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BIDWELL, MARSHALL SPRING, lawyer and politician; b. 16 Feb. 1799 in Stockbridge, Mass., son of Barnabas Bidwell* and Mary Gray; m. Clara Willcox of Bath, near Kingston, U.C., and they had four children; d. 24 Oct. 1872 in New York City, N.Y.
Marshall Spring’s father, Barnabas Bidwell, who had been attorney general of Massachusetts, a member of Congress, and an ardent Jeffersonian, was forced to leave his home state in 1810 after he had been accused of malversation of funds. The family settled in Upper Canada at Bath just before the War of 1812. The young Bidwell was educated in the local schools and at home by his father who laid the foundation of his profound legal learning. When he was about 17 Marshall Spring was articled as a student to Daniel Washburn and Daniel Hagerman, barristers and attorneys-at-law in Kingston, where the Bidwell family soon moved, and in 1821 he was called to the bar. From the beginning he had outstanding and continuous success as a courtroom lawyer.
Marshall Spring Bidwell and his father first came into public prominence in Upper Canada in the early 1820s in connection with the “alien question”: whether Americans who had come into the colony in the previous quarter century must undergo a complicated naturalization procedure before they could enjoy political and civil rights as British subjects. In 1821 the House of Assembly voted to expel Barnabas from the seat he had won a few weeks earlier, on the grounds that the charges earlier made against him in Massachusetts rendered him unfit to hold his seat. A law was subsequently passed obviously intended to exclude the elder Bidwell from membership. Thereupon Marshall Spring offered himself as a candidate at the ensuing by-election, but the returning officer declared him ineligible to be a candidate. Again in 1823 the matter came before the assembly, which now declared that the younger Bidwell was eligible for membership so far as allegiance was concerned. In a second by-election in 1823, however, he was again excluded by the returning officer, and again the assembly declared the election void. Finally, in the general elections of 1824, the returning officer allowed votes to be counted for him; he was elected and took his seat, despite a ruling by the British law officers that he as well as his father was not qualified for membership. He represented Lennox and Addington until defeated in 1836.
The assembly of 1824, for the first time in Upper Canada’s history, contained a majority of members highly critical of the executive branch of government – that is, of the group soon to be known as the “Family Compact” – and determined to seek reform through new legislation. At the outset, the young Bidwell, still in his mid-twenties, took front rank as a leader of the assembly, working closely with his colleague from Lennox and Addington, Peter Perry*, and with Dr John Rolph*. Bidwell in the years 1825–28 moved the adoption of bills on such subjects as allowing benefit of defence counsel for persons tried for felony, providing for more equal distribution of the property of persons dying intestate, the abolition of imprisonment for debt and of punishment by whipping and the pillory, wider control by the assembly over the revenue and the post office, and the broadening of the law governing the solemnization of marriage. He also supported bills for the sale of the clergy reserves, with the proceeds to be used for erecting schools, and for the regulation of juries. These bills passed the assembly session after session but were as regularly thrown out by the Legislative Council. Bidwell also played a leading role in the protracted alien controversy, which resulted, in 1828, in the passage of a naturalization act acceptable to the American-born element in the province.
Party feelings and alignments were further inflamed and sharpened in 1827 by the Reverend John Strachan*’s “Ecclesiastical Chart,” which inflated the strength of the Church of England in the province and accused Methodist clergymen of being agents of Americanization, and by the university charter, secured in England by Strachan, which reserved seats on the council of King’s College to Anglicans. In response, the assembly set up a select committee, chaired by Marshall Spring Bidwell, to look into the danger of “ecclesiastical domination.” Its report of 1828 is probably an accurate reflection of Bidwell’s political outlook. It stated that the people of Upper Canada had a “strong aversion” to an established church and to “artificial distinctions between men of the same rank,” that they demanded an educational system free of distinction based on “religious profession or belief,” and that the university should not be “a school of politics or of sectarian views.” On 28 May 1828 Bidwell wrote to his fellow Reformer, William Warren Baldwin*, that the affairs of the province were in a state of crisis because the government held “power, unaccompanied by any real responsibility, any practical accountability” and that “power, under such circumstances, will always be abused and its possessors corrupted.” On the following 8 September, he assured Baldwin: “I shall be happy to consult with yourself and Mr. Rolph on the measures to be adopted to relieve the province from the evils which a family compact have brought upon it. . . . The whole system and spirit of the present administration need to be done away with.” He also wrote on 7 Jan. 1829 to John Neilson*, the Quebec newspaperman and moderate Reformer, that changes would come about, not by making appeals to the British government, but by the people of Canada acting “with union and concert and tak[ing] such ground only as can be maintained by reason and truth.”
In the elections of 1828 the Upper Canadian Reformers strengthened their majority in the assembly and proceeded to elect Bidwell speaker. At this time, before the advent of cabinet or responsible government, the speaker was not an impartial presiding officer; instead, he was an active, partisan politician. Bidwell’s election, like that of Louis-Joseph Papineau as speaker of the Lower Canadian assembly, marks him as the leader of his party. As speaker, however, he did not make motions or vote, and it is not possible to identify him directly with the work of the short parliament of 1829–30. It can be assumed, however, that he was a strong supporter of such bills as those to abolish imprisonment for debt, to sell the clergy reserves, and to broaden the law governing solemnization of marriage, as well as of numerous resolutions sharply critical of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne* and the executive government.
In the 1830 elections enough seats changed hands to place the Reformers in a minority, and Bidwell resumed his role as Reform floor leader. Although outnumbered, he and his followers were often able to carry their measures, such as the intestate estates bill, through the house. A Tory newspaper explained the situation as follows: “Mr. Bidwell, notwithstanding the inferiority of his party both in talent and numbers, has acquired an influence in the present House, beyond any other member in it . . . . The ministerial party . . . have no acknowledged leader – no mutual understanding – and no common or uniform system of action . . . while the party of which Mr. Bidwell is the head . . . is a well-drilled and compact little body – always at their post, and always ready to follow their leader.” Nevertheless, the Reformers were often outvoted, particularly in the matter of the several expulsions of William Lyon Mackenzie*, when Bidwell argued that “the utmost latitude [should be] given to the freedom of the Press” in a province where the executive had such “great influence.” At the time of the last expulsion he accused the conservative majority of “making Mr. Mackenzie a man of the greatest importance in the eyes of the freeholders, who look on him as a martyr in the cause of their civil rights. In doing this what a spectacle you make of this House! You are injuring its character, preventing those enquiries to which its attention ought to be directed, conducting the most important matters in the most careless and hasty manner, and trifling with the important duties you were sent to fulfil.” Bidwell’s greatest coup in this parliament was his moving, early in 1834, an address to the king protesting against the British government’s disallowance of banking bills passed by the legislature of Upper Canada; the address, which Mackenzie called “The Latest Declaration of Independence,” passed with only one negative vote.
In the elections of 1834 the Reformers were again victorious and again Bidwell was elected speaker, despite Christopher Hagerman*’s charge that he was “a disloyal man . . . politically connected with persons desirous of separating this Province from the Mother country.” As in the 1820s the assembly passed the usual bills on the reform programme, and added to them one to legalize voting by ballot, all of them being again thrown out by the Legislative Council. But as the province moved in to the boom years of the mid–1830s there were signs of a growing split between the Reform majority led by Bidwell and Perry and a small group of agrarian radicals, led by Mackenzie. The majority supported bills to build canals and to charter banks and insurance companies which Mackenzie vehemently opposed. After Mackenzie had brought in his bulky and indiscriminate Seventh report on grievances in 1835, Perry sought to dissociate himself from it, and it is probable that he was also speaking for Bidwell. The year before, at a political meeting, Perry had said that “no two persons disapproved more at times of Mr. Mackenzie’s occasional violence, than Mr. Bidwell and himself.”
At the beginning of 1836 the provincial political scene was quickened by the arrival of a new lieutenant governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, sent out by the Colonial Office to deal with the grievances listed in Mackenzie’s Seventh report. Inexperienced in politics, of a volatile temperament, and totally ignorant of Upper Canada, Head was astounded when, in a personal interview, he was informed by Bidwell that the people had grievances not mentioned in Mackenzie’s 553-page Report. From that time forward Head was suspicious of Bidwell, not understanding the growing rift between the latter and Mackenzie and the different approaches to reform of the two men.
Finding it necessary to enlarge the Executive Council, Head, in February 1836, appointed three new members: J. H. Dunn* and two well-known Reformers, Robert Baldwin* and John Rolph. Reform hopes were soon dashed, however, when in less than a month the entire Executive Council resigned on the ground that they were not being adequately consulted by the lieutenant governor. There then followed a bitter quarrel between Head and the Reform-dominated assembly. The latter adopted addresses to the king and to the British House of Commons, each signed by Mr Speaker Bidwell and each denouncing the lieutenant governor as despotic and deceitful. The assembly then voted to stop the supplies and shortly afterward Bidwell entered on the Journals of the house a letter from Mr Speaker Papineau, asserting that “The state of society all over continental America requires that the forms of its Government should approximate nearer to that selected . . . by the wise statesmen of the neighbouring Union.” For his part, Head dissolved the legislature and plunged the province into one of the hottest election campaigns in its history. He was convinced that he “was sentenced to contend on the soil of America with Democracy,” and that the leader of his “republican” opponents was Marshall Spring Bidwell.
The Reformers were routed in the 1836 elections, and among those not returned was Bidwell. In addition to the general swing against his party, there were probably some personal reasons for the speaker’s defeat in Lennox and Addington. He had recently moved to Toronto as a better site for his growing law practice, and Canadian voters have often resisted non-resident candidacies. And Bidwell apparently did not campaign very hard in a heated political atmosphere that was not to his liking. At any rate he wrote to Robert Baldwin that “twelve years hard labour have exhausted my hopes, my strength . . . and I was unwilling to incur expence or trouble.” Also, like other Reformers, Bidwell attributed his downfall to unfair tactics used by the other side. He now resolved to retire from politics, and he played no part in the events of the next year and a half culminating in the rebellion of December 1837.
While he was in political retirement, Bidwell, unknown to himself, was a central figure in a clash between Head and the Colonial Office that eventually led to the governor’s resignation. In a dispatch of 5 April 1837, Head refused to restore George Ridout to offices from which he had been dismissed, and he also refused to appoint Bidwell to a judgeship. He stated that Bidwell’s “legal acquirements are . . . superior to at least one of the individuals whom I have elevated. His moral character is irreproachable . . . . But, anxious as I am to give talent its due, yet I cannot but feel that the welfare and honour of this province depend on his Majesty never promoting a disloyal man.” On 14 July Lord Glenelg insisted that Bidwell be offered the next vacancy on the Court of King’s Bench, and on 10 September Head “determined to take upon myself the serious responsibility of positively refusing to place Mr. Bidwell on the Bench, or to restore Mr. George Ridout to the Judgeship from which I have removed him.” On 24 November Glenelg informed Head that his resignation had been accepted. The colonial secretary regarded Head’s disobedience in the Ridout affair as the more serious, but clearly Bidwell had, unwittingly, played a part in the recall of the lieutenant governor.
But Head was to have his revenge. Before Glenelg’s dispatch reached Toronto, Mackenzie’s attempt at armed rebellion had been made and easily put down. Among the items left by the rebels as they scattered was a flag bearing the inscription “bidwell, and the glorious minority! 1837, and a good beginning.” This was, in fact, an election banner dating back to 1831, with the date altered. A day or two later Head confronted Bidwell with the flag, stated that he could not guarantee him security of person or property in the existing excited state of feeling, and that he would give him a letter of protection if he would leave the province. Bidwell, later described by Egerton Ryerson* as having a “retiring, timid and even nervous” temperament, denied that he had had any part in the rebellion but nevertheless agreed to the governor’s proposal that he leave Upper Canada forever. On 9 Dec. 1837 he crossed Lake Ontario to New York State. He carried with him a hastily written note from his old antagonist Christopher Hagerman which stated: “I have known you long and in some respects intimately and my respect for your private character as a neighbour and a friend arising from a knowledge of your amiable disposition in those relations of life which do not involve political controversy has impressed me so strong with feelings of friendship and esteem that I cannot now part with you perhaps forever without emotion.”
This personal note did not prevent Hagerman, some weeks later, from stating in the Toronto Patriot that Bidwell had left Upper Canada after Head had offered him a choice between having letters addressed to him in the Toronto post office opened and read or having them returned to him unopened and leaving the province. The accusation brought Ryerson, the province’s most powerful controversialist, into the lists on Bidwell’s behalf. Ryerson had been Bidwell’s political opponent from 1833 to 1836, but he was now convinced that the former speaker had “been banished for his talents and opinions,” not his actions, and that whenever a people allowed their rulers to attach “pains and penalties . . . to opinions . . . that very moment they sign the death warrant of their own liberties, and become slaves.” Ryerson’s condemnation of Head has become the verdict of history.
Although most of the leading exiles of 1837 eventually returned to live in Canada, Bidwell never did. On at least two occasions in the 1840s attempts were made to secure his return but they came to nothing. He kept in touch with many Canadians and his later New York associates always regarded him as an authority on Canadian affairs. In 1872, shortly before his death, he paid a brief visit to Toronto, sharing a pew one Sunday morning with Ryerson.
Not long after he left the province Bidwell had two final contacts with its governors. In March 1838, when he was in Albany applying for admission to the New York bar, he accidentally met Sir George Arthur*, Head’s successor, who had stopped to pay his respects to Governor William L. Marcy before continuing to Toronto. His finding Bidwell in the governor’s residence immediately convinced Arthur that the former speaker must be an untrustworthy character, while his conversation with Arthur convinced Bidwell “that there will be no liberality under him.” Shortly afterward, as he was passing through New York City on his return to England, Head invited Bidwell to call on him. At first their conversation was politely formal, but when Head informed him of the exchanges with Lord Glenelg about a judgeship, the usually mild Bidwell exclaimed that his banishment had been “exceedingly arbitrary, unjust and cruel.” He probably now believed that Head had forced him to leave in order to score a point against the Colonial Office.
When Bidwell left Upper Canada more than two-thirds of his career still lay before him. At first he was despondent and pessimistic, writing to friends that he was too old “to get into business . . . in a strange land” where he had never practised his profession. Nevertheless, he was soon admitted to practise by both the state Supreme Court and the Court of Chancery, and after moving to New York City he was taken into partnership in George W. Strong’s law firm. After Strong’s death Bidwell continued as its senior figure in partnership with Strong’s son, George Templeton, later joined by the latter’s cousin, Charles Edward. The firm of Strong, Bidwell and Strong became one of the most eminent in the metropolis, and Bidwell was soon known as one of the most learned lawyers practising before the American courts, with an unrivalled knowledge of the law of real estate. In his diary, George Templeton Strong states that “we all leaned on him, too much for our own good. Instead of studying up a question, I usually went to Bidwell and received from him an off-hand abstract of all the cases bearing on it and of all the considerations on either side. He loved law as a pure science.” Another associate remarked that Bidwell had “often said that he found far more entertainment in tracing some legal principle back through the Reports of the seventeenth century, than in perusing the most attractive work of fiction.” He lectured frequently at the Columbia Law School, and in 1858 Yale University conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws.
According to William M. Evarts, Bidwell decided that “the circumstances which withdrew him” from Upper Canada must cause him “to abstain from any participation in active political affairs” in the United States. G. T. Strong also noted at Bidwell’s death that it was “strange that this family, after so many years in New York, should have formed no positive friendships or alliances, especially considering poor, dear old Bidwell’s warm-heartedness, geniality and strong social instincts . . . . I suppose poor Bidwell’s Puritanic convictions led him to look on ‘calls’, tea parties, and all the little two-penny machinery of ‘social’ life as of the nature of evil, in spite of his own natural impulses.” Throughout his life Bidwell was a devout Presbyterian and a temperance advocate, and in his New York years a faithful supporter of the American Bible Society and of other religious and charitable organizations and institutions.
Of his career in Upper Canada, Bidwell himself wrote the best evaluation in a letter dated 29 April 1838: “All my offence consisted in a faithful, honest, disinterested attempt by constitutional means, in the discharge of public duties, to improve the conditions and support the rights of the people of Upper Canada. If my views had prevailed, there would have been no rebellion.”
MTCL, Baldwin papers. PAC, MG 24,B1 (Neilson family papers). PAO, Marshall S. Bidwell papers. Arthur papers (Sanderson). Head, Narrative. In memoriam, Marshall Spring Bidwell (New York, 1872). [A. E. Ryerson], Sir F. B. Head and Mr. Bidwell: the causes and circumstances of Mr. Bidwell’s banishment . . . by a United Empire Loyalist (Kingston, U.C., 1838). The seventh report from the select committee of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada on grievances . . . (Toronto, 1835). [G. T. Strong], The diary of George Templeton Strong, ed. Allan Nevins and M. H. Thomas (4v., New York, 1952). Upper Canada, House of Assembly, Journals, 1821–36. J. G. Brown, “Marshall Spring Bidwell and the reform movements in Upper Canada, 1822–1837,” unpublished ma thesis, Queen’s University, 1934. Canadian portraits; C.B.C. broadcasts, ed. R. G. Riddell (Toronto, 1940). Craig, Upper Canada. Dent, Upper Canadian rebellion. Sister Dominic (Genevieve Slawuta), “Marshal [sic] Spring Bidwell, a Reform leader in Upper Canada,” unpublished ma thesis, University of Ottawa, . Aileen Dunham, Political unrest in Upper Canada, 1815–1836 (London, 1927). Sissons, Ryerson. W. R. Riddell, “The Bidwell elections: a political episode in Upper Canada a century ago,” Ont. Hist., XXI (1924), 236–44. C. B. Sissons, “The case of Bidwell; correspondence connected with the “withdrawal” of Marshall Spring Bidwell from Canada,” CHR, XXVII (1946), 368-82.
© 1972–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
G. M. Craig, “BIDWELL, MARSHALL SPRING,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bidwell_marshall_spring_10E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||G. M. Craig|
|Title of Article:||BIDWELL, MARSHALL SPRING|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1972|
|Year of revision:||1972|
|Access Date:||June 9, 2023|