HUMPHREYS, DAVID. (1752–1818). Continental officer, diplomat, poet. Born in Derby, Connecticut, on 10 July 1752, Humphreys entered Yale College in 1767, founding a literary society that would become the core of a group known as the Connecticut Wits. The college friends in the group later became prominent writers, including Humphreys, Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight, and John Trumbull. After being graduated in 1771, Humphreys became a teacher in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and later worked as a tutor at Philipse Manor in New York. Humphreys enlisted in the Continental army in August 1776 as a captain in the Second Connecticut Regiment. He served with Generals Israel Putnam and Nathanael Greene before becoming aide-de-camp to General George Washington on 23 June 1780. In the ensuing years Humphreys traveled everywhere with Washington, wrote hundreds of letters dictated by the general, and became Washington's close friend and confidant, making his own home at Mount Vernon. At the same time, Humphreys began publishing his poetry, starting with Address to the Armies of the United States of America in 1779. Most of his early poems were deeply patriotic, including The Glory of America (1782), and were widely reprinted in the American press.
In October 1781 Humphreys was given the honor of taking the news of Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown and the captured British standards to Congress. Over the next two years, he continued to serve as Washington's personal aide. After joining the European commerce commission of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin from 1785 to 1786, Humphreys returned to Mount Vernon as Washington's secretary, a position he held when Washington became president. In response to Shays's Rebellion, he and the other Connecticut Wits produced The Anarchiad, which warned of the dangers of uncontrolled democracy. It is probably the only one of Humphreys's poetical works to arouse much interest in modern times. From 1790 to 1800 he undertook a number of diplomatic missions for Washington and Adams, including service as minister to Portugal and Spain. He returned to Connecticut with one hundred merino sheep he had been given as a gift from the king of Spain; with these he started a successful woolen business at Rimmon Falls, where he lived the rest of his life. Over the years he wrote a wide variety of essays and biographies, including An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major-General Israel Putnam (1788) and The Yankey in England (1815). But like his poetry, his prose was written in a heavily ornamented rhetorical style that did not survive his own lifetime. On 21 February 1818 he died in his home in what was later renamed Humphreysville.
Cifelli, Edward M. David Humphreys. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Humphreys, David. Papers. Connecticut Historical Society Library, Hartford.