Joel Barlow: American Diplomat and Nation Builder by Peter P. Hill (review)
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Joel Barlow, Diplomat, Barbary

Joel Barlow: American Diplomat and Nation Builder. Peter P. Hill. (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012. Pp. 269. Cloth, $34.95.)

If there was ever an American who believed that the early American republic was an era that created opportunities for aspiring men, it was Joel Barlow. Born in Connecticut to modest circumstances in 1754, Barlow fancied himself an important diplomat, a poet and intellectual shaping American cultural life, and a successful businessman—all of this built on the ferment unleashed by the American (and later French) Revolution. Whether Barlow's own assessment of his achievements lined up with reality is another matter. It is that fuzzy line between Barlow's sense of his own greatness, and the fact that he was overshadowed in his own time and in ours by the towering figures of the founding era, that shapes Peter P. Hill's book. The result is a fascinating study based on first-rate research that never takes its subject too seriously.

Barlow's greatest claim to fame came in 1795-1797, when he served as a roving diplomat among the Barbary Powers, and in 1811-1812, when he served as minister to France. Those diplomatic ventures had very different outcomes. As American consul to Algiers, Barlow arrived in the midst of chaotic negotiations. By the time he was finished, he had helped orchestrate major treaties with both Algiers and Tripoli. But in France, Barlow was easily outmaneuvered by the Napoleonic regime. His effort to resolve longstanding disputes went nowhere, and his reputation was collapsing when he died in December 1812.

These diplomatic ventures were relatively brief excursions in a life marked by constant activity. Barlow published two major works of poetry, Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807), which Hill describes as expressions of patriotic fervor rather than artistic accomplishment. As a businessman, Barlow moved easily from pitchman for land sales in the Northwest Territory to broker for trans-Atlantic trade. During seventeen years in Europe and North Africa, he built numerous business contacts and did sufficiently well to join the time-honored tradition of retiring from business to pursue both literary and political interests.

It is Barlow's diplomatic career that consumes most of Hill's attention, and rightly so. While never a major player on the scale of Robert Livingston, James Monroe, or Charles Pinckney, Barlow nonetheless was at the [End Page 552] center of American foreign policy in key moments of its development. Hill is an accomplished historian of American foreign relations, primarily the complex and confusing relationship between the United States and France in the era of the French Revolution. He describes negotiations in both North Africa and in Europe with depth and clarity. That's no small accomplishment, because both diplomatic arenas were filled with secret agendas, conflicting egos, and shifting alliances.

Yet the greatest surprises that emerge from Joel Barlow: American Diplomat and Nation Builder are those areas of Barlow's life that were definitively outside his role as diplomat or nation builder. This book rests on a thoughtful, careful examination of Barlow's correspondence, such that Barlow's relationship with his wife, Ruth, and Barlow's private commercial interests, come across loud and clear. Hill reveals the particular notion of romantic life that could develop between a husband and wife who clearly loved each other, yet who for extended periods of geographic separation maintained their relationship entirely through correspondence. And then there is the interlude with Robert Fulton, the inventor who enjoyed both lodging and financial support from the Barlows. The correspondence among all three expressed varying forms of romantic affection, a subject that Hill treats carefully, if briefly.

Barlow's economic pursuits prove equally fascinating. Barlow was not above pushing a shady land deal, skirting import/export laws, or capitalizing on international conflict in a way that would in a later time label someone as war profiteer. Sorting out these business relationships is no easy task, and Hill applies the same skill he demonstrates in making sense of Barlow's diplomatic career.

It is Barlow's literary pursuits that receive short shrift in this book. Perhaps that makes sense, since...