Union Notables

John Bigelow    class of 1835

Carlos Baca-Flor, John Bigelow, oil on canvas, image courtesy of Union College Permanent Collection

John Bigelow was born in Malden, New York in 1817. He began college at the tender age of thirteen at Washington (now Trinity) College in Hartford, Connecticut. Bigelow pursued a broad course of study at Washington College, yet when he failed to attain Junior honors, he engaged in protracted arguments with some of the faculty. During this time his brother David, a Union College student (Class of 1835), wrote and urged him to transfer to Union. Dissatisfied with several aspects of Washington College, John transferred to Union in the spring of 1834 as a third term Junior, and graduated in July 1835. At Union, Bigelow was a serious student who pursued his interest in books and reading by spending long hours in the library. He was also a member of the Sigma Phi and Philomathean Societies. In spite of his respect for the faculty and President Nott, Bigelow left Union with strong feelings of hostility. He didn’t receive any honors at Commencement and argued vehemently with Professor Alonzo Potter that he should have. In spite of his negative feelings at graduation, in 1869 Bigelow spoke in New York to Union alumni and made several positive references to his time at Union.

In the years after graduation Bigelow moved to New York City to read for the bar examination. He also began to write political essays and articles for newspapers and became involved in Democratic Party politics. In 1849 he became managing editor and co-owner of the New York Evening Post with the poet William Cullen Bryant. Bigelow was strongly opposed to slavery and in 1855 he broke with the Democratic Party and joined the Republicans because the former party supported the extension of slavery into Kansas while the latter did not. After Bigelow retired from the Post in 1861, President Lincoln appointed him as consul-general and later minister (1865-66) to France. While serving in that capacity, Bigelow worked to insure that various European countries, including France, would not support the Confederates in the Civil War. He was also instrumental in encouraging the French to support the Union blockade of Confederate ports. While serving as a diplomat in Paris, Bigelow discovered the manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. He edited and published Franklin’s work in 1868.

In 1866 John Bigelow resigned as minister to France and returned to the United States. He once again became active in politics and worked to assist his friend Samuel Tilden in his successful campaign for the governorship of New York. Among Bigelow’s many literary accomplishments, in addition to the Franklin Autobiography, are his five volume memoir Retrospections of an Active Life, The Bible that was Lost and is Found, Jamaica in 1850, and The Mystery of Sleep. A number of Bigelow’s writings reflect his interest in the philosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Perhaps the most important event in Bigelow’s public life was his involvement in the establishment of the New York Public Library. Using monies from the estate of his close friend Samuel Tilden, Bigelow and others were able to establish a public library in New York City which they believed would help to create an informed citizenry. The main branch of the library was opened in 1911 only a few months before John Bigelow’s death.

Today, Schaffer Library at Union College houses John Bigelow’s personal library which numbers several thousand volumes. In addition, a large volume of his correspondence is housed in the Special Collections department of the library, as well as some personal artifacts, such as his typewriter and his death mask, given to the College by his family in 1958.