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Joel Barlow and the New Franco-American Alliance (by Dr. Wil Verhoeven)

Date:28 April 2014
The painting 'Surrender of Lord Cornwallis' by John Trumbull
The painting 'Surrender of Lord Cornwallis' by John Trumbull

Over the past few decades, America’s founding father biography industry has churned out hundreds and hundreds of accounts of the lives of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Dutifully reiterating the familiar feats of the men who declared America independent and framed its Constitution, these biographers ritualistically pay homage to the prescriptive teleology of the founding myth of the American nation. Even those who were initially excluded from the founders’ hall of fame (such as Aaron Burr and James Wilkinson), were later inducted to it through the back door, under such exonerating epithets as “fallen founders,” “forgotten founders,” “secret founders,” as well as “other founders,” “black founders,” and, of course, “founding mothers.”

Portrait of Joel Barlow by Charles Willson Peale (1807)

I believe the main reason why Joel Barlow has not so far made it into the Elysium of founders is that he is something of a misfit in American historical biography. That is to say: his was not the sort of life that can easily be squeezed into the sanctioned mold of the founder biography. Barlow was a man of many talents, which he displayed in a wide range of seemingly incompatible interests and activities. At various points in his life he was a poet (the celebrated author of The Vision of Columbus), army chaplain, land speculator, social reformer, political writer, advisor to the French Revolutionary government, member of the National Convention, rogue trader, blockade runner, patron of the arts, promoter of submarine navigation, and U.S. diplomat to France and the Barbary States. Like American liberty and political thought itself, Barlow’s life was a maze of polar contradictions, winding in and out of each other in virtually inextricable ways: pragmatism and absolutism; optimism and pessimism; materialism and idealism; individualism and conformism. America’s social freedom and social equality are as complex as human nature itself, and hence escape both simplicity and unity. The same is true for Barlow. It is not even immediately apparent whether he was American patriot, or an enemy of the state. Thus, while we know many of the pieces of Barlow’s life story, previous biographers have found it hard to synthesize them into a coherent whole.

This paper is the first attempt to connect all of the dots in Barlow’s remarkably motley life story. The loadstar in Barlow’s life was his unwavering conviction that a “perfect liberty of commerce is among the most indubitable rights of man, and . . . the best policy of nations.” Deeply influenced by American republicanism and French physiocracy, Barlow held the view that free commerce is a pre-condition for political reform and the perfectibility of society. According to Barlow, governments had the moral duty to do everything in their power to encourage free trade between people and nations. Eliminating wealth-destroying wars and lifting monopolies and trade barriers would stimulate a system of free commerce that would allow individuals to exercise their physical and moral power to accumulate assets for the benefit of society at large. The middle class, in whom the spirit of free enterprise naturally resides, was therefore best positioned to coerce both the privileged and the lowers orders of society to conform to the system of free commerce. Hence, Barlow hailed the French Revolution for having definitively broken the stranglehold the privileged orders had held on the economic and political systems in France. By reinstating mankind’s natural right to the means of subsistence, the French Revolution had rendered a lasting service to the world.

By contrast, Barlow felt that the American Revolution was losing direction and momentum. In his view, the Jay Treaty (1794) was symptomatic of American republicanism having lost its way: not so much because closer ties with the former colonizer threatened to undercut republicanism, but mainly because he believed that the Washington administration had made a grave error of judgment in overestimating the strength of Britain (which was facing bankruptcy and deep social unrest) and underestimating that of France (whose revolutionary armies had begun to advance in Europe). Rather than tying the future of the union closer to Britain’s selfish and arrogant interests, the United States would do far better to pursue a new strategic alliance with France. This set Barlow off on a career as a self-appointed American ambassador to France. Even during the Reign of Terror Barlow remained an apologist for the French Revolution and did everything in his power to be broker of peace and reconciliation between France and the United States. The French Revolution might have slid into tyranny under Robespierre’s repressive government, but Barlow was hopeful that in due course the butchers would fall by their own knives. Besides, his immediate concern was that France’s bid for liberty, equality and fraternity was being undermined by an international coalition of hostile powers. The best hope for republicanism and natural rights to regain force in France was to help the nation hold its own against its despotic enemies. Britain’s trade blockade against France and its interference with neutral American shipping in his eyes constituted not merely an attack on the freedom of trade, but on liberty itself. Hence, under the cloak of America’s neutrality, Barlow volunteered to set up an extensive clandestine import business to feed the famished French population and equip and arm the country’s swelling revolutionary armies.

While publically denouncing his politics, privately the Federalist administration exploited Barlow’s good standing in France as political middleman. In 1795 he was asked to take on the toughest assignment in the young republic’s diplomatic history: negotiating the release of 115 U.S. sailors held captive by Barbary pirates at Algiers and obtaining a peace treaty with the three Barbary States to prevent future piracy. Barlow miraculously achieved both objectives. The fact that the U.S. government agreed to pay just under 1 million dollars in ransom money and peace tributes (or one sixth of the entire annual U.S. budget) speaks to the key strategic importance of Barlow’s diplomatic mission to the Barbary States.

In an open letter to the American people (1799), Barlow offered what is perhaps the most apt description of himself: “With respect to men, I am of no party; with respect to principle, I am a republican in theory and practice; notwithstanding the disgrace into which that principle seems to have fallen in America. I consider it my unalienable right, as well as my indispensable duty, to render a service to you wherever I find occasion. . . And I shall not relinquish this right, nor neglect this duty, whoever may be the men, and whatever the party, to whom you may choose to delegate your powers.” At the heart of his unconditional service to his country was Barlow’s unremitting endeavour to establish a new Franco-American alliance. As “a volunteer in the cause of humanity,” he was convinced that between them, the United States and France held the key to universal prosperity, global peace, and, what he called, the wholesale “renovation of society.”

In fact, if I were to be pushed to sum up the life of Joel Barlow in a single caption, it would be precisely this: “a volunteer in the cause of humanity.” He would continue to serve the American people and the cause for liberty and international peace until his death. At a time when the country, weakened by the Embargo Act of 1807, was inexorably being drawn into the internecine conflict between Britain and France, President Madison—despite fierce opposition from the Senate—sent Barlow off on a mission to negotiate an all-important commercial treaty with Napoleon. Caught up in the disastrous retreat of the remnants of the French army from Russia, Barlow was overcome by hypothermia and exhaustion and died on Boxing Day, 1812, at the Polish village of ┼╗arnowiec. There his remains rest until today. The United States has yet to recognize—and repatriate—one of its unsung founders.