See study by A. L. Ford (1971).
At Hartford he was a member of a group of young writers including Lemuel Hopkins, David Humphreys, and John Trumbull, known in American literary history as the "Hartford Wits". He contributed to the Anarchiad, a series of satirico-political papers, and in 1787 published a long and ambitious poem, The Vision of Columbus, which gave him a considerable literary reputation and was once much read.
In 1788 he went to France as the agent of the Scioto Land Company, his object being to sell lands and enlist immigrants. He seems to have been ignorant of the fraudulent character of the company, which failed disastrously in 1790. He had previously, however, induced the company of Frenchmen, who ultimately founded Gallipolis, Ohio, to emigrate to America. In Paris he became a liberal in religion and an advanced republican in politics. He helped Thomas Paine publish the first part of "The Age of Reason" while Paine was imprisoned during The Reign of Terror. He remained abroad for several years, spending much of his time in London; was a member of the "London Society for Constitutional Information"; published various radical essays, including a volume entitled Advice to the Privileged Orders (1792), which was proscribed by the British government; and was made a citizen of France in 1792.
He was American consul at Algiers in 1795-1797, securing the release of American prisoners held for ransom, and negotiating a treaty with Tripoli (1796). He returned to America in 1805, and lived at his home, Kalorama in what is now the city of Washington, D.C., until 1811, when he became American plenipotentiary to France, charged with negotiating a commercial treaty with Napoleon, and with securing the restitution of confiscated American property or indemnity therefor. He was summoned for an interview with Napoleon at Wilna, but failed to see the emperor there; became involved in the retreat of the French army; and, overcome by exposure, died at the Polish village of Żarnowiec.
In 1807 he had published in a sumptuous volume the Columbiad, an enlarged edition of his Vision of Columbus, more pompous even than the original; but, though it added to his reputation in some quarters, on the whole it was not well received, and it has subsequently been much ridiculed. The poem for which he is now best known is his mock heroic Hasty Pudding (1793). Besides the writings mentioned above, he published Conspiracy of Kings, a Poem addressed to the Inhabitants of Europe from another Quarter of the Globe (1792); View of the Public Debt, Receipts and Expenditure of the United States (1800); and the Political Writings of Joel Barlow (2nd ed., 1796).
The record in the archives of the church in Żarnowiec reads
"Anno 1812, Decembris 26 at 1 o'clock P.M. before us the rector of the Zarnowiec parish and civil recorder of the village of Zarnowiec, Pilica County, Department of Cracow, there came Hon. John Blaski, postmaster and Mayor of the village Zarnowiec, residing here and thirty-six years old, and Idzi Baiorkiewicz, residing at his farm of two quarts at Zarnowiec and thirty-three years old, and declared that his Excellency, Joel Barlow, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of Emperor of the French and King of Italy, died on the above day at 12 o'clock at noon in the house No. 1 while journeying from Warsaw to Paris, at the age of fifty-six, son of unknown parents, and husband of her Excellency Mrs. Margaret nee Baldwin, residing in the American city of Ridgefield. After reading this to the present we undersigned it with the witnesses, Rev. Stanislaus Bajorski, civil recorder; John Blaski, witness; Idzi Baiorkiewicz, witness."
Joel Barlow was painted by Robert Fulton.