Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To Mercy Otis Warren

From Richard Henry Lee

To John Adams from Joel Barlow, 12 December 1785 Barlow, Joel Adams, John
From Joel Barlow
Sir Hartford Dec 12 1785

My friend Mr Trumbull has done me the honour to mention my name to you in a letter which is herewith enclosed. The Poem 33 which he mentions is likewise forwarded thro’ the hands of Col—Humphrey to Doct Price with an assgnment of the Copy Right. I have requested the Doctor to use his discretion in procuring an impression & disposing of the copy-Right. Out of the first impression I wish to have about one thousand copies to supply the subscribers in this country, & that whatever subscribers Col Humphrey my obtain in Paris may likwise be supplied from that impression. Your known attachment to the liberal arts & your knowledge of the difficulties we labour under in this respect in our early stage of society in America, give me the confidence to address you on the subject. Should you deem it worthy of your attention I beg you would suggest to Doct Price some method in which it may be brought forward to advantage. I am, like most other poor Poets, in circumstances which require my attention to the profits of a performance, which has cost me considerable labour, & in which I have attempted the advancement of literature & human happiness.1

As the Poem is dedicated by permission to the king of France & his name will probably give it some advantage, I am at a loss whether there would be an impropriety in causing a copy to be presented to the Emperor of Germany & another to the Empress of Russia, as their characters occupy a place in the list of worthies it professes to celebrate. I suggest this not because I imagin it would be a present worthy of their acceptance, as a Poem, but as a curiosity from the New World, & with the idea that it may operate in some degree as an emolument to the Author. Whether it could be done with propriety thro their Ambassadors or otherwise you can better determine.2

With the highest respect I have the / honour to be sir / your obedient & / very humble Servant

Joel Barlow

RC and enclosures (Adams Papers); internal address: “Honble John Adams Esq”; endorsed: “Mr Joel Barlow to me. / Hartford Decr. 12. 1785 / Ansd April 1. 1786.” JA’s reply to Barlow is dated 4 April, below.


With this letter were enclosed John Trumbull’s 8 Dec. letter, above; a letter from Barlow to Richard Price, which has not been found but which JA delivered in person (to Barlow, 4 April 1786, below); and Barlow’s letter of this date to David Humphreys, which JA apparently did not forward since it remains in the Adams Papers.

In his letter to Humphreys, Barlow indicated that he had intended to deliver The Vision of Columbus to a British publisher himself, but he decided against traveling to Europe because the poem required further work. He suggested assigning the copyright to Richard Price, “an American patriot,” who could be trusted to pursue Barlow’s best interests and had experience with London booksellers. In that regard he also mentioned Edward Bancroft or “one of the eminent Poets in London.”

He also asked Humphreys about presenting the publication to European monarchs and discussed a subscription to the work. Humphreys was requested to acknowledge 34 Barlow’s indebtedness to the Marquis de Lafayette and the Chevalier de Chastellux for their assistance with the dedication. He noted that Chastellux might have compiled a subscription list when he was an officer in America and that Thomas Jefferson’s name “occupies a distinguished place in the Poem” as a “small tribute of applause.” In a 28 Dec. postscript Barlow desired that Humphreys go to London himself to put the publication “in a proper train” and added further instructions on the copyright and timing of publication.


The first American edition of The Vision of Columbus appeared in 1787 at Hartford, Conn. (Evans, No. 20220), and retained its dedication to Louis XVI. According to the subscription list at the back of the volume, the king of France subscribed for 25 copies and Lafayette for ten, but it contains the names of no other members of the French nobility.