The early American Republic was a perfect setting for an ambitious man like Joel Barlow. Born in modest circumstances, he achieved the fame he craved by writing an epic poem that isn’t very good by today’s standards.
He had already failed at several professions and was about to embark on a land swindle when his poem, The Vision of Columbus, attracted a good deal of attention. It established him as America’s leading poet and sent him on his way as an international man of letters.
Barlow was one of the most colorful, if hardest to place, figures of the late 18th century in America. He thought of himself as a great man. Others probably differed. He served in the Revolutionary War, befriended Thomas Paine and met most of the great men of his age. He acquired wealth and prestige as a U.S. diplomat, first to Algiers and then to France. Barlow succeeded at his first diplomatic attempt, but failed at his second. He ardently supported the French Revolution and accepted French citizenship before dying in a Polish village in 1812.
Francis Parsons, in his book The Friendly Club, wrote that Barlow’s “story seems to have been a quest for some mysterious, unattained goal.”
He was born on a farm in Redding, Conn., on March 24, 1754, the fourth son of Esther and Samuel Barlow. Samuel had seven sons and two daughters by two wives (Esther was the second), and he didn’t have much wealth or land to leave to his sons.
Joel attended Dartmouth College, but ended up graduating from Yale. After college he moved to Hartford and joined a literary group known as the Hartford Wits. It included the painter John Trumbull, poet David Humphreys and future Yale president Timothy Dwight.
Of Barlow’s early life, Parsons wrote, “everything he attempted went to pieces.”
He volunteered in the Connecticut militia, but quit after the British ejected the rebels from Long Island. Then he returned to the army in 1780 as a chaplain. His passionate sermons earned him dinner with generals Nathanael Greene and George Washington. He also managed to court Ruth Baldwin, the lively daughter of a well-to-do New Haven blacksmith. They married secretly on Jan. 26, 1781, in Kensington, Conn.
Following the war, he tried his hand at law, which proved a mistake almost immediately. Then he co-founded The American Mercury, but abandoned it after less than a year.
Vision of Columbus
In 1787, Barlow, then 33, published an epic poem called The Vision of Columbus. He had started the 4,700-line verse seven years earlier, and worked on it during his military service. It featured a florid dialogue between Christopher Columbus and an angel. They discussed the entire glorious history of North and South America, the Revolutionary War and the new country’s bright future.
Bring, bounteous Peace, in thy celestial throng
Life to my soul, and rapture to my song;
Give me to trace, with pure unclouded ray,
The arts and virtues that attend thy sway;
To see thy blissful charms, that here descend,
Through distant realms and endless years extend.
It became well known in its time, in part because Barlow promoted it relentlessly. He sold it by subscription, and subscribers included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Louis XVI of France.
Scioto Land Company
In 1788, Barlow sailed for France. He had accepted a proposal from the Scioto Land Company to sell land in the Northwest Territory to Frenchmen fleeing the looming revolution. The Scioto Land Company didn’t own any land, however. It was a swindle, though Barlow apparently didn’t suspect it at first.
He managed to recruit 500 French settlers before the whole thing fell apart. Most of them made it to Ohio, then the Northwest Territory, and founded Gallipolis (birthplace of restaurateur Bob Evans). But in 1790, the company collapsed amid charges of fraud and physical threats against its agents, including Joel Barlow.
What did Barlow know and when did he know it? Benjamin Walker, a former aide-de-camp to George Washington, was sent to Paris to find out what happened. Walker exonerated Barlow, but didn’t express much sympathy for him. For the rest of his life, Barlow had the whiff of scandal about him.
Joel Barlow, Propagandist
A failure in business, Barlow returned to his pen and his politics and to his wife in London. He ardently supported the French Revolution, wrote radical pamphlets and helped Thomas Paine publish The Age of Reason.
Leaving Ruth in London, he went back to France and stood for election as a deputy from Savoy, the newly annexed Italian province. He lost, but he liked touring southern France and he acquired French citizenship for his efforts. While in Savoy he also dashed off a poem, The Hasty-Pudding, considered his best work. It’s a mock-heroic poem celebrating the simple life in America, symbolized by hasty pudding.
As the turmoil in France increased, Barlow moved to a quiet Paris suburb and engaged in the time-honored tradition of wartime profiteering. France had problems importing food, and Barlow’s connections put him in an ideal position to make money from shipping. He and Ruth then reunited in Hamburg, where he made his fortune as a cargo broker.
The winter of 1794-95 froze Hamburg’s harbor, so Joel and Ruth Barlow returned to Paris. There, Barlow ran into his old friend from the Hartford Wits, David Humphreys. Humphreys then served as U.S. minister to Portugal with responsibility for affairs in Algiers. Humphreys needed an emissary to free American sailors captured by Barbary pirates.
Barlow agreed to serve as a roving diplomat among the Barbary powers in 1795. Using State Department money, he freed 100 captive American sailors. He also helped draft the Treaty of Tripoli. It includes the controversial phrase, “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
While negotiating the treaty, his wife Ruth lived in Paris. There she befriended Robert Fulton, credited with inventing the first commercially successful steamboat. When Barlow returned to Paris, he took Fulton under his wing and supported him financially.
In 1805, he returned to the United States and bought an estate in rural Washington, D.C. He renamed it “Kalorama,” from which today’s tony neighborhood takes its name. Ruth’s brother Henry, a U.S. Supreme Court justice who suffered from mental illness, often stayed with his sister after she was widowed.
During all of his travels and adventures, Barlow had worked on expanding his epic Vision of Columbus into an even longer epic, The Columbiad. The 8,350-line poem reflected Barlow’s changed views over two decades, from Christianity to skepticism, from Federalist to liberal Democrat. The poem predicted the formation of a world council in Mesopotamia, where delegates would abandon their symbols of religious faith.
The first edition, lavishly published in 1807, had an outrageous price tag of $20. A cheaper version came out two years later and sold well. It received tremendous newspaper publicity, but mixed reviews.
Between 1790 and 1810 Joel Barlow was the most widely read American poet.
In 1811, President James Madison named Joel Barlow American minister plenipotentiary to France. He left with the mission of negotiating a commercial treaty with Napoleon. That didn’t work out so well. He was outmaneuvered and he failed to resolve longstanding disputes.
By 1812, his reputation fading, Barlow was summoned to see Napoleon at Wilna. He didn’t get to see him, and he came down with pneumonia. Caught up in the French army’s retreat from Moscow, he died of exposure on Dec. 26, 1812 in the Polish village of Żarnowiec.
This story updated in 2023.
With thanks to Joel Barlow, American Diplomat and Nation Builder. by Peter P. Hill.
Images: Aaron Barlow house By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57552242. Map of the Northwest Territories, By Made by User:Golbez. – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2560801.