March 24: Joel Barlow, The Popular Poet Who Died A Distant Death


Joel Barlow, American poet and one of Connecticut’s most ambitious — albeit not always successful — learned men of the late-18th century, was born today in 1754 in the western Connecticut town of Redding. As a member of the Yale class of 1778, the bright young man found himself surrounded by an impressive crowd of scholars who would each make their mark on early American society: Noah Webster, creator of the first American dictionary; famous educator Timothy Dwight; future Revolutionary War general and entrepreneur David Humphreys; and aspiring poet John Trumbull (not to be confused with his cousin, the famous American painter of the same name).

While at Yale, Barlow developed a love and talent for literature, most notably poetry, and presented his first published poem as part of his graduation ceremony in 1778. Unlike many of his more-famous colleagues, however, Barlow struggled to find his place in the rapidly changing world of Early America. Brief stints as a Continental Army chaplain, bookseller, newspaper publisher, and lawyer all met with failure. Finally, Barlow took a promising job as a paid agent for a company selling parcels of land in the Ohio territory, traveling overseas to entice European investors, only later to discover that the company was a sham corporation that didn’t legally own any of the land it claimed to have.

A bust of Joel Barlow by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, circa 1804. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In the midst of this series of frustrating professional endeavors, Barlow found solace in writing poetry, which he shared with a close-knit group of friends and fellow Yale graduates that came to be known as the “Hartford Wits.” The group, which included Barlow, Dwight, Humphreys, Trumbull, and a handful of other men, collectively wrote, shared, edited, and published some of the greatest and uniquely American literary works of the late-18th century. Barlow was one of the most active members of the Hartford Wits, contributing plenty of his own poetry to a collective catalog of several volumes with verses that ranged from biting satirical verses about Tories and aristocrats, to sweeping historical epics, and paeans to Enlightenment ideals. Barlow’s most famous work, the multi-volume epic The Vision of Columbus, became one of the United States’ first national bestsellers, and he enjoyed widespread success with other poems as well, including Conspiracy of Kings and The Hasty Pudding.

Barlow continued to pen poetry and even tried his hand at political essays — some of which were radical enough to be banned in Great Britain — in the midst of increasing global tensions at the turn of the 19th century. A supporter of the French Revolution, he aligned himself politically with the Democratic Republican politicians in America, who bestowed a number of diplomatic posts on the writer while the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe. After traveling extensively through northern Africa and western Europe in an attempt to promote and protect the economic interests of the young United States, Barlow passed away from pneumonia in 1812 while traveling through Poland in a futile attempt to hold a diplomatic meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte . His death in a distant land proved an anticlimactic end to a life full of promise and poetry, that began today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Joel Barlow, “The Vision of Columbus [Annotated Version],” National Humanities Center

Franklin Bowditch Dexter, “Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, Vol. IV: Joel Barlow,” via Google Books

Steve Courtney, “Hartford Wits — Or Were They?Hartford Courant