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American Writers Who Were Diplomats

by William Sommers

Within the foyer of the US State Department’s diplomatic entrance there once stood a marble tablet enclosed by a lighted entablature. Cut into its green surface were the names of Foreign Service members who died as heroes. The second name on the list was that of Joel Barlow, the American minister to France under President Madison who, fleeing from the Russian armies, caught pneumonia and died at the church in Zarnowiec and where his memory was kept by residents who contributed to the carving of a memory stone and where it still stands within the church’s entry.

Barlow, in forlorn pursuit of a treaty with France, followed Napoleon to Vilna, Lithuania, during the bitter winter of 1812. When the beaten dictator fled Moscow, Mr. Barlow, along with the French court and the diplomatic corps, hit the frozen road for Paris. But the minister caught pneumonia on the way, died the day after Christmas and was hastily buried in the cold ground of Zarnowiec.

Only in the last few decades has Barlow’s memory begun to struggle back into history. And yet it took too long. Joel Barlow was one of an early band of American diplomats whose resourcefulness, intelligence and devotion raised a standard of excellence that is even more impressive today. He wrestled with international terrorism and brigand, negotiated for the lives of American hostages and, at the behest of the President, risked reputation – and, life – in a nearly hopeless diplomatic foray with Napoleon and his elusive chief diplomat.


Joel Barlow, like many of his 18th century companions, had a Renaissance zest for human activity; he was at once patriot, businessman, politician, polemicist, poet and diplomat. He backed Robert Fulton’s steamboat with cash, referring to Fulton as “Old Toot,” founded American Mercury magazine and coined that much-abused word, “utilize.” He argued for an American national university, which eventually surfaced as Columbian College, now known as George Washington University. And he was the first American poet to be taken seriously in England and Europe, with such lengthy, turgid but wholly American works as “The Vision of Columbus,” “The Columbiad,” “Anarchiad” and the best of the lot, “Hasty Pudding.”

Barlow’s first overseas assignment was to the Barbary States. Operating out of the Turkish regencies of Algeria, Tripoli and Tunis, the Barbary pirates were plundering American shipping, hijacking the cargoes and holding crewmen as hostages for ransom. By 1795, 150 American citizens had been enslaved by the grand vizier (dey) of Algiers, Hassan Bashaw. Some had been prisoners and slaves for more than 10 years! The Barbary States were supported by the superpowers of that day, England and France. By playing off the corsairs against the smaller countries who traded in the Mediterranean, the two countries were able to maintain naval dominance. France, for example, could have wiped out the Turks on a moment’s notice.

But, as Barlow wrote to the Secretary of State: “Louis XIV said, if there was no Algiers, he would build one as it was the cheapest way of depriving the Italian States of their natural right to navigate their own seas.”* Superpower strategy and the manipulation of satellites is a strategy that is still alive and working!


But the United States was in no position to do battle with Algerians of that time. . A “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Commerce” had just been concluded with Hassan Bashaw, dey of Algiers, and the most powerful of the rulers of the three enjoined coastal states. It was a wild and wooly document that referred to George Washington as the “commander of the American people, living in the island called America.” The treaty required an annual tribute of $20,000 “being the price of peace.” What Hassan Bashaw really wanted was a one-time cash payment of $600,000 in gold. And he wanted it yesterday! The ransom price for the hostages was set separately at around $200,000.

Timothy Pickering, the Secretary of State, and James Monroe, the Minister to France, needed the right man to offset the treacherous Hassan Bashaw. Arrange for the delivery of the hostages and enforce the treaty. Joel Barlow was the ideal choice! He had lived in France for nine years; spoke French, German and some Arabic. As a contemporary put it: “Barlow was rich enough to afford diplomacy, a citizen of both France and the United States – and a fair match for the international pirates who inhabited the Barbary Coast.”

Though the assignment seemed a pile of problems without solution, Joel Barlow nevertheless accepted the appointment as consul and began preparing for his new assignment. He received no separate maintenance allowance, nor a cost-of-living adjustment, nor even danger pay. But he was not at all disdainful about expense money. Apprised that the essential element in establishing a favorable impression with the dey was the size and dazzle of the “Consular’s Gift” and Barlow went shopping.


He scoured Paris shops to buy jeweled snuffboxes, diamond rings, pistols inlaid with precious stones, brocaded robes and thick carpets. The bill came to $27,000, eventually charged to Uncle Sam. What modern-day ambassador, in fear that the inspector general will rack him for a $500 embassy reception, wouldn’t trade his tourist-class home leave ticket to be Joel Barlow – just for a day! Mr. B left Paris on December 17, 1795, bound for Algiers via Marseille. But between the weather, the absence of ready shipping and overland detours via Spain, he did not arrive until March 6. But the welcome was not in the best traditions of Turkish hospitality. The dey refused to see him, refused his gift and roughed up his servants. The reason? Simple enough. Where was the $600,000 in gold? The treaty had been signed on the 28th of November; here it was, three months later, and still no cash!


By April, the dey’s legendary temper reached a climax. The all-suffering Barlow was given an ultimatum: if the money did not arrive in eight days, the honored Hassan Bashaw would declare war on the United States; if it was not on the dey’s counting table in 30 days, Algerian cruisers would began again to seize American ships. Today USAID might have provided the dey’s tribute in a matter of hours. But Barlow’s task was complicated by the lack of hard currency throughout Europe. Wars and rumors of wars had driven the good money underground. Letters of credit advanced by the United States on banks in London, Paris and Lisbon brought only the usual Wall Street-like response: “See us next year when things might be better.” Moreover, the commissioner plenipotentiary in charge of the money, one Colonel Humphrey, was not a ball of fire and his plodding, tinkering pace added to Barlow’s frustration. Then – fortunately he had an inspired idea. JB went to the dey and offered a gift for the latter’s daughter: an American-built 25-gun frigate (a little something for the girl who has everything). These were popular ships, the envy of most seafaring countries. In exchange, Mr. Barlow wanted a three-month reprieve on the payment of the blackmail. The dey was delighted and, to show his enthusiasm, held out for a frigate with 36 guns!


Barlow agreed; the deal was struck. It was like buying off the Cosa Nostra with a case of machine guns and a cement mixer! But without more time, Barlow and the hostages were likely to end up in Hassan Bashaw’s paradise forever. Only when the dey agreed, did the Connecticut Poet report his action to the U.S. Minister Monroe and Secretary Pickering. He expected to be turned down because of the $90,000 price tag on the frigate. But his superiors backed him without question: President Washington personally ordered the Philadelphia shipyard to rush the job. Not a few ambassadors of recent memory would have soared heavenward with such a back up!

With the dey momentarily modified, Barlow moved quickly. His first concern was getting cash to Algiers. Colonel Humphrey had bungled the job and Barlow, writing to his wife, gave the colonel a very poor performance evaluation. The colonel had, so the letter went, “too much beef in his head to be a good manager.” His only talent was in “keeping secrets especially from those whose knowledge of it is absolutely necessary.”

Barlow turned instead to Joseph Bacri, an Algerian banker with connections in Europe. He persuaded Bacri to take a letter of credit on the former’s branch in Leghorn, Italy. The gold would be taken aboard a U.S. naval frigate and brought to Algiers. And Bacri, already in Barlow’s pay via an unauthorized retainer of $18,000, sensed a good prime rate in the offing and readily agreed. Dispatches effecting the exchange were sent off on the next packet.


But the problem of releasing the hostages was more complicated. Ill-used for years, they were already in poor health when an epidemic of plague broke out in Algiers. Though Mr. JB worked hard and long to save their lives, five hostages died within the first week and many more were edging toward the brink. Release was imperative. Just as despair set in, circumstances again played into Barlow’s intrepid hands.

The new French consul arrived in Algiers, on the heels of the plague, with a magnificent “consular gift” for the dey. Hassan Bashaw was overwhelmed. From then on nothing was too good for his big brother from Paris. The consul took immediate, if secret, advantage of the dey’s euphoria, by requesting a small loan of $200,000 in gold. The problem, endemic to Algiers, was a shortage of hard currency, since most of it was kept under lock and key in the dey’s treasury. And the French consul, newly-arrived and beset with expenses, was in dire need.

But surprisingly the dey granted the loan; the French consul then turned the funds over to banker Bacri under most agreeable terms. Barlow, privy to the whole transaction, leaned on Bacri for the full amount, in order to ransom the hostages. The latter, in the spirit of a Barbary Federal Reserve, couldn’t resist Barlow’s persuasive charm nor the lure of high interest rates. He gave in.


JB now out-distanced even himself. He paid off the ransom to the dey’s exchequer, chartered one of Bacri’s boats and, on July 11, 1796, said good-bye to 145 bewildered but happy American hostages on their way to home and freedom.

When the dey realized that Barlow had pulled a large decorated – but very black cloth – over his glistening eyeballs, Bashaw’s voice broke the highest operatic range then available. The grand vizier had not only funded the release of the hostages, he had lost his trump card on the payment of the tribute. Hassan Bashaw prepared for war. But Joel Barlow was equal to the task. He calmed the dey’s fears, assured him that the tribute was on its way, reminded him of the splendid frigate soon to be his and carefully smoothed the rough edges of Hassan Bashaw’s bubbling temper. Though two months late, the gold finally arrived. Barlow was able to pay off the tribute, return the loan with interest to Mr. Bacri and put the treaty into effect. By Thanksgiving (if, indeed, there was one), Barlow could eat his turkey in peace, for he had plenty to be thankful for.


Barlow stayed on for another six months, concluding similar treaties with Tripoli and Tunis. He left Algiers in the summer of 1797 with the blessings of that old rogue, Hassan Bashaw, and the gratitude of Joseph Bacri whose retainer had come to an end. In a short tour of 16 months, Mr. Barlow had managed to free the hostages, conclude treaties with all the Barbary States and show a skeptical Europe that American diplomats could hold their own. Today, Joel Barlow might have received a Meritorious Service Award from the President or even a cash bonus for his efforts. He was content, however, with the praise of the Secretary of State, who wrote: “It has been fortunate for the United States that their interests were at so critical a period in the hands of a citizen who had the intelligence to discern and the confidence to seize the fittest moment to secure them.”



The next chapter in Joel Barlow’s Foreign Service career opened in Washington, where he had recently bought a lovely estate, calling it “Kalorama,” which in Greek means “beautiful view.” The Barlow house, long since vanished, stood near 23rd Street and Bancroft Road, south of Kalorama Road. Mr. B was now a gentleman of leisure, close to his good friends, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. In 1811 he was still writing poetry, dashing off hundreds of turgid couplets whenever the spirit moved him. It was a pleasant life.

Not so for the United States. France and England were again at each other’s throats, and the United States was once more in the middle. England was blockading French ports and systematically seizing U.S. ships, impressing American seamen and generally making life miserable for Americans. In retaliation France issued the Berlin Decree, which put the British under blockade. The Milan Decree followed. It allowed France to take any ship coming from, or bound for, an English port. Under this veil of legality, the French began to imitate the English, seizing American ships, confiscating their cargoes and interning their crews. President Madison struck back by banning the import of French and British goods. Relations between the three countries became as charged as Ben Franklin’s electric kite.


But Napoleon, already planning his Russian caper, was eager to involve Britain in a war with the United States. This would engage the British and leave him free to conquer Eastern Europe and the Russians. And he hoped that America would direct its wrath toward the Brits and thus occupy their attention while he strolled through Moscow. James Madison was President, with James Monroe as Secretary of State: both were skeptical of Napoleon’s double dealing. They wanted firsthand proof on what was going on. But to get it, they would need a reliable, shrewd negotiator who could hold his own against the French. Madison had not far to look. Joel Barlow was both friend and neighbor; he spoke fluent French and knew many in Napoleon’s court on a first-name basis. The President asked Mr. Barlow to go to Paris as the U.S. minister and work out an agreement that would stop the French attacks on American shipping and the resultant imprisonment of American sailors.

Joel Barlow, however, viewed the prospect of dealing with Napoleon as anything but alluring. He had no love for Napoleon, who had subverted the French Revolution of which Barlow was a champion. But the President insisted. And Barlow, like so many diplomats since, could not resist the urgings of his President. The Senate confirmed his appointment as minister, and he sailed for Paris early in August of 1811. To stress the importance of this mission, Madison arranged for Barlow and his wife to go to France on the U.S.S. Constitution – Old Ironsides. Like the modern American Foreign Service officer, Barlow was restricted to traveling on an American carrier whenever possible…but Old Ironsides was the Top of the Mark.


Barlow’s orders, set down in a book-length document by Secretary Monroe, were to arrange release of the ships, crews and cargoes held by the French, assure that the Milan and Berlin Decrees had been cancelled, and negotiate a treaty of commerce and amity with the French. No cold potatoes here!

Barlow was not optimistic. “I go with an ardent wish,” he wrote to Robert Fulton, “but without much hope of doing good.” An equivalent assignment today, in 1982[m3] , might be to achieve a permanent settlement in Kashmir and the Golan Heights while negotiating a free-agent contract with Tom Brady!.

At first, things went well for the new minister. Napoleon received him cordially and, more than once, acknowledged him personally and in public. Mr. Barlow’s long acquaintance with things French stood him well. The Foreign Office opened its doors, and he engaged in “fruitful discussions” with the foreign minister, Duc de Bassano. Their talks dealt with many of the substantive issues Mr. Monroe had cited to Mr. Barlow.


This encouraged JB to make the first move. He drew up a proposed statement of French policy toward the United States, in which the French agreed to receive American goods duty-free. The French would also release American ships, cargoes and crews then in custody. Though these points had already been discussed, with agreeable answers given, Duc de Bassano demurred. While he was willing to give verbal assurances, he was most reluctant to set them down in print. Hello!!

Chagrined by this refusal, Barlow was undaunted. He switched to the Berlin and Milan Decrees. While Napoleon saw their repeal as a ploy to push America and Britain into war, Mr. Barlow saw them as a chance to reduce tensions between the two. If he could show the English that the French had lifted their embargo, the former might be encouraged to do the same. This would, in turn, remove a major thorn from America’s side, abating the war fever and encouraging restoration of normal relations.

In April 1812, Barlow began pressuring the foreign office for proof that the two decrees had been repealed. He inveigled, cajoled, insinuated and maneuvered. As one French diplomat observed: “Minister Barlow has a mettlesome character and is hard to handle. He does not depart from his American stubbornness.”


Finally, on a day in the first week of May, in staged anger, Barlow pounded on the duc’s desk, demanding to see the document, which canceled the Berlin and Milan Decrees. To his astonishment, the foreign minister opened his desk drawer and produced the Decree of St. Cloud, which unequivocally canceled the two hateful decrees; it was dated April 28, 1811. JB was astounded and then amazed. According to the date, the decree had been issued over a year ago. Had it languished in the drawer all this time? The duc did not answer. Had it been published? No, said the duc a bit shamefacedly. But it soon would be.

What Joel Barlow gradually surmised, was that the decree had been written and signed that very week; it was backdated to coincide with Napoleon’s previous announcement. The foreign minister had it available in case, as it now happened, if Barlow pushed him to the wall. It was an act of sheer duplicity from the US view – but was the usual French diplomatic maneuver that hides everything and then said “oops – sorry ” when its cheating nonsense surfaced.

Still Barlow had what he wanted – a fake perhaps, but at least an official document. A copy was rushed by frigate to London and delivered to the English foreign minister. The English wavered but finally agreed to lift the blockade, on the basis of the Decree of St. Cloud. Notice of the action reached Secretary Monroe on June 29. But it was too late. Twelve days earlier, Congress had declared hostilities against England: the War of 1812 was on. Napoleon had his way, and Barlow’s efforts were upended once again.


The somewhat chagrined Barlow, still in harness, then turned to the last of Mr. Monroe’s instructions: Secure a Treaty with France. This might at least keep the French at bay while the United States wrestled with the English. By this time, however, both Napoleon and his foreign minister were in Vilna, directing the assault on Russia. Barlow then turned his negotiating to the Duc de Dahlberg, the deputy minister. The work was tedious, the progress slow — in keeping, no doubt, with the Minister’s instructions to delay. But the author of “Hasty Pudding” was dogged in not relentless. He wrote out a draft text and pressed the duc for a decision. The latter was forced to write to Vilna, saying he could put off the American minister no longer. France would have to act or break off negotiations.


On the Vilna end, things were going down the tube. French armies were in retreat. The foreign minister came to realize that it would be well to have a few friends left to lean on; the American treaty began to take on a more positive hue. He invited Barlow to Vilna and, in dulcet words and phrases, promised, “when you arrive we may conclude an arrangement desirable and conformable to the mutually amicable views of our two governments.” But Barlow quickly – and sadly – recognized the letter as an invitation to doom. Vilna was 1,400 miles from Paris. He would have to leave his wife in Paris and he would be traveling in the winter, a winter that was to turn Napoleon and turn his army to ice. JB was nearly 60 years old and not in the best of health. Still, the minister felt that “it was impossible to refuse the duc’s offer without giving offense.” Without the comfort of modern travel, with only his nephew Tom and a foreign Office guide, with neither danger pay, nor a retirement system, nor high-option hospitalization, he set off. The carriage was a movable ice box, the roads gutted and frozen. He rode for 23 days, arriving in Vilna on November 18, 1812.Negotiations were no more satisfactory in Vilna than they had been in Paris. Though the foreign minister was agreeable, he could not get the emperor to sign; Napoleon was too busy trying to save his own skin. The duc was also working hard to convince everybody that things would improve as soon as Napoleon won the next battle. But the Russians won and the treaty became another wartime casualty. It was here in Vilna, however, that Joel Barlow took his revenge on Napoleon in one of his best poems –“Advice to a Raven” – as though interrogating himself, asks in the first line: “Black fool, why winter here?”


By now, the French retreat had become a rout. Sixteen days after his arrival in Vilna, Barlow, along with the court and the diplomatic corps, fled the city. Barlow, hired a six team carriage and driver, and on December 5, 1812 began his retreat. He took with him his nephew, Tom Barlow, as well as Jean Babtiste, an official from the French Foreign Ministry. Barlow did not want to go directly to Paris from Vilna for fear of being over-taken by the fast moving Russian army; he chose instead to go south into Poland and then to turn west near Krakow, stopping at Vienna and then, hopefully, make his way to Paris. He made it to Warsaw in seven days, riding in a nearly unheated carriage in one of the coldest Decembers in memory. After another seven days, the team arrived in Kielce where Barlow began to show signs of a bad cold. On their way to Zarnowiec, Barlow stopped the carriage to pick up a nearly frozen polish soldier – Adam Piwovarski – who had fought on the French side – and was returning to his home in Zarnowiec.

The carriage and travelers reached Zarnowiec on December 21st. But Barlow could go no further as his condition worsened. He was taken to the home of Jan Blaski, mayor of the Commune (gmiina) f Zarnowiec. Local doctors could not help and a physician from Krakow was brought in who found that Barlow’s advanced pneumonia could not be countered. By then Barlow was unconscious and at noon on December 26 – the day after Christmas – Joel Barlow died. Diplomat, poet and American par excellence was buried in the frozen ground of the cemetery of the Church of the Nativity of Our Lady in Zarnowiec.

Sadly, it took Barlow’s nephew, Thomas, over two weeks to get to Paris and tell Barlow’s wife, Ruth, of her husband’s death and another three months before the news came to the United States and to President Madison.


*Although Barlow was buried in the church graveyard in Zarnowiec, the graveyard has been rearranged over the 200 plus years since his death so that Barlow’s actual grave is no longer in existence.

*However, shortly after his death a large stone memorial, written in Latin, was placed in the church. The memorial was arranged and paid for by Barlow’s wife, though she never had the opportunity to see it. At the same time, the family of Adam Pivowarski, the soldier whom Barlow saved, contributed to the plaque as well and saw that it was cared for.

*While working in Krakow in the 1990s my wife and I visited the church and found that the plaque was deteriorating; we arranged with the Polish Company that did a lot of work on the restoration of the Hatchepsut Temple in Egypt to re-do the plaque on a new stone. This was dedicated via a large ceremony at the church in Zarnowiec on May 4, 1996, presided by the America Consul General in Krakwow, Poland, Ms Mary Marshall.

*On June 23, 1996, Senator Joseph Lieberman introduced a three page appreciation of “Joel Barlow, Diplomat and Patriot” into the daily record of the U. S. Senate.

*At the same time, a group of Foreign Service Officers associated with DACOR under the guidance of Richard Parker, contributed funds for the placement of a monument to Joel Barlow in the church yard and was dedicated on June 28, 1998. DACOR also donated about $ 5,000 for needed repairs in the church itself.

*On the 250th Anniversary of Joel Barlow’s birth – March 24, 2004 – The Friends of the Woodrow Wilson House in the Kalorama section of the District of Columbia sponsored an exhibition, “Joel Barlow, The Sage of Kalorama: Patriot, Author and Diplomat.” The exhibition was co-sponsored by the French Ambassador to the United States and the United States Ambassador to France.

*The quotations are taken from the Barlow dispatches in the National Archives, and from Life and Letters of Joel Barlow: Poet, Statesman, Philosopher by C.B. Todd, 1886, Putnam. The author has also relied heavily on James Woodress’ book, A Yankee’s Odyssey; The Life of Joel Barlow 1958, Lippincott.”

This article is based on a Joel Barlow article in the November,1982 issue of STATE, the monthly mag of the US Department of State. Also a short commentary on Barlow was published in the 2009 in AMERICAN DIPLOMACY.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


William and Joan Sommers
William and Joan Sommers

William Sommers, a graduate of Middlebury College, along with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Littaeur Center ( known now as the JFK School), spent many years in local government operations in the United States and also, appended to that experience, worked overseas on local government development in Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Egypt, Poland, Hungary, Indonesia and Bosnia. Bill’s wife – Joan – was the stalwart in all of this, having graduated from the Chicago Art Institute, and in all the confusion of a life focused on moving and traveling, raised six children, and – at the same time – ingested the art values of every country in which the Sommers family lived and held art shows where ever they were stationed. While she is well known for her Chinese calligraphy and related paintings, she, nevertheless, took time to enhance Bill’s frequent articles on writers who had worked in the American diplomatic service – thus illustrating the likes of Hawthorne, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving and a host of others.

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