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Barlow, Joellocked

  • Michael T. Davis

Barlow, Joel (1754–1812), poet and diplomatist, was born on 24 March 1754 at Redding, Connecticut, the fourth child of Samuel Barlow, farmer, and his second wife, Esther Hull. For several generations the Barlow family maintained a reputation as respectable farmers in America, and Joel was to benefit from a good education which progressed from Moor's Indian Charity School at Hanover, New Hampshire, and Dartmouth College in 1773, to Yale University the following year. Within twelve months he had published his first poem, though a copy does not exist, and in 1776 he joined the Connecticut militia to take part in the battle of Long Island. Following his graduation on 9 September 1778 Barlow was employed briefly as a schoolteacher, but he returned to Yale to complete a master's degree before becoming a chaplain in 1780 of the 3rd Massachusetts brigade. Preaching, too, was only temporary and, following his marriage to Ruth Baldwin (d. 1818) on 26 January 1781, with whom he remained until his death, Barlow moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to pursue his literary ambitions. The result was the publication of A Poem, Spoken at the Public Commencement of Yale College (1781) and An Elegy on the Late Honorable Titus Hosmer, Esq. (1782).

In 1784 Barlow joined Elisha Babcock in editing the American Mercury, an association which gave Barlow the chance to publish an edition of Doctor Watts' Imitation of the Psalms of David (1785). This partnership, however, was to dissolve by December 1785 and Barlow began studying law, leading to his admission to the bar in April 1786. With his career momentarily settled, Barlow's literary reputation began to flourish with his satirical 'Anarchiad' (published in twelve instalments between October 1786 and September 1787 in the New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine) and the publication of An Oration, Delivered at the North Church of Hartford (1787). It was, however, the release of his long-awaited poem The Vision of Columbus (1787) which seemed to justify a reference in 1788 to Barlow as 'the Poet Laureate of all America' (Ford, 26).

In spite of his rising reputation as a poet, Barlow was less successful as a lawyer, and on 25 May 1788 he departed for France as an agent selling land for a group known as Scioto Associates. Following a brief trip to England, Barlow returned to Paris in time to witness the fall of the Bastille and to establish a company in partnership with William Playfair, a Scottish scientist, called La Compagnie du Scioto. This venture soon came to an end and Barlow was left debt-ridden and seeking refuge in England in 1790. One month before joining the London Society for Constitutional Information in March 1792, Barlow contributed to the prevailing pamphlet debate on the French Revolution through the first part of his radical Advice to the Privileged Orders (1792). He followed this with a satirical attack on English conservatism in a poem called The Conspiracy of Kings (1792) and compiled A Letter to the National Convention of France (1792), which eventually saw him bestowed the dubious honour of French citizenship in February 1793.

With the spurious growth of his radical reputation came the real threat of prosecution in late 1792, at which time Barlow decided to move to France, from where he completed the second part of his Advice to the Privileged Orders (1793). As a delegate of the Society for Constitutional Information, he travelled with John Frost to deliver a congratulatory address to the National Convention on 28 November 1792. Barlow then involved himself in French politics, unsuccessfully campaigning for election to the convention from Savoy and urging the inhabitants in the nearby Italian region of Piedmont, through a pamphlet originally published in French and Italian and translated as A Letter, Addressed to the People of Piedmont (1793), to welcome French forces. From politics Barlow turned his attention to personal ventures and left for Hamburg in the spring of 1794, where he stayed for a year amassing a fortune as an importer. On his return to Paris, Barlow was appointed consul to Algiers, and until 1805 he remained in Europe pursuing his business and political interests and compiling such works as the poem Hasty Puddy (1796), The Political Writings of Joel Barlow (1796), and Letters from Paris, to the Citizens of the United States of America (1800), and translating Brissot's Nouveau voyage as The Commerce of America with Europe (1794) and Volney's original work as Ruins (1802).

By August 1805 Barlow had returned to America, settling first in Washington and then, in 1807, moving to a mansion situated on the banks of Rock Creek between Georgetown and Washington. His arrival in the United States coincided with his ideas for establishing an institute of education that emphasized both research and teaching, set out in a Prospectus of a National Institution to be Established in the United States (1805). It was, however, the publication of The Columbiad (1807), a revised edition of his earlier epic poem The Vision of Columbus, which was the highlight of Barlow's literary efforts in his final years. Indeed, following the release of this work he spent most of his time between 1807 and 1811 working unofficially as an adviser to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his sporadic attention to prose and verse in these years exemplified by such productions as Letter to Henry Gregoire (1809) and A Review of Robert Smith's Address to the People of the United States (1811). Barlow also had intentions of publishing a two-volume collection of his writings in 1811, but he was appointed as an envoy to France to negotiate trade relations with Napoleon. For over twelve months the French showed little interest in American offers, but in October 1812 Barlow was invited to Vilna, Poland, to finalize a treaty arrangement. As a result he was caught in Napoleon's retreat from Russia, and despite reaching Warsaw safely Barlow died on 24 December 1812 of pneumonia in the village of Zarnowiec, near Cracow. His body remains buried in an obscure grave in Poland.


  • A. L. Ford, Joel Barlow (1971)
  • J. Woodress, A Yankee's odyssey: the life of Joel Barlow (1958)
  • V. C. Miller, Joel Barlow: revolutionist, London, 1791–2 (1932)
  • C. B. Todd, Life and letters of Joel Barlow (1886)
  • M. C. Tyler, Three men of letters (1895)
  • R. F. Durden, ‘Joel Barlow in the French Revolution’, William and Mary Quarterly, 8 (1951), 327–54
  • M. B. McGuire, ‘Barlow, man of freedom’, Personalist, 42 (1961), 203–6
  • J. L. Blau, ‘Joel Barlow, enlightened religionist’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10 (1949), 430–44
  • M. R. Adams, ‘Joel Barlow, political romanticist’, American Literature, 9 (1973), 113–52
  • The works of Joel Barlow, ed. W. K. Bottorff and A. L. Ford, 2 vols. (1970)


  • J. A. Houdon, sculpture, New York Historical Society

Wealth at Death

$290,540—in cash deposits, corporate stocks, and land: Adams, ‘Joel Barlow, political romanticist’