The Bidwell House Museum in Monterey. Photo courtesy Bidwell House Museum

Larceny and treason in the early Republic

Not long after that encounter with Burr, letters from Barnabas to Mary began to include details of the suspected attempt by Burr to cede the Louisiana Purchase and create a country over which he could rule.

The Bidwell House Museum archives seemed a good way to do a little social distancing by taking a journey back some 200-plus years to weave a short story of treason and larceny. Hopefully the story that follows is a distraction from our very much out-of-control world, or worst case, it is a cure for insomnia. In 1750, Township Number One, now Tyringham and Monterey, became the home of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, who had been called to minister to the people there. After the death of his first wife, Adonijah married Jemima Devotion and they had four children together.

Theodore Sedgwick by Gilbert Stuart, 1808. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The Bidwells’ younger son, Barnabas Bidwell, after his graduation from Yale, moved to Stockbridge to study law as a clerk in Theodore Sedgwick’s law practice. Bidwell’s growing Republican leanings seemed likely to have created some political tension, as Sedgwick was a staunch Federalist. However, family connections allowed them to carry on a long friendship that, not withstanding the sharp political divide, lasted until death and crime separated them. Barnabas’ wife, Mary Gray Bidwell, was a second cousin to Sedgwick’s wife, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick. The Sedgwick children referred to Mary’s mother Sarah Spring Gray as Aunt Gray.

The Elms in Stockbridge. photo: Rick Wilcox

By 1792 Barnabas and Mary had purchased a house on the plain from Timothy Edwards, which is now referred to as the Elms, at 27 Main St. Barnabas ran successfully as a Democratic-Republican for Berkshire County treasurer, a position he held for close to 20 years. During that time he was a Massachusetts state senator (1805-07), U.S. Congressman (1805-07) and attorney general for Massachusetts (1807-10). His decision to continue to hold the treasurer’s position was at the urging of the Republican Party and would later come back to haunt him.

Bidwell seemed to have acquired an early interest in national politics and had, in 1802, written Vice President Aaron Burr a letter regarding the “Judiciary Act” that was then before the Congress.

The United States Judiciary Act of 1802, enacted April 29, 1802, to reorganize the federal court system, restored some elements of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which had been adopted by the Federalist majority in the previous Congress but was repealed by the Democratic-Republican majority earlier in 1802.

Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn, 1802. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The 1802 act effectively canceled the 1801 act’s legally called for reduction in the size of the Supreme Court. The 1801 act had provided that the court’s size would be reduced by one justice to a court of five by not filling its next future vacancy. Instead, the 1802 act restored the court’s full-strength size to six members by referring to its then-present membership, which had been unchanged since the passage of the 1801 act.

Although unable to locate the Bidwell letter to Burr, it seems likely Barnabas had written in support of the 1802 act. Burr’s response — carefully phrased, in keeping with Burr, always supporting Burr — follows.

“To Barnabas Bidwell
Washington February 1, 1802

Dear Sir,

The newspapers will have shown the position of the bill now before the Senate for the repeal of the act of last session establishing a new judiciary system; and that the bill, when on its third reading, was, by the casting vote of the vice-president, referred to a select committee. This day notice has been given that a motion of discharge that committee will be made to-morrow. It should be noted that the arrival of Mr. Bradley has given a vote to the republican side; hence it may be presumed that the committee will be discharged, and that the bill will pass the Senate to-morrow, and that in the course of three weeks it will become a law. I state this, however, as mere conjecture.

The constitutional right and power of abolishing one judiciary system and establishing another cannot be doubted. The ‘power’ thus to deprive judges of their offices and salaries must also be admitted; but whether it would be ‘constitutionally moral’, if I may use the expression, and if so, whether it would be ‘politic’ and expedient, are questions on which I could wish to be further advised. Your opinion on these points would be particularly acceptable.

With respect and esteem,
Your obedient servant,
A Burr”

Two and one half years later, on July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr would shoot and fatally wound Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr was the nephew of Timothy Edwards, who took Burr in when his parents died. Barnabas and Mary Bidwell were friends of the Edwards family. Mary was a distant relative of Burr through her Ephraim Williams/Jonathan Edwards family line.

Barnabas Bidwell by John Brewster Jr. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In 1805 Bidwell was elected to the Berkshire Congressional seat, and upon settling in Washington, quickly became friends with President Jefferson, serving as one of two of Jefferson’s floor managers in the House. Barnabas and Mary corresponded faithfully during his time in Washington, and shed a more personal and close-up view of the machinations of the early republic.

On Feb. 24, 1806, Barnabas wrote a letter to Mary from Washington: “On Saturday I dined at the President’s, and was surprised to find Col. Burr one of the party. He is on his way northward, it is said, and has been several days in the city. The conversation was general. Between him and the President there was perfect politeness. Our winter has been very different as to the state of weather from yours. It is spoken of here as remarkably mild and pleasant. There has hardly been ice enough to supply the icehouses. If yours is in a state of readiness to receive it, I trust you have not forgotten to have it furnished with ice for the approaching summer.”

Mary Gray Bidwell, circa 1793. Image courtesy Bidwell House Museum

Not long after that encounter with Burr, letters from Barnabas to Mary began to include details of the suspected attempt by Burr to cede the Louisiana Purchase and create a country over which he could rule. He was eventually tried for treason and found not guilty. Bidwell had his own problems when he learned that the treasurer’s office was short some $12,000 and that the Federalists were going to seek a warrant for his arrest. Charles Sedgwick, Theodore’s son, warned him of the pending arrest, and his nephew Lawson Bidwell drove him to New York state by carriage, where he fled to Canada. It appears that during the time he was an absentee treasurer, his clerks helped themselves to the treasury funds. Most of his real estate was seized by the sheriff and auctioned. Barnabas, once the clamor had died down, returned to the Berkshires and paid off the balance of the missing money.

Given the current climate with coronavirus, one might feel the urge, like Barnabas, to flee to Canada as well. Even though the Bidwell House Museum is currently closed, the grounds are open, with 4 miles of trails on 192 acres. More information about the Bidwell House Museum, including a property map, is available at www.bidwellhousemuseum.org.