Date of this Version
The Conspiracy of Kings, published in February 1792, is very much a work of its time, the first months of the constitional monarchy in France. Louis XVI and the new Legislative Assembly began their uneasy relationship in October 1792. Outside France, exiled members of the nobility campaigned to persuade the sovereigns of Europe to intervene and restore them to their privileges. On the other side, friends of the French Revolution sought to discourage intervention and to discredit the principles of legitimacy and social hierarchy that supported the old order.
Joel Barlow had arrived in France in 1788 to act as the representative of a scheme to at-tract French settlers to the western territories, in what is now Ohio. After some initial success, difficulties at the American end caused the scheme to fail, and Barlow left France for England in 1791. Having observed events in France at close hand, he had become an ardent supporter of the Revolution, and set himself to advance the cause by writing. He began his prose work, Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe, Resulting from the Necessity and Propriety of a General Revolution in the Principle of Government, the first four parts of which were published early in 1792; the title might serve as a summary of The Conspiracy of Kings.
For English readers, the debate over the revolution was essentially a debate over the views advanced eloquently in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, pub-lished in November 1790. Many of the books that attacked the Reflections were published by Joseph Johnson, a well-established London bookseller and publisher with a long history of taking the dissenting side in politics and religion. (He had published the English edition of Barlow's The Vision of Columbus in 1787.) For Barlow, Burke was a particularly troubling opponent because of his earlier support of the American Revolution. The attack on Burke that makes the centerpiece of the poem is a conflicted one that shows Barlow's regret as well as his scorn for what Burke has become, and stands in sharp contrast to the ironic footnote dismissals of the Vicomte de Calonne and the Comte D'Artois, the leading figures among the exiled nobility.
Barlow has gibes for the Frederick William II of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Leopold II of the Holy Roman Empire, but two sovereigns are conspicuous by their absence: George III of Britain and Louis XVI of France. An attack on the first would have exposed Barlow to prosecution in England. As for the second, the jury was still out on the constitutional monarchy as Barlow wrote; his objective was to direct attention from what is happening now in France to the significance of what has happened in France for the rest of Europe. There he sees much to denounce, but the poem ends on a note of hope: the enlightened king Stanslaus Poniatowski has promulgated the Constitution of May 3, 1791 to move Poland toward a more egalitarian society, and on the other side of the Atlantic the United States provides the example which may yet move the nations of Europe to reason their way to governments of that rare union, Liberty and Laws.
ETERNAL Truth, thy trump undaunted lend,
People and priests and courts and kings, attend;
While, borne on weﬅern gales from that far shore
Where Justice reigns, and tyrants tread no more,
Th' unwonted voice, that no dissuasion awes,
That fears no frown, and seeks no blind applause,
Shall tell the bliss that Freedom sheds abroad,
The rights of nature and the gift of God.
Press figures and catchwords have been omitted, but otherwise this is a page-for-page and line-for-line reproduction of the original first edition as reproduced in ECCO.