John Bigelow

John Bigelow (1817-1911) was the American consul in Paris during the Civil War, and later he was minister to France. Also a journalist and editor, he took an active part in public affairs for more than 70 years.

John Bigelow was born on Nov. 25, 1817, in Bristol (now Malden), N.Y. He graduated from Union College in 1835. While studying law in New York City, he wrote political essays and reviews for newspapers and became involved in Democratic party politics. His friend Samuel J. Tilden secured him an appointment in 1845 as an inspector of Sing Sing Prison, where he won a reputation as an advocate of penal reform. In 1848 William Cullen Bryant invited Bigelow to become part owner and editor of the New York Evening Post, a liberal Democratic paper strongly committed to free trade and humanitarian reform. In 1855 the editors broke with the Democratic party because it supported the extension of slavery into Kansas. Bigelow joined the antislavery Republican party soon after, despite his dislike of its high-tariff policies.

In 1861 Bigelow, prosperous and widely known, retired from the Evening Post. Shortly thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him consul general in Paris. The Lincoln administration feared that European sympathy for the Confederacy would lead to diplomatic recognition and material aid. America's representatives abroad, therefore, were involved in efforts to prevent foreign intervention. Much of the European press was pro-Confederate, and Bigelow worked assiduously to establish a more favorable climate of opinion. He published numerous articles arguing the Union cause and warning against any French involvement with the South. He worked effectively behind the scenes, too—first as the American consul and later as minister to France (1865-1866)—to counter French opposition to the Union blockade of Confederate ports, to soften anger over the Trent affair, and to prevent any infringements of French neutrality. At the end of his tenure he tried to reverse French military intervention in Mexico.

In 1866 Bigelow resigned and returned to the United States. He engaged in active politics only briefly thereafter—to help Tilden, now governor of New York, in his campaign against political corruption in the state in the early 1870s, to run as a Democrat for secretary of state of New York in 1875, to work for Tilden's election as president in 1876, and to serve as a delegate to the New York constitutional convention in 1894. Bigelow's chief postwar literary achievements included the first publication (1868) of the authentic version of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, the manuscript of which he had found in France; the editing of 10 volumes of Franklin's works (1887-1889); the editing of Tilden's speeches and letters; and the writing of Bryant's biography (1890). Bigelow also contributed periodical and newspaper articles on a variety of social and political issues. As executor of Tilden's will, he helped establish the New York Public Library in 1895.

Further Reading on John Bigelow

Bigelow's autobiography is Retrospections of an Active Life (5 vols., 1909-1913). Margaret A. Clapp, Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow (1947), is a sympathetic and competent biography.