Literature during the American
Revolution and Joel Barlow
“In establishing American independence the
pen and the press had merit equal to that
of the sword.”
-The History of the American Revolution (1789)
Pamphlets and Newspapers
• The pamphlet was the most important
method for spreading propaganda during
the Revolution. They were easier to print,
more cost effective, quicker, and less likely
to be prosecuted for libel than
• The newspaper was also an important
form of propaganda.
• In both pamphlets and newspapers the Loyalists were at
a disadvantage as far as production. Between 1774 and
1783 there were between 25 and 42 newspapers that
circulated. Of these only 5-8 were Loyalist in affiliation.
• In 1775 12 pamphlets out of 25 were Loyalist. In 1776
that number decreased to only 2 out of 26.
• Poetry was often embedded into these
pamphlets and newspapers either in
completion or often times as short catchy
phrases as satire.
• “Undrawn, unbroken, and unpryed,
Unfelt, unsmelt, untasted, and uneyed.
Unboil'd, unbaked, untoasted and unfried,
Protecting them from all abuse
And keeping them unus'd for use.”
-from Connecticut Gazette concerning the securing of the
first shipment of stamps on an island off the Boston Harbor until the
uproar from citizens died down.
• “Verse was the servant of morality and
politics, capable of making their precepts
‘more deeply felt and more lastingly
Joel Barlow
Barlow understood the use of verse as a
tool for getting a point across and
remembering it later. In The HastyPudding he writes, “with molasses line
the luscious treat / And mix, like
Bards, the useful with the sweet.”
Many writers felt that poetry had the
same patriotic work to do in America
as it had done in classical eras.
Barlow rewrote his poem Vision of
Columbus as The Columbiad in an
attempt to rival the Iliad and the
Aeneid and provide America with a
heroic narrative.
Joel Barlow
• Biographical Information
Barlow family came over from England to New England in the midseventeenth century. He grew up on a large farm in Connecticut
which he remembered later in life as a continuous round of chores
“from morn to noon, from noon to night.”
He attended Dartmouth College in 1773 and then Yale in 1774. The
Yale curriculum during Barlow's student days consisted of the study
of classical languages, mathematics, natural philosophy, and
religion. Students recited, in Latin, Cicero's orations and parts of
Virgil's Aeneid.
In his freshman year at Yale some students boycotted British-taxed tea,
the college malitia provided George Washington an escort as they
passed through New Haven.
In his sophmore year the college community had read and endorsed
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
He volunteered with the governor of Connecticut issued a call to arms
to defend Long Island and New York. The battle was lost and Barlow
returned to college life at the end of the summer.
Due to financial strain from the war at Yale, Barlow graduated after only
four months of his last year.
While at Yale he wrote a few mock-epics and found encouragement for
his poetry. He valued Lord Kame’s Elements of Criticism (1762)
which integrated ideas on art with those on morality and ethics and
followed his poetry as moral guidance convictions in his later life.
He was named class poet and at graduation read The Prospect of
Peace (1778) which contained optimistic views about America’s
After graduation he taught school and attended Yale as a graduate
student since he was unable to find work as a writer.
In 1780 he accepted the position as chaplain for the Third Massachusetts
Brigade which allowed him time to visit acquaintances and work on
his poetry.
He was invited to dinner by George Washington after Washington heard a
sermon Barlow preached on patriotism after the disclosure of
Benedict Arnold’s treason.
He became secretly engaged to Ruth Baldwin in 1779 and later married
her in 1781.
In 1788 he went to France as an agent of the Scioto Land Company who
unlawfully sold land to immigrants. He was unaware of this fraudulent
venture and was later exonerated of blame.
He spent several years abroad and helped Thomas Paine publish The Age
of Reason while he was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror.
He became a citizen of France in 1792, and when the republican
government fell he amassed a fortune by shipping goods to France.
In 1796 he accepted the role as consul to help persuade the ruler of
Algiers to honor a treaty with America that stipulated that America be
free from piracy in the Mediterranean, have rights to Algiers ports, and
the release of American prisoners who were enslaved and tortured.
In 1801 a letter written by Barlow to his brother about his concerns that
the Federalist government would cause a confrontation between
France and America was published and Barlow was considered by
many a traitor. When the Jefferson presidency began his reputation
was restored (Jefferson and Barlow were old friends) and he returned
to America.
He purchased an estate in Washington D.C. named Kalorama.
In 1811 he was asked to travel to France by President Madison in order to
negotiate a treaty with Napoleon to bring America and France closer
allies. He never made it due a retreat of the French Army where he was
at and died from exposure in a village in Poland.
The Columbiad (1807) is based on Barlow’s poem The Vision of
Columbus. It combines his engineering activism with his the millennial
conviction that America must be guided through its transformation to
the New Earth.
*American Millennialism held that the thousand years of peace would
originate in America and the colonists were responsible for site
In The Columbiad Barlow secularizes the “American Millennialism” by
replacing the Christian themes with political ones…for example…the
Christian trinity is replaced with a “holy triad” of “equality, free
election, and a federal band.”
By writing The Columbiad he hoped to “‘encourage and strengthen’
republican institutions in the new nation in order ultimately to improve
‘the condition of human nature.’”
His purpose was both “moral and political…this is the moment in America
to implant true and useful ideas of glory…and give direction to poetry,
painting, and the other fine arts.”
Many readers found the epic poem very pretensious and it was not very
well received.
Olson, Allison Gilbert. Political Humor, Deference, and the American
Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal - Volume 3, Number 2,
Fall 2005, pp. 363-382
Joel Barlow. Gale Literary Database Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Literature during the American Revolution and Joel Barlow