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Review by Francis P. Sempa

Joel Barlow: American Diplomat and Nation Builder by Peter P. Hill, Potomac Books, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-1-59797-682-4, 271 pp., $34.95.

Joel Barlow strove to be America’s epic poet, but circumstances determined that instead he would become what biographer Peter P. Hill calls a “diplomat and nation builder.” Hill’s new biography of this neglected figure of the early years of the American republic is a work of scholarship and erudition. It vividly brings to life the complex character of Barlow and the interesting diplomatic era in which he operated to further U.S. interests.

Barlow was born in Redding, Connecticut, and attended Dartmouth and Yale during the mid-1770s, just as the American Revolution was gaining full steam. Hill notes that Barlow served briefly as a Connecticut volunteer in General Washington’s army that retreated from Long Island. Barlow also served as an army chaplain and delivered sermons that were well received by Washington and his officers. He wanted, however, to be a poet not a clergyman, and after the war he began to write his first epic poem which was subsequently published as The Vision of Columbus.  Barlow also started a literary weekly called the American Mercury which “provided a useful vehicle for his occasional poetry.”

Poetry, however, did not pay the bills so Barlow studied for the Connecticut bar and entered politics, winning election to the New Haven Common Council in 1786.  Barlow also joined a group of writers, the Hartford Wits, who Hill describes as “like-minded law-and-order satirists” that supported a “stronger central government to defend against the political unrest brought on by the sharp economic depression of the mid-1780s.”

In what Hill describes as the sorriest chapter in Barlow’s life, in 1787 the would-be poet joined an Ohio real estate company that enticed French emigres to buy land west of the Allegheny Mountains. Barlow traveled to Paris as the company’s European representative. When the French Revolution broke out, the number of potential French emigres increased, and Barlow’s company sold land to hundreds of them. By 1790, the company was in financial ruins, apparently the victim of embezzlers. Although not implicated personally, Barlow’s company effectively defrauded the French emigres. Barlow’s career in real estate was over.

Barlow was one of many Americans who strongly supported the goals of the French Revolution. In July 1789, he joined in a letter congratulating the French National Assembly for its early efforts to dismantle the “ancien regime.” He wrote political tracts advising other European countries to follow France’s lead and recommended amendments to France’s new constitution. He even flirted with a scheme to help the French gain back control of Louisiana, leading Hill to question his judgment if not his patriotism.

As the Revolution turned to terror and France went to war with Britain, Barlow joined with other Americans to act as purchasing agents for a French commission headed by Robespierre. He subsequently moved to Hamburg and opened a brokerage office which made him financially successful and secure. Hill suggests that Barlow rationalized his profiting from the Terror because France was “battling the forces of European monarchism.”

Barlow returned to Paris and was given his first assignment as a diplomat in 1795 when he successfully negotiated with the dey of Algeria for the release of more than a hundred American seaman who had been captured and held by the Barbary pirates. He followed-up that success by completing treaties with the other Barbary powers, Tripoli and Tunis. Barlow, writes Hill, “was working to make American commerce safe from North African predators . . .”  Hill describes the persistence, patience, and sheer cunning of Barlow that enabled him to succeed where others had failed. As so often in international diplomacy, however, success was only temporary. In 1801, Tripoli declared war on the United States and Barbary piracy continued to plague U.S. merchant ships for another fifteen years.

Meanwhile, U.S.-French relations were taking a turn for the worse. France’s seizure of American merchant ships and the so-called XYZ affair set the stage for what some have called a “Quasi-War” with France. Hill explains that the Adams administration abrogated previous treaties with France, established a navy department, suspended commerce and authorized the seizure of French warships.

Barlow was critical of the Federalists’ hostility toward France and began to seek ways to settle the growing dispute. He urged both American statesmen and France’s Directory to end the undeclared naval war and reaffirm the principle of “free ships, free goods.” Eventually, Napoleon ended the Quasi-War by signing the Treaty of Montfontaine in 1800.

Barlow remained in Paris for five more years. He believed, writes Hill, that Napoleon’s rise to power was a “passing phenomenon, a retrograde blip in humanity’s march toward a more rationally ordered future.” He continued to work on another epic poem which would be published in 1807 as The Columbiad. This poem, writes Hill, “prophesied universal peace.” Ironically, as he was completing this work, the Napoleonic Wars raged in Europe and U.S. shipping and seamen were targeted by both Britain and France in their ongoing global struggle for supremacy.

At home, Barlow settled in Washington, promoted the idea of a national educational academy, suggested the possibility of submarine warfare, and advocated that Congress fund public infrastructure improvements. He also watched closely as U.S. relations with Britain and France deteriorated due to the seizure of American ships and seamen by both countries and Congress’ reaction in passing the Embargo Act and Non-Intercourse Act.

By 1811, the United States was headed toward war with Britain and France.  President James Madison appointed Barlow minister plenipotentiary to France in an effort to resolve the country’s dispute with Napoleon. Barlow traveled on the U.S.S. Constitution to Cherbourg, then by land to Paris. He proposed a wide-ranging commercial treaty with France, had audiences with Napoleon, and threatened to reopen commerce with Britain if France rejected his treaty offer.

Hill describes the events in the Spring of 1812 that drastically altered the diplomatic scene within which Barlow had to operate. Congress declared war on Britain and fell a few votes short of simultaneously declaring war on France. Napoleon launched his massive invasion of Russia. Barlow, nevertheless, forged ahead, negotiating  a commercial treaty and maritime claims convention with French officials that he brought with him on what turned out to be his final mission—to Napoleon’s winter headquarters at Wilna.

Barlow arrived at Wilna just in time to see Napoleon’s army in full retreat. He gradually realized that a meeting with the emperor was unlikely and decided to return to Paris. He made it as far as Zarnovic (in present day Slovakia) where he developed a cold, fell into a coma, and died on December 17, 1812.

Hill overstates Barlow’s role as a “founding father” and “nation-builder”— Barlow was neither. Barlow’s diplomatic accomplishments in the area of Franco-American relations, while not insignificant, were not pivotal or long-lasting. His contributions to the growing national spirit of early America were quite limited. Like some other notable Americans of his day, he gloried in the “spirit” of the French Revolution, believing in the inevitable progress of “mankind” even as he witnessed the worst of the Terror. Hill’s final verdict on Barlow, however, is fair and accurate—he was a useful diplomat and a faithful servant of his country.End.

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.

Francis Sempa
Francis Sempa

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey Through the Second World War, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, and America’s Global Role.  He has written articles and reviews on historical and international topics for Joint Force Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Strategic Review, the University Bookman, National Review, Human Rights Review, and American Diplomacy.  He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a Contributing Editor to American Diplomacy.

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