BARLOW, JOEL. (1754–1812). Diplomat and poet. Born in Redding, Connecticut, on 24 March 1754, Barlow studied at Moor's Indian School. He graduated in 1758 from Yale, where he had demonstrated his interest in poetry with his first publication, on the dreadful quality of college food. His commencement poem, The Prospect of Peace, earned considerable praise. Barlow served during the Revolution as chaplain of the Third Massachusetts Brigade. Throughout the war he persisted in writing poetry, most of which sounds stilted to modern ears.
At the war's end, Barlow opened a printing shop in Hartford and set about seeking patrons to support his writing. In 1787 he published his first epic poem, The Vision of Columbus, which made the entire history of the Americas a lead-up to the American Revolution, a perspective which continues to find great favor. Barlow's poem exerted enormous influence on the culture of the early Republic, if only in his elevation of Columbus to a central role in world history. His concluding prediction of the future greatness of the United States in every branch of human endeavor appealed enormously to the public's ego and guaranteed the poem's popularity.
Taking advantage of Barlow's sudden fame, the Scioto Associates, a company seeking to sell lands in the Ohio territory, named him its European agent and paid his expenses to Paris. Barlow proved less interested in selling land than in befriending the leading intellectuals there, from Thomas Paine and William Blake to Mary Wollstonecraft and Brissot de Warville (whom he translated). When the Scioto group collapsed in scandal the next year, Barlow was held blameless and stayed on in Europe as a journalist, reporting on the fall of the Bastille.
Meanwhile, his poetry crafted an interpretive vision of the past; The Conspiracy of Kings (1792), for instance, blaming the French Revolution on aristocratic corruption. In a series of pamphlets, Barlow defended the French Revolution against British accusations of approaching anarchy. Made an honorary citizen of France, Barlow thought to run for public office in 1793. But with the execution of the king and the arrest of his friend Tom Paine (whose Age of Reason he saved from the police), Barlow abandoned politics for shipping, moving to Hamburg, where he became a wealthy merchant.
In 1796 the United States appointed him minister to Algiers, where he successfully arranged the release of more than one hundred American prisoners. Barlow returned to the United States in 1804, settling in Washington and returning to poetry. With his friend Robert Fulton he wrote an epic poem, The Canal: A Poem on the Application of Physical Science to Political Economy, which foresaw more greatness for America through the use of Fulton's steamships. In 1807 Barlow published his most famous poem, The Columbiad, an expanded version of his Vision of Columbus that devoted more attention to the American Revolution and the new nation's scientific promise, and that rejected Christianity as an outdated concept. Barlow returned to Europe in 1812 as special emissary from his friend President James Madison to Napoleon, whom he found fleeing Russia. Repulsed by what he saw, Barlow wrote his greatest poem, Advice to a Raven in Russia, which graphically described the frozen corpses, the hunger, the senseless destruction, and the death of revolutionary ideals. Barlow caught pneumonia and died on 26 December 1812 in Poland.
Barlow, Joel. Papers. Houghton Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
American poet and diplomat Joel Barlow (1754-1812) is remembered as one of the Connecticut wits. He moved beyond New England to become one of the most cosmopolitan men of his generation.
Joel Barlow, born in Redding, Conn., on March 24, 1754, briefly attended Dartmouth and then went to Yale, from which he celebrated his graduation with the Poem on the Prospect of Peace (1778). As a collegian, he served briefly in the Connecticut militia in 1776. The nine years after his graduation were busily filled with school teaching, graduate study, further service in the Army as chaplain, newspaper editing and almanac making, a runaway marriage, preparing a revision on American principles of Isaac Watt's Psalms (1785), reading for the bar, and, with versifying friends, correcting overly democratic countrymen in the satirical Anarchiad (1786). His principal attention during these years, however, was directed toward completing and preparing for publication his long epic poem in heroic couplets, The Vision of Columbus (1787). This poem, dedicated to the king of France and sponsored by George Washington, brought Barlow something more than local fame as a forecaster in verse of what the new United States might become, both in commerce and in art.
In 1788 he went to Europe as agent for a company that wanted to sell western lands to French emigrants. That failing, he became a political journalist in France and England, to the dismay of his New England friends, because he was associated now with Thomas Paine, Horne Tooke, and Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1792 he published Advice to the Privileged Orders, in prose, and The Conspiracy of Kings, in verse, both antimonarchial tracts, and A Letter to the National Assembly, which brought him honorary citizenship in the new French Republic. The best-remembered of his writings of this period, however, is The Hasty Pudding (1796), written in homesick memory of a favorite New England dish.
Wealth came to Barlow suddenly and mysteriously, probably through shipping activities. As consul to Algiers (1795-1797), he arranged treaties with native rulers of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis. He was friend and adviser to young Robert Fulton and to Thomas Jefferson. In 1805 he returned to the United States, to expand and revise The Vision of Columbus to The Columbiad (1807)—a magnificently printed but woodenly written book. In 1811-1812 he was U.S. minister to France. He died in Poland on Dec. 24, 1812, en route as representative of President James Madison to a conference with Napoleon.
Selections from Barlow's writings are most readily found in V.L. Parrington, ed., The Connecticut Wits (1926). Biographical materials first gathered in Charles Burr Todd, Life and Letters of Joel Barlow (1886), and Theodore A. Zunder, The Early Years of Joel Barlow (1934), have been expanded in James L. Woodress, A Yankee's Odyssey: The Life of Joel Barlow (1958). See also John Dos Passos, The Ground We Stand On (1941), and Leon Howard, The Connecticut Wits (1943).
Bernstein, Samuel, Joel Barlow: a Connecticut Yankee in an age of revolution, New York: Rutledge Books, 1985. □