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Joel Barlow was born in Redding, Connecticut, on March 24, 1754. He was a Yale student who, during his summer vacation, took part in the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776. After graduating from Yale in 1778, he took an additional Divinity course and then spent three years as a chaplain in the Continental Army. On December 26, 1779, he married Ruth Baldwin, the sister of a Yale classmate.
In July 1784, Barlow established at Hartford, Connecticut, a weekly paper, the American Mercury, with which he was connected for a year. At Hartford he was also a member of a group of young writers known as the "Hartford Wits," who wrote and published political pamphlets, satires, and poetry.
Barlow first achieved national fame when his nine-volume epic poem, The Vision of Columbus, was published in 1787. It is said that in this work Barlow was the first writer in English to use the words "civil," "civic" and "civilization," with their modern meanings.
Admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 1786, Barlow became a promoter for the Scioto Land Company, formed to settle a huge tract of Ohio wilderness recently opened to settlement. In 1788 he went to Paris to promote the sale of lots to European emigrants. In 1789 a group of hopeful French refugees emigrated to the Ohio Territory but found that no provisions had been made for the reception of settlers. Although the refugees were eventually successful in establishing the colony of Gallipolis, the Scioto Land Company failed and its organizers were exposed as profiteers. Barlow was officially audited and proven innocent of wrongdoing, but his reputation was seriously damaged.
Barlow was in Paris during the Fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, but he and his wife fled to London soon after to avoid the subsequent Jacobin disorders. In London, he became a member of the London Society for Constitutional Information and published various political essays. Two of those essays, Advice to the Privileged Orders and The Conspiracy of Kings (both 1792), so offended the British government that it banned the book and tried to arrest Barlow, who fled into hiding in Paris. Barlow's Letter to the National Convention of France, which contained proposals for a new French Constitution, so impressed the Assembly delegates that they made him an honorary citizen of the French Republic in 1792. In 1793, he helped organize the Savoy, recently captured from Italy, as a political division of France.
Fluent in French, sympathetic to the new French Republic, and successful in business, Barlow was popular with France's intelligentsia and scientists. He was also a close friend of Robert Fulton, who had arrived in France in 1797. Barlow helped Fulton with the prototypes of his steamboat, torpedo boat, and other engineering projects; in return, Fulton did the illustrations for a second edition of Barlow's epic poem, which was heavily revised and retitled The Columbiad and published in Philadelphia in 1807.
In 1795, President George Washington sent Barlow to Algiers as consul to help negotiate a peace treaty with the Barbary States and to secure the release of more than 100 American seamen, some of whom had been held captive by Algerian pirates since 1785. He stayed on for a year after the hostages departed, returning to Paris in 1797.
Barlow and his wife returned to the United States in 1805, with the fortune he had made abroad, and took up residence near Washington, D.C. In 1811, President James Madison appointed him as Minister to France, charged with negotiating a commercial treaty with Napoleon and with securing the restitution of confiscated U.S. property. Napoleon, however, was busy waging war with much of Europe when Barlow arrived in France and the two men never met. In 1812, while Napoleon was engaged in a winter campaign against Russia, he summoned Barlow to meet him at Wilna (now Vilnius), Poland, but by the time Barlow arrived Napoleon's army was in retreat and he failed to keep his appointment with Barlow. Meanwhile, Barlow and his staff were forced to flee through freezing weather to escape the Cossacks chasing Napoleon. Barlow died of pneumonia in the village of Zarnowiec, Poland, on December 24, 1812.
Works By Barlow
The Vision of Columbus (1787)
In addition, several collections of Barlow's political writings were published during his lifetime.
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This page was last updated on 04/25/2017.