Born in Malden-on-Hudson, New York, he became a lawyer and editor. Abraham Lincoln appointed him Consul at Paris in 1861, progressing to Charge d'Affaires to Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Napoleon III. In 1865 he became Minister to France and helped block the Confederacy's efforts to acquire ships in Europe. He published The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and helped expose the graft of the Tweed administration in New York City. After three years living in Germany, he returned to New York, where he was elected Secretary of State. He was instrumental in the development of the New York Public Library, and a staunch proponent of the development of the Panama Canal. He was a friend of Philippe Bunau Varilla, who brought Panama's declaration of Independence to John's home: Panama's first proposed flag was made in the Bigelow home by Mrs. Bunau Varilla, but was immediately rejected by the Panamanians , who made their own.
On June 11, 1850, he married Jane Tunis Poultney: their son Poultney Bigelow was a lawyer, and a noted journalist and editor.