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Redding, Connecticut's Famous People: Joel Barlow  

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Anna Hyatt Huntington, Charles Ives, Edward Steichen, Mark Twain

Joel Barlow

"Joel Barlow, Diplomat and Patriot" presented to the U.S. Senate on June 23, 1996 by Senator Joseph Lieberman

Mr. Lieberman: Mr. President, I rise to honour one of America's earliest diplomats and a distinguished native of Connecticut, Joel Barlow. On June 28, in a modest ceremony, a bronze biographical tablet will be dedicated to Barlow in the churchyard of the tiny village of Zarnowiec, Poland, where Barlow died and was laid to rest in 1812. The event is organized and the tablet donated by the Joel Barlow Memorial Fund, in cooperation with the American Center of Polish Culture and DACOR, Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired (of the U.S. State Department).

Joel Barlow was born in 1754 and raised in Redding, Connecticut. His ancestors were among the earliest settlers of the region. After graduating from Yale University in 1778, he took an additional Divinity course and joined George Washington's army as a chaplain, serving for three years until the end of the Revolution. He slipped home from his army duties long enough to marry Ruth Baldwin, the sister of a Yale classmate. They married in secret because of her father's initial objection.

At the close of the war in 1782, the couple moved to Hartford, where Barlow helped publish the magazine 'American Mercury', writing political pamphlets, satires, and poetry. He was one of a group of satirical writers, mostly Yale men, known as the 'Hartford Wits'. At that time, he also completed and published the first version of his American verse epic, 'The Vision of Columbus.' It is said that in this work, he was the first writer in English to use the words: 'civil', 'civic' and civilization' in their modern senses. He also envisioned a future international council very much like today's United Nations, dedicated to peacekeeping, cultural exchange, and development of the arts.

In 1786, Barlow studied law and was admitted to the Bar. He worked as a promoter for the Scioto Land Company. In 1788, Barlow went to Paris to promote the sale of the Scioto Land, a huge tract of Ohio wilderness opened by the government for settlement, to European emigrants. A large group of bourgeois French refugees traveled to Ohio to settle in the land, but the American promoters had not made any preparations for their reception, and they met terrible privations in the wilderness. By the time Ruth joined her husband in Paris in 1790, American organizers of the Scioto company were exposed as profiteering frauds; Barlow, however, was proven innocent. The colony, called Gallipolis, survived despite the hardships, but Barlow's reputation with his countrymen had been seriously damaged.

Barlow was in Paris during the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He was a friend of Thomas Paine and other Revolutionary sympathizers, English and American. He wrote his major tract 'Advice to the Privileged Orders' and his verse-satire 'The Conspiracy of Kings' in London, where he and Ruth had gone to avoid the Jacobin disorders. The 'Advice' so offended the British government that it banned the book and tried to arrest Barlow, who fled into hiding in Paris. His 'Letter to the National Convention of France,' a proposal for a new French constitution, so impressed the Assembly delegates that in 1792, they made him an honorary citizen of the new Republic, an honour he shared with Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Paine. In the final throes of the Terror, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, Barlow was in southeast France helping organize the Savoy, newly captured from Italy, as a political division of the new Republic.

Fluent in French, sympathetic to the Republic, and successful in business, the Barlows were popular with the reformers and intelligentsia, as well as such scientific innovators as the balloonist Montgolfier. They were also close to Robert Fulton, who arrived in France in 1797, and worked for some years on prototypes of his steamboat, torpedo boat, and other engineering projects. Fulton later did the illustrations for a large, handsome second version of Barlow's epic, heavily revised and retitled 'The Columbiad', published in Philadelphia in 1807.

In 1796, during Washington's second term, Barlow resolved our first hostage crisis. He was sent to Algiers as consul to help with implementation of our peace treaty with that state and to secure the release of over one hundred American seaman, some of whom had been held captive by Algerian corsairs since 1785. This required great patience and diplomatic skill on his part, not to mention payments of substantial sums to local officials, but he succeeded where others failed. He stayed on as consul for a year after the hostages were freed before returning to Paris in 1797.

After 18 years abroad, the Barlows returned to America in 1805, hoping to spend the rest of their lives at home. Thomas Jefferson wanted Barlow to write an American History, and in 1807, at Jefferson's urging, the Barlows moved to a house and small estate in Washington that Barlow named Kalorama, 'beautiful view' in Greek. However, in 1811, President James Madison appointed Barlow as Minister to France. His task was to negotiate for compensation for French damages to American shipping and to make a trade treaty. Reluctant, but always ready to serve his country, Barlow took his wife, as well as his nephew Thomas as secretary, and returned to France in 1811. Once there, however, Barlow met nothing but delays because of Napoleon's wars in Europe.

Finally, the Emperor, engaged in a winter campaign against Russia, summoned Barlow to meet with him in Poland, in Wilna (now Vilinius). But the French armies were utterly defeated by the Russians and the winter. Napoleon fled south, ignoring his appointment. With Thomas, his staff, and other diplomats, Barlow fled through the freezing weather toward Germany to escape the pursuing Cossacks, missing Napoleon, who hurried straight to France. Barlow died of pneumonia in Zarnowiec, between Warsaw and Krakow, on December 24, 1812. (There is a disagreement about the date; the existing church tablet in Poland gives it as December 26.) It took his nephew more than two weeks to bring news of his death to Ruth in Paris, and it was three months before the news reached America. Joel Barlow was mourned widely in France, but back home, President Madison was more distressed by the loss of the treaty than of the man. Perhaps this diplomat, patriot, and man of letters had stayed away for too long.

Life and letters of Joel Barlow, LL.D., poet, statesman, philosopher, with extracts from his works and hitherto unpublished poems by Charles Burr Todd

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