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Joel Barlow

American Citizen in a Revolutionary World

Richard Buel Jr.

Publication Year: 2011

Poet, republican, diplomat, and entrepreneur, Joel Barlow filled many roles and registered impressive accomplishments. In the first biography of this fascinating figure in decades, Richard Buel Jr. recounts the life of a man more intimately connected to the Age of Revolution than perhaps any other American. Barlow was a citizen of the revolutionary world, and his adventures throughout the United States and Europe during both the American and French Revolutions are numerous and notorious. From writing his epic poem, The Vision of Columbus, to plotting a republican revolution in Britain to negotiating the release of American sailors taken captive by Barbary pirates, Joel Barlow personified the true spirit of the tumultuous times in which he lived. No one witnessed more climactic events or interacted with more significant people than Joel Barlow. It was his unique vision, his unfailing belief in republicanism, and his entrepreneurial spirit that drove Barlow to pursue the revolutionary ideal in a way more emblematic of the age than the lives of many of its prominent heroes. Buel is a knowledgeable guide, and in telling Barlow’s story he explores the cultural landscape of the early American republic and engages the broader themes of the Age of Revolution. Few books explore in such a comprehensive fashion the political, economic, ideological, diplomatic, and technological dimensions of this defining moment in world history.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. 1-5

Picture the crowded, still medieval city of Algiers in July 1796. Joel Barlow had recently accepted appointment as the U.S. consul there, at the urging of his long-time friend and fellow Yale graduate, David Humphreys, then U.S. minister to Portugal. The administration of George Washington needed someone of Barlow’s stature to resolve an urgent problem. Before 1793 only a few American vessels ...

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1 Beginnings

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pp. 6-26

In 1754 the first Sabbath of spring, March 24, coincided with the fourth Sunday in Lent. On that day Esther (Hester) Barlow, second wife of Samuel Barlow, gave birth to their fourth and last son in their Redding farmhouse in western Connecticut. At the time Redding was an outlying part of northwestern Fairfield, a dozen miles from the shoreline where the original European settlers had established a ...

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2 Ambitious Goals

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pp. 27-44

On the Sabbath following the senior ceremony, two brigades of the continental army (approximately 4,000 men) passed through New Haven on their way to rendezvous with Charles Hector, the Comte d’Estaing’s expeditionary force in Narragansett Bay. Detachments of militia followed them. Ezra Stiles commented on the “amazing Spirit for rushing towards Rh. Isld. spread 100 miles...

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3 Uncharted Waters

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pp. 45-64

...“I never was so happy . . . in my life,” Barlow wrote to Ruth soon after they were married. At last he was confident that “my plans will in some measure be answered.” Barlow had dropped Ruth off at a friend’s house at Waterbury before heading back to Hartford and work, but their marriage now allowed him to address her with a new freedom.1 In his letters, he referred to her as “you little ...

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4 Dead Ends

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pp. 65-78

Joel Barlow and Elisha Babcock began their partnership in difficult times. The first issue of the four-panel American Mercury appeared on July 12, 1784. Though it was still a town of little more than five thousand inhabitants, Hartford already boasted a newspaper. The Connecticut Courant had helped define Hartford as the commercial hub of the Connecticut River Valley, circulating in all the settlements...

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5 Literary Recognition

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pp. 79-95

As a childless couple the Barlows faced fewer financial demands than they would have had their marriage been fertile. But at least their unwelcome fate allowed them to serve as the social center for a circle of talented friends despite their constrained circumstances. Noah Webster recorded in his diary frequently dining with the Barlows, who also regularly entertained John Trumbull and Lemuel ...

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6 Land Fever

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pp. 96-119

The literary recognition Barlow received during 1787 still left him unable to make a living by his poetry. Nor was he tempted to embark on another heroic epic as a friendly critic had suggested. Instead, the appearance of The Vision of Columbus raised with new urgency questions about the course he and Ruth should take. Though Barlow continued to do some legal work, it did not suit his temperament. ...

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7 Disgrace

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pp. 120-139

Even as Barlow embraced a wildly optimistic vision for the outcome of the Scioto venture, he remained aware of the risks. He imagined that his “careless & insensible associates at home conceive me to be rioting in the luxuries of Europe.” But he confided a very different reality to his wife: “I should be infinitely more happy to be locked in a prison in America, where I might hear the cheering voice of my ...

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8 Revolutionary Adventurer

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pp. 140-162

At the end of July 1791, the Barlows took up residence at No. 18, Great Titchfield Street. Though London was just as odiferous and dirty as Paris, they were surely glad to be living in a more familiar, stable society. The occasional incidents of criminal violence bore no comparison to the revolutionary journ

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9 The Terror

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pp. 163-181

The National Convention began debating Louis XVI’s fate before Barlow and Frost delivered the address of the Society for Constitutional Information but did not try the king and sentence him to death until January 16 and 17, 1793. His execution took place on January 21, initiating the judicial bloodletting for political crimes for which the French Revolution became notorious. According to Gouverneur...

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10 Commercial Interlude

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pp. 182-195

By temperament Barlow preferred literary to commercial pursuits, but in 1793 the commercial possibilities of France at war with most of the rest of Europe could not be ignored. Amid civil disorder and an economy on the verge of collapse, Americans in Europe saw opportunities for profit. They were already familiar with what the average Frenchman was just confronting. Americans had lived through ...

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11 Mission to Algiers

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pp. 196-214

North African piracy had been a fact of life in the Mediterranean since the end of the Middle Ages. During the eighteenth century, the Turkish rulers of the Barbary Coast were constantly at war with at least one European nation. But the seizure of American vessels only began in 1785 after the dey of Algiers learned that the United States was no longer protected by his treaty with Britain. The seizures ...

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12 Franco-American Crisis

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pp. 215-236

The voyage from Algiers to Marseilles was one of Barlow’s few happy experiences under sail. Aside from a brief bout of sickness on the first day out, he arrived, after a leisurely twelve-day passage, on July 30, 1797. It undoubtedly helped to be traveling on his own vessel, the Rachel, with his own captain, Philip Sloan. Even the forty-day quarantine in the Marseilles lazaretto failed to dampen his spirits, as he ...

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13 Republican Prophet

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pp. 237-254

John Fellows had withdrawn from publishing in 1798, unbeknownst to Barlow. But that did not prevent a personal letter Barlow had written Fellows from Hamburg on May 23, 1795, from appearing in the August 19, 1799, issue of the Connecticut Courant.1 In responding to a proposal from Fellows to collect Barlow’s political writings into a single volume, Barlow had assumed he was addressing ...

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14 Responding to France’s Apostasy

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pp. 255-274

The purchase of a Parisian mansion did not prevent Barlow’s thoughts from turning homeward, but it complicated the task of returning to America. By the time he had moved their modest possessions to the new address, the progress of the American commissioners negotiating with Talleyrand, together with accounts from overseas, had convinced Barlow that American politics was moving in a new ...

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15 Mixed Reception

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pp. 275-302

Though the Barlows had intended to sail for America in early May, they did not leave British waters until mid-June 1805. Fifty-two days later, they arrived in New York, much the worse for the wear. As Barlow commented to Abraham Baldwin, this was “as much as we expected.” The voyage had been hardest on Ruth: “The dear Girl has suffered during [the] passage . . . a degree of torment equal to a half ...

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16 Washington Insider

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pp. 303-331

Ruth’s frailty helped draw the Barlows back to Washington during the autumn of 1807. She usually became ill with the onset of spring, and both Barlows assumed she was vulnerable to the heat, though seasonal allergies may have been the source of her problems. Despite its southerly location, Washington’s small and scattered population made it more salubrious than Philadelphia. Washington ...

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17 Europe Redux

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pp. 332-351

Exactly a month later the Constitution hove in view of the French coast. Both Barlows fared better on this crossing than previously. Eight days out, the Constitution had encountered the ship Samuel (Captain Corran), by whom Barlow was able to send a brief note to Fulton informing him that all were well.1 Though everyone had felt queasy at first, there had been only a few stormy intervals prior ...

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18 Finale

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pp. 352-369

Rumors that Congress had declared war against Britain reached Europe in early June 1812. Barlow saw the ninety-day embargo, with which Congress had responded to Madison’s April 1 request for a sixty-day embargo, as postponing the dreaded event a bit longer. It preserved his slim hope that Britain’s revocation of her orders-in-council—first announced on June 16 though not formally...

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pp. 371-372

I am indebted to the staffs of many libraries and museums—too numerous to be acknowledged—in the United States and Europe for assistance in researching this book. However, I cannot refrain from mentioning a few individuals who were especially helpful. They include Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Anne B. Shepherd of the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, Roy E. Goodman of ...


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pp. 373-377


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pp. 379-407

Essay on Sources

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pp. 409-415


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pp. 417-433

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401584
E-ISBN-10: 1421401584
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801897696
Print-ISBN-10: 0801897696

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 6 halftones
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Poets, American -- 18th century -- Biography.
  • Diplomats -- United States -- Biography.
  • Politicians -- United States -- Biography.
  • Barlow, Joel, 1754-1812.
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