Joel Barlow

THE life of Joel Barlow 1 is a welcome addition to our historical literature, and Mr. Todd has done his work most creditably. The book is well written and well arranged, and the selections from the letters are made wisely, briefly, and with an evident eye for what is picturesque. It is not a little surprising that a writer who entirely deserves such high praise should at the same time be open to criticism for faults which seem utterly incompatible with the existence of so many real merits and excellent qualifications. This apparent contradiction can be explained only by the supposition that Mr. Todd has much literary aptitude, but is deficient in historical training and in a sense of historical proportion.

To explain what we mean, let us begin with the errors of oversight, for which every historical writer must feel a large charity, but which are altogether too serious here to be passed over in silence. On page 56, Mr. Todd says: “ The Continental Congress was then in session, in labor with the Constitution which made a nation of a group of warring and independent sovereignties.” Whatever that decrepit body, the Continental Congress, was in labor with in July, 1787, it certainly was not in labor with the Constitution. Another and far different body, which was sitting at that moment in Philadelphia, — not in New York, as Mr. Todd’s allusion suggests, — was engaged in the difficult task of forming our great charter.

Barlow may have addressed his ladylove in 1779 as “ ma amie,” but we doubt very much if he wrote in 1788 that he was staying at the “ Hôtel de l’Argle d’Or,” in Havre. We do not profess familiarity with the eighteenthcentury inns of that noted seaport, but we are strongly inclined to believe that Barlow stayed at the Aigle d’Or.

“ Sir Weldbare Ellis,” page 77, is intended, undoubtedly, for the Right Hon. Welbore Ellis, whose first wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Stanhope. If Barlow wrote it “ Weldbare,” Mr. Todd should have corrected it, or explained it in a note.

When Barlow, in 1793, took lodgings in the neighborhood of Paris, the suburb in which he dwelt was Meudon, not “ Mendon.” Again, in a letter (page 138) to his wife, dated on September 8, 1796, and written in French, he is made to say, according to Mr. Todd’s translation, “ Do not fail to withdraw my books from Relieur,” It is quite possible that there was a person of that name, but we cannot help wondering whether in reality Barlow did not ask his wife to withdraw his books from the binder (relieur). We feel quite certain that on a later occasion (page 194) he said “ the other side of the street bien entendu” and not “ bien entendre.”

On page 212, Mr. Todd, referring to a letter written by Abraham Baldwin, the brother of Mrs. Barlow and Senator from Georgia, says : “ This letter is almost the only memorial left us of the author of the famous instrument of 1787.” Mr. Baldwin was unquestionably a member of the constitutional convention, but to speak of him as the “ author” of the Constitution of the United States is absolutely grotesque. It can hardly be intended for a joke, and yet it seems incredible that any man in his senses should speak of Baldwin, by no means a very prominent or active member of the Philadelphia convention, as the “ author ” of the Constitution.

Let us now turn back to the preface, which, be it said, is very far from properly representing the value and genuine merit of the book, but which is, on the contrary, a model of loose statement. The first sentence is as follows : “ The great men of the post-revolutionary age were not, as a rule, versatile.” This is a singularly unlucky bit of generalization. Washington was soldier, statesman, planter, and a practical man of business ; Hamilton was soldier, statesman, orator, financier, and writer, in all departments eminent, in some unsurpassed ; Gallatin was statesman, debater, diplomatist, and in his old age a distinguished antiquarian and ethnologist; Marshall was soldier, statesman, lawyer, and judge; John Adams was orator, lawyer, statesman, and writer; Gouverneur Morris was statesman, financier, diplomatist, lawyer, orator, man of business. The list might be almost indefinitely extended, but the men of the first rank correctly represent those who come below. The one most striking quality of our early statesmen, in fact, was their versatility. Mr. Todd, having premised, however, that they were the reverse of versatile, then makes two exceptions, Franklin and Jefferson. The former’s versatility is so great and obvious that it could escape no one, and the latter formed no exception at all. If we leave out Madison, there was probably no man of that time who was so little versatile as Jefferson. He was statesman and politician, and nothing more. He was neither orator, writer, debater, nor soldier, like so many of his contemporaries, and his selection as an exception is as incorrect as the rule itself. Mr. Todd proves Jefferson’s versatility to his own satisfaction by calling him a “ philosopher.” The word is vague, but if we take it in its best sense of scientific thinker and metaphysician, Jefferson was as little of a philosopher as any man could be. The truth is that when Jefferson was in Paris every one who speculated on any subject, religion, government, balloons, newfangled ploughs, or what you please, was called a philosopher. It was part of the jargon of the time, and without any real significance. Thus Jefferson obtained his title on the same grounds it is here given to Barlow, and in both cases it means nothing except that both of them were fond of rather crude speculations upon a great variety of subjects, from the destiny of man down to mouldboards.

In thus following the preface we come to Barlow, and the very first statement shows perfectly that lack of a sense of historical proportion which constitutes the chief defect of the book. Mr. Todd says : “There was one, however, among this group of worthies (the great men of the post-revolutionary age) who excelled in at least three great departments of human effort, — in statesmanship, letters, and philosophy, — and whose practical talents were perhaps greater than those of any of his contemporaries. That man was Joel Barlow, the subject of these pages.” Here we find Barlow classed with Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Marshall, and the rest, and then are told that he had greater practical talents, perhaps, than any of them. It seems absurd to deal with such a statement seriously, and yet it is evidently not intended for irony. To begin with, Barlow was not a great man at all. He was a clever man, shrewd in business, facile in verse-making, and courageous and efficient as a diplomatist. He attained distinction, and merited it. He fills a niche in the history of his time, and his life well deserves writing; but this is all that can be said of him, because this is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Let us go on with the preface. “ His verse first gave American poetry a standing abroad.” Barlow was probably the first American, when the colonial days were over, who wrote verses which were read abroad, but the standing thus gained for American poetry is a very uncertain quantity. “ His prose writing contributed largely to the triumph of republicanism in 1800.” This is, of course, purely a matter of conjecture. “ He was the first American cosmopolite, and twice made use of his position to avert from his country a threatened foreign war.” He may have filled the somewhat strange position of the first American cosmopolite, and he certainly bought a peace with the Dey of Algiers, but his part in averting war with France at the close of the eighteenth century was a very small one. “ He was the godfather of the steamboat and canal, and sponsor with Jefferson of our present magnificent system of internal improvements.” He was the friend and patron of Robert Fulton, but his connection with our system of canals is so slight that it cannot be detected. As to internal improvements, they had been suggested by Washington and advocated by Hamilton long before the first appropriation of money in Jefferson’s second term; and even in regard to that appropriation Barlow’s influence does not appear. His “grand idea of a national university ” was a favorite one with Washington, and had been urged by him in his messages.

The observations which we have been led to make by the exaggerated statements of the preface leave but little more to be said as to Barlow himself and his place in our history. He was a clever boy, and he grew up to be a clever man. He wrote verses when in college, tried preaching as an army chaplain, made various other experiments, and then drifted abroad as the agent of the Scioto Land Company. The manner in which he “ placed ” this scheme in France forms the one discreditable action of his life. He was selling a wilderness in Ohio, and he described it in a circular as a species of Paradise, and among other things as a region where frost was almost unknown. The representations of the circular were false, and there is every reason to suspect that the same delusive promises were made orally. Mr. Todd attempts no defense of Barlow’s conduct in this matter, from which it may fairly be concluded that no defense is possible. The affair ended miserably. The unfortunate emigrants found themselves without any title to the lands which had served as a bait to draw them to America, and were finally relieved, after much distress and weary waiting, by the interposition of Congress. The company failed wretchedly and disgracefully, dragging down Colonel Duer, Hamilton’s friend and the chief promoter, as well as many others, to utter ruin.

Barlow seems to have been almost the only one of those concerned in this luckless speculation who escaped scotfree. He remained in France, and addressed himself to making his own fortune, a task in which he succeeded extremely well. Money-getting, however, formed only a small part of his occupations, for he was full of restless energy. He was carried away by the strong current of the French Revolution, and undertook to revolutionize England, by which he gained considerable temporary notoriety, but nothing else. He became a citizen of France, and sought an election to the assembly, but without success. He appears, in fact, to have been perfectly indifferent, at this period, as to the politics into which he plunged, provided they were revolutionary and turbulent, and he was brimful of all the visionary ideas which then swarmed in Paris. His utter failure to comprehend the real meaning of the French Revolution, or to distinguish between the forces at work in France and those in the United States, reveals the lightness of mind which was his chief defect.

In 1796 he went to Algiers, to endeavor to buy a treaty, and to release the unfortunate Americans who were prisoners in that nest of cut-throats. He succeeded perfectly in both objects, and displayed in so doing great tact and a high and patient courage which was equally proof against peril from a bloodthirsty ruler and from a devastating plague. His whole conduct during this mission redounds to his honor and that of his country.

He returned to the United States in 1805, and took up his residence in Washington, where he led a very pleasant life and kept open house, He was intimate with Jefferson and Madison and all the democratic leaders ; and when they had fallen victims to the arts of Napoleon, and were being tricked into a war with England, Barlow was selected to go as minister to France, and try to unravel the tangled skein of our relations with that country. There can be little doubt, judging from his conduct in Algiers, that he would have attained all the success possible, under the circumstances, had his life been spared. But the fates were against him from the start.

In the bustle of preparation for the Russian expedition, Napoleon had no time to spare in Paris for the American minister. Then the Emperor sent for Barlow to join him at Wilna on the eve of the march to Moscow. To Wilna Barlow accordingly went, and there he waited while the empire tottered to its fall amid the snows of Russia. When all was over, Napoleon left the remnants of his great army and fled to Paris, and Barlow followed him at once, but fell ill by the way from fatigue and exposure, and died in a little Polish village, struggling to the last to do his duty. It was a sad end for such a man, full of bravery and patriotism, and earnest in his zeal to serve his country.

Barlow’s public life, although very creditable, was neither long continued nor important in results. He is chiefly interesting to-day as a rather striking figure in the society of the time and in our literary history. His contributions to literature have in themselves no particular merit. He wrote some vigorous controversial papers, and was master of a pleasant prose style, but his pamphlets have retired to the store-houses of history, and are read only by students. It was to verse, however, not to prose, that he looked for fame and remembrance. He regarded himself as a great poet, and as such wished to be held in recollection; but his poetry is unread and forgotten. It is not surprising that he felt as he did, for he had a lofty idea of his own importance, and indeed of his greatness in all respects, which crops out in his letters with a most amusing frankness. With such a disposition, it was a matter of course that he should place a high value on his performances, which were extolled both at home and abroad, in a way which it is difficult now to understand. Mr. Todd says that the Vision of Columbus met with high favor at the hands of the “ Parisian raconteurs,” which is no doubt true, although we cannot conjecture how their opinion was obtained, or why they should be selected by Mr. Todd as the literary arbiters of the day. It is at all events certain that Barlow’s poems were widely read and extravagantly praised on both sides of the water. This arose, in the one case, probably, because we then had nothing that could be called either literature or poetry; and in the other, because Europe regarded an American poet as Swift did the parrot: “ The bird does not talk well; the wonder is that he talks at all.”

Barlow was not a poet. He wrote graceful verses with much facility, but they have neither imagination nor originality. The Columbiad, which belongs to the school of Pope in its extreme decadence, is a dreary, didactic poem, written according to a set plan previously drawn up, like a lawyer’s brief. An early poem, written to celebrate Burgoyne’s defeat, is a pale reflection of Dryden. His Hasty Pudding, the best of his more ambitious poems, is a mock heroic of Pope’s school also, and is not without merit. But all alike are echoes, more or less distinct, of the work of other men acting on a quick and impressionable mind. Some short, occasional poems are really the best things Barlow ever wrote, and have both ease and grace. The chief value of his work, and of that of the little literary coterie at Hartford to which he belonged, lies in the fact that it forms a starting-point in the development of our national literature. The historian and the collector will read the Columbiad, — the former in the way of business, and the latter because he loves handsome folios ; but no one else will wade through those heavy lines.

In this way, as an early figure in our literary history, Barlow has a claim upon us ; but he has a much stronger claim as a witty and cultivated man of the world, an agreeable letter-writer, and a successful and bold diplomatist during the brief time that he held office. As we said at the outset, his life well deserved writing, and after all deductions are made a very real debt of gratitude is due to Mr. Todd for a spirited biography, and for well-chosen selections from the interesting material at his disposal.

  1. Life and Letters of Joel Barlow, LL. D. By CHARLES BURR TODD. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1886.