Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,102

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,102


This is the grave of John Bigelow.

Born in 1797 in Groton, Massachusetts, Bigelow was the son of the well-known lawyer and future Massachusetts Speaker of the House Timothy Bigelow. Like his father, John went to Harvard and then into the law. As one would expect from a well-off family, they were Whigs by the time John entered politics when he was first elected to the state house in 1828. Now, at the time, there were a ridiculous 700 members of the Massachusetts legislature. Some thought that was juuuuuuust a tad too many. That included Bigelow, who led the movement to reduce to total to something a bit more manageable. As a Whig lawyer, he also pushed legislation to promote railroad development, which is of course the most possible Whig lawyer thing to do.

Even though he was in the legislature, Bigelow was also elected to the Boston City Council in 1832. I do now know when this kind of double-dipping became illegal. The next year, he became president of the Council. Then in 1836, he left the legislature to become Secretary of the Commonwealth. At least today, this is marginally partisan position (the same guy has held it since 1995) that oversees elections, as well as the state archives. I really don’t know how similar those duties were back then, but I imagine there is at least some crossover. It is elected, but no one really seems to bother caring about it much. In any case, Bigelow served in this position until 1843. That year, Governor George Briggs named him to the Executive Council, which is an advise and consent group within the state government.

In 1848, Bigelow decided to run for mayor of Boston. He won that election. It was only a one-year term, but he managed to win reelection as well. He served in that position for three years. But it was a pretty busy few years. Some of this is that Boston was changing very rapidly thanks to Irish immigration. The Irish could have hardly picked more bigoted people to immerse themselves in, given that the entire Puritan culture was inherently anti-Catholic and although the Puritanism had largely burned off in the two centuries since the colony’s founding, the anti-Catholicism had not. When the cholera epidemic of 1849 whipped through Boston, it devastated these crowded neighborhoods and gave heft to those bemoaning the arrivals of these filthy Irish Catholics. Bigelow’s position on cholera was to try and tamper this down a bit by noting that Boston wasn’t suffering from higher death rates than the countryside. He aggressively sought to get the sick out of homes and into hospitals so they wouldn’t infect so many others. Generally, the press praised his actions during what was no doubt a very difficult time.

However, don’t fool yourself–Bigelow hated the Irish. He became a major ally of nativist forces in New England. He believed and stated publicly that the Irish were responsible for most of the crime and violence in the city and that they were a bunch of drunken savages. He also blamed the rich of the city for giving them charity, which he believed lured them to Boston instead of them spreading out to other cities. This is ridiculous–the Irish lived in New England because they could get jobs in the growing textile factories and the services that the elite created by this system of industrial capitalism wanted and needed. But like the rich today who hate Mexicans and Central Americans while relying on them for the services they need to live in luxury, people such as Bigelow ignored the real reasons for Irish migration and instead wanted them all gone. Bigelow called the Irish “aged, blind, paralytic, and lunatic immigrants who have become charges on our public charities.” If the Trump administration wasn’t staffed and supported largely by the descendants of these aged, blind, paralytic, and lunatic immigrants, Bigelow would have rubbed his chin and nodded approvingly.

Bigelow was also mayor when the Fugitive Slave Act came down. The people of Boston erupted in fury when slavecatchers arrested Shadrach Minkins, a fugitive slave who was working there in the whaling industry. The Black community in Boston, with some white supporters, invaded the jail and freed Minkins, then getting him to Canada. This effectively made the Fugitive Slave Act null and void in Boston. Bigelow was not happy. The slave power claimed Bigelow had not done enough to enforce the law. Bigelow responded by actively using the forces of the city government to capture and imprison Minkins. Daniel Webster also criticized Bigelow for incompetence. Bigelow then tried to use the full force of the city to imprison other fugitive slaves, but it was so intense and the reaction so violent and the law became almost impossible to enforce. After the Anthony Burns case, where Bigelow’s use of force to see him returned to slavery led to one death and a $40,000 security bill, he was pretty well finished as a politician in Boston. Moreover, the feud between him and Webster grew to the point that Bigelow refused Webster a request to give a speech at Faneuil Hall. To say the least, Webster was the more popular politician. Bigelow did not win another term as mayor after all this.

If you want to point to something good Bigelow did as mayor, it is beginning the building of the Boston Public Library, which became the first publicly funded municipal building in the United States and would soon serve as a model for building public works. So that’s something. It was more than a passive interest. In 1850, some people wanted to give Bigelow an expensive vase. He said no, he didn’t need a vase, but why don’t they give $1,000 for the building of a public library. This became a movement. As late as 1864, Charles Sumner wrote Bigelow praising him for such a great idea. Interestingly, Bigelow, in his inaugural mayoral address, decided to use time the criticize the principle of defendants pleading innocent by reason of insanity because they could use it cynically to get off without punishment for their crimes. I can’t really speak for the details of how this was a big issue in the mid-19th century, but I found the reference in a footnote.

After his mayoral years, Bigelow took a place among the Brahmin elite without being actively involved in a politics that had left him behind. He was on the board of the Boston Public Library and stayed there until 1869, when he resigned as his health was beginning to fail. He managed to hold on until 1872, when he died at the age of 74.

John Bigelow is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other 19th century mayors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hazen Pingree is in Detroit and Josiah Quincy is also in Cambridge but somehow I haven’t visited him. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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