Joel Barlow

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.


Further Reading on Joel Barlow

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).

Additional Biography Sources

Bernstein, Samuel, Joel Barlow: a Connecticut Yankee in an age of revolution, New York: Rutledge Books, 1985.