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, which catapulted him into a central role in American foreign policy.
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, became a wealthy businessman and international man of letters. As consul to Algiers he negotiated a treaty with the Barbary states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. A later attempt at diplomacy was a failure. 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.’
Born on a farm in Redding, Conn., on March 24, 1754, he attended Dartmouth College, but ended up graduating from Yale. He moved to Hartford and joined a literary group known as the Hartford Wits. They included John Trumbull, David Humphreys and Timothy Dwight.
Of Barlow’s early life, Parsons wrote, ‘everything he attempted went to pieces.’
He became a chaplain in the army, but soon quit. He tried his hand at law, which proved a mistake almost immediately. He co-founded The American Mercury, but abandoned it after less than a year. Finally he accepted a proposal from the Scioto Land Company to sail to Europe and sell Ohio land to gullible Frenchmen. It was a swindle, though Barlow didn’t suspect it.
In 1787, the year before he left for France, Barlow published an epic poem called The Vision of Columbus. It became well known in its time, in part because Barlow promoted it relentlessly. He also wrote The Hasty-Pudding, which is better known today. Between 1790 and 1810 he was the most widely read American poet.
In France, he made enough money to retire from business and pursue his literary and political interests. He ardently supported the French Revolution, wrote radical pamphlets and helped Thomas Paine publish The Age of Reason. In 1792 he was made a citizen of France.
He became a roving diplomat among the Barbary powers in 1795. Using State Department money, he freed 100 American sailors held by pirates. He also helped draft the Treaty of Tripoli, which 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 was living in Paris. There she became friendly with 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.
In 1811, Joel Barlow was named American minister plenipotentiary to France. He was charged with 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 caught pneumonia. Caught up in the French army’s retreat from Moscow, he died on Dec. 26, 1812 in the Polish village of Żarnowiec.
In his book, Joel Barlow, American Diplomat and Nation Builder. biographer, Peter P. Hill questioned whether Barlow’s assessment of his own greatness measured up to reality
This story was updated from the 2014 version.