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A habitual disuse of physical forces totally destroys the moral; and men lose at once the power of protecting themselves, and of discerning the cause of their oppression… Joel Barlow

On the one hand the young Joel Barlow was a full of the crank ideas of the state of nature as any of the deists of the so called enlightenment. You need only look to his epic poem to confirm his inadequate grasp of things of the intellect:  Although the original inhabitants of America in general deserve to be classed among the most unimproved savages that have ever been discovered… On the contrary, the establishments of Manco Capac [Manco Capac, the traditional founder of the Inca monarchy of Peru, was according to legend the father of the sun, sent to unify, civilize, and rule the Indians of Peru with his sister and wife, Mama Occlo Huaco] carry the marks of a most benevolent and pacific system; they tended to humanize the world and render his people happy; while his ideas of the Deity were so perfect, as to bear a comparison with the enlightened doctrines of Socrates or Plato. While it may be full of the sort of ramblings we would expect of the age it does contain some more than harsh words for the native Americans which must have helped justify his land speculations by allowing him to infer the importance of the task which a legislator undertakes, in attempting to reduce a barbarous people under the control of government and laws.


Of course Barlow – whatever his philosophical bent may have been – was a hard headed business man when it came to selling the lands under his brokerage or in negotiating trade deals. From the founding until the beginning of the Civil War tariffs accounted for most of the federal government’s budget [a high of 97.9% in 1825 as opposed to less than 2% currently].  Of course all the federal government was attempting to do was to pay its operating expenses and to redeem at full value the debts  accumulated during the Revolution. As the north developed industry – in part to combat French and British blockades – the idea of protective tariffs came into play and although these tended to protect the industrial north they were damaging to the agrarian south. You can almost read poll numbers in the tariff rates between 1815 and 1860 and Barlow’s greatest accomplishment was as an advocate of free trade for the South.

If you ignore the superimposition of The Vision of Columbus and pay attention to the diplomatic accomplishments and economic considerations of the early Republic this is a worthwhile book that shows that not only was the division between north and South about issues other than slavery but that the limitation of the role of the federal government and how we pay for it is certainly worth revisiting from a historical perspective.

Joel Barlow : American diplomat and nation builder  Peter P. Hill  Washington, D.C. : Potomac Books, c 2012  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing.  271 p. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 215-256) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

Joel Barlow was the early Republic’s most tenacious diplomat, a cheerful volunteer for difficult missions. His hard-won treaties with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli ended, at least briefly, the attacks of Barbary pirates on American shipping in the Mediterranean. And on the eve of the War of 1812, President Madison sent him to France, where he subsequently won important wartime concessions from Napoleon.


Young Barlow wrote his epic poem The Vision of Columbus while serving as an army chaplain fresh out of Yale University. He later sold Western lands to French émigrés, ran for a seat in the French National Assembly, escaped the Terror, and ultimately made his fortune as a cargo broker. His ties with the Jeffersonian’s and longtime familiarity with the Paris political scene made him Madison’s logical choice to keep the peace by trying to win enough concessions from France to demand the same of Britain.


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