, to strike out from forfeiture, the word cargo, which consists of slaves. I ought perhaps, to state that in the Committee of the whole, a question is never taken by yeas and nays, so as to appear in the Journal. That can be done only in the House. My object in renewing the motion was to record my name on the Journal. The amendment was negatived, as I expected. I then moved to add to the Bill this Proviso, ‘Provided that no person shall be sold as a slave by virtue of this act.’ On that amendment I called the yeas and nays. There were 60 yeas and 60 nays. The Speaker (Nathaniel Macon, North Carolina) gave the casting vote in the negative. My Revd. Colleague, Mr. Taggart (Samuel Taggart, a Federalist and Mass Congressman) was in his seat just before the vote was taken; but went out. Had he staid, and voted with us, there would have been a majority. It was thus in his power, probably, to have saved the U.S. from what I consider the greatest reproach which has ever occurred in our government. His absenting himself had the same effect, as to the provision of the Bill as if he had staid and voted, like a man, against us. The bill was ordered to be engrossed for a third reading tomorrow. I shall vote against the passage of it; and if it passes, feel free from all responsibility for it. It is possible the Senate may arrest it, and save the nation from disgrace. My path of duty has been plain, although not pleasant. Having a letter to write to Judge Bishop, in answer to a very friendly one from him, I must close with assurance of the sincerest affection and esteem of Dear Mary, Your friend and husband, Barnabas Bidwell

That gentlemen, who are habituated to slavery, should vote in favor of selling these unfortunate persons, under the authority of the U.S., is natural. It sanctions their own practice. But, that a Representative of a state, like Massachusetts, having no slaves should aid them, is a paradox.

I am sensible that I have offended several of the southern gentlemen by the part I have taken in this business. I have been sorry to displease them. But I have a conscience to satisfy, and a God to answer to for my conduct.”

Washington, January 17th, 1807:

“Dear Mary, I have just been attending a meeting of the Committee of 17, one from each state, on the subject of the Slave Bill. As the House had determined upon the principle of forfeiting persons imported contrary to the proposed prohibition, it appeared to me necessary to provide for their disposition. I moved in the Committee today this section; ‘And be it further enacted, that all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of colour, as may be forfeited by virtue of this act, shall, at the expense of the U.S., be conveyed to such place or places, within the U.S. as the President thereof may direct, and there indentured as apprentices or servants, or otherwise employed, as the President may judge most beneficial for them, and most safe for the U.S. Provided that no such negroes, Mullattoes, or persons of colour shall be indentured or employed as aforesaid except in some State or territory, in which slavery is not permitted, or in which provision is now made for a gradual abolition of slavery, nor in any State in which such persons are not permitted by law to be indentured or employed as aforesaid, and, if any negroes, mulattoes, or person of colour, when so indentured or employed, shall be under the age of 14, the term of such indenture or employment shall not extend beyond the age of 21 years, and if above 14, the term shall not exceed 7 years.’

This proposition has just been adopted by the Committee, and a sub-committee appointed to redraught the Bill conformably to it. Whether it will be adopted by the House, I cannot say. I need not apologize to you for stating, so egotistically my exertions on this subject, which has so deeply interested my feelings. The sub-committee have called on me to attend to the business assigned. I must therefore, bid you a hasty adieu. B. Bidwell”

Washington, February 16, 1807:

“Dear Mary: The House of Representatives have just past the Slave Non-Importation Bill, sent from the Senate, with some amendments. It was not exactly conformable to the opinion of perhaps anyone member. It certainly was not agreeable to my wishes in several particulars; but it was the best that could be obtained; and I gave it my vote. There were 113 yeas and I think only 5 nays. The Bill prohibits the importation of slaves and divests the importer of all right in the person imported; but makes no provision for a disposition of them, if any of them should be imported contrary to the provisions of the Bill. My health is good. My attention is called to a subject of debate. Adieu. Most sincerely and affectionately, yours, B. Bidwell.”

On March 2, 1807 in 1807, Congress enacted a law to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States … from any foreign kingdom, place or country.” Signed by President Jefferson the ban took effect on Jan. 1, 1808. By the time the lawmakers acted, every state except South Carolina had already abolished the slave trade. With a self-sustaining population of more than 4 million slaves already living in the slave-owning states, some Southern congressmen joined with Northerners to enact the ban. However, internal slave trading throughout the South remained unimpeded by the legislation. Children of slaves also became slaves, ensuring a growing slave population. Although the act, by 1807, was largely symbolic, it became a tipping point for a struggle towards abolition that would last for almost 60 years.

Somewhat ironically, William Wilberforce, the English politician largely responsible for ending the slave trade in England through the Slave Trade Act 1807, which was enacted 25 March 1807, was born two years before Barnabas, dying in the same year, 1833. Wilberforce lived just long enough to hear that Parliament had passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Tragically, support for the American bill ending the importation of slaves was likely born out of the knowledge that there was a sufficient population of slaves to meet the needs of slave owners. It was signed by President Jefferson on March 2, 1807, with abolition coming only at the close of the Civil War, and some 30 years after the British Empire had ended slavery.