David Humphreys was an American officer, diplomat, and poet during the revolutionary period. He was born in Derby, Connecticut on July 10, 1752. Before the war of 1776, Humphreys went to Yale College and was one of the founders of a literary society known as the Connecticut Wits along with Joel Barlow, whom Humphreys would work with later in life as a diplomat in Europe. Humphreys briefly entertained the prospect of a teaching career in Connecticut and then moved to a tutoring position in New York at the Philipse Manor. It was here that Humphreys diverted from his life as an educator to take up arms for his fellow countrymen.
Joining the Fight
In the summer of 1776, David Humphreys left his position as a tutor to join the Continental Army. He was attached to the 2nd Connecticut Regiment stationed in New York as a militia adjutant. Humphreys reportedly saw combat in the Battle of Ridgefield (1777) and during the Meigs Raid on Sag Harbor (1777). As a writer, Humphreys reported on the two actions and rose to the rank of captain, before eventually being promoted to Major. During his military service, Humphreys most notably served as the aide to Generals Samuel Parsons, Israel Putnam, Nathanael Greene, and eventually George Washington. Humphreys finally attained the position of “aide-de-camp” to General Washington in 1780.
From this point on, David Humphreys accompanied George Washington everywhere, writing hundreds of communications for the general. Humphreys made his home at Mount Vernon with the Washington family due to the intensity of his work. He transcribed all the letters dictated by Washington, and it was around this time Humphreys began to write more poetry. The first of his most notable works was Address to the Armies of the United States of America, published in 1779. It was a long piece of poetry commenting on the many battles of the Revolutionary War, the sacrifices made for the country, and the joys of peace rewarded unto the new nation for their victory against tyranny.
To bolder deeds, and vict'ry's fierce delights,
Your country calls, and heav'n itself invites.
Charm'd by their potent voice, let virtue's flame,
The sense of honour, and the fear of shame,
The thirst of praise, and freedom's envied cause,
The smiles of heroes, and the world's applause,
Impel each breast, in glory's dread career,
Firm as your rock-rais'd hills, to persevere.
- excerpt from Address to the Armies of the United States of America (1779) by David Humphreys
After the British surrender at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, Humphreys was entrusted to deliver the British colors to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The war ended, and Humphreys was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He remained an attaché to George Washington and accompanied the general when Washington went before Congress to issue his resignation following the end of the war. In the years that followed, Humphreys entered into a new line of service to his country as a diplomat. He joined John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as part of the Secretaryship to the Commission for Negotiating Treaties of Commerce with Foreign Powers.
Humphrey’s years as a diplomat brought him all across Europe. He served as a representative to the United States in France, England, Spain, and Portugal. During this time, he wrote another of his famous works, The Glory of America (1783). In 1786, he would be recalled to the States and was presented with an ornamental sword for his valiant service during the Revolutionary War. Humphreys returned to Mount Vernon to serve as Washington’s secretary when the latter was elected president, and he was also made the head of the Connecticut state militia and helped safeguard the newfound nation’s territory from native incursion, as the British and other European forces continued to support the natives in a proxy war against the United States. Humphreys nearly saw action again when he marched his troops into Massachusetts to help suppress Shay’s Rebellion, but the situation was resolved before they arrived. Humphrey then wrote his next notable work, The Anarchiad (1787), which commented on the dangers of democracy.
Lo, THE COURT FALLS; th' affrighted judges run,
Clerks, Lawyers, Sheriffs, every mother's son.
The stocks, the gallows lose th' expected prize,
See the jails open, and the thieves arise.
- excerpt from The Anarchiad (1787) by David Humphreys
David Humphrey returned to Europe in 1790 as a diplomat and spy for the United States. War was brewing between Spain and England. Humphreys gathered crucial information about the situation and relayed it back to the United States. He also took part in negotiations to free American prisoners held by the Algerines, along with help from Joel Barlow. This success earned Humphreys prominence in Spain and Portugal, allowing him to become the minister of the United States to Spain and a member of the Royal Society of London. During this time, Humphreys also learned about the breeding of merino sheep in Spain and brought this knowledge back with him to the United States when he was recalled from his post.
Transition to Civilian Life
Now late in his life, Humphreys focused on the importation of merino sheep to the United States. He became a successful merchant and boosted the wool production of the U.S. with his new methods. As he often wrote poetry commenting on his life, he began to write poems about the raising of sheep and connected the experience to his values of patriotism, conservativism, and federalism. He took in boys off the street from New York City, training them and educating them personally, turning them into a small military outfit, teaching them to read, and helping them find jobs. Humphreys ran a farm which became quite successful and helped found the Agriculture Society of Connecticut. His wool mill produced coats of “golden fleece” which were worn by several subsequent presidents. Though he never again saw military action, David Humphreys was commissioned as a brigadier general during the War of 1812.
After living a long and prosperous life, General David Humphreys passed away on peacefully February 21, 1818.
A Patriot’s Legacy
David Humphrey was a prime example of a warrior poet from the Age of Revolution. He began his career as a teacher, wrote a wealth of poetry and prose, rose through the ranks to become a general, and settled down for the quiet life of a sheep farmer near the end of his days. He lived a life full of service to his country from his earliest days to the very end, and commanded both the use of both the pen and sword. His words inspired others to stand against darkness unending, both on paper and from his tongue as he stood beside others against the fires of battle. Yet, when his country called for him to serve in a more subtle and deft capacity, he served just as admirably.
David Humphrey was an accomplished writer, poet, author, warrior, leader, diplomat, and spy. He was also a prosperous teacher, farmer, and entrepreneur who left behind more in his one life than one could hardly dream. While he is perhaps not as well known as some other prominent figures throughout history, his story is as inspiring as any other, if not more so.
Many men have been great scholars, writers, and teachers, guiding others to greatness through their finesse with words. Many men have been great warriors, soldiers, and leaders, storming the gates of Hell and facing fears which would take the hearts of most. Just as well, many men have been great farmers, producers, and entrepreneurs, giving back to their communities by building, producing, and showing others new ways of living. Yet, few men have lived such a life to embody all these things, and that is exactly the sort of man David Humphreys was.
We do not know when or to what occasion we shall be called to arise and serve our God and our country. Nevertheless, it is our duty as human beings, as men and women, to walk surely and briskly through the flames of shadow wherever they may burn. In so doing, the light of our courage may serve as a beacon to others fumbling in the dark. Such was the way of warrior poets like David Humphreys who found himself born into times of great strife, and yet, who strove toward excellence in all he did and always found a way to thrive. The rest of us can only hope to be so brave.
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