James Nelson Barker

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James Nelson Barker (June 17, 1784 – March 9, 1858) was an American soldier, playwright, and politician. He rose to the rank of Major in the Army during the War of 1812, wrote ten plays, and served as mayor of Philadelphia.

Cover to John Bray's score of "The Indian Princess, or La Belle Sauvage."

Early life[edit]

Barker was born on June 17, 1784, in Philadelphia. He was the fourth son[1] of John Barker, and Mary Nelson, who were married on July 13, 1769.[2] His education was limited, for though he attended local schools, he spent more time reading books than studying.[3] However, Barker's father ensured that his son was educated in gentlemanly etiquette and the ability to defend himself with a sword or pistol.[4] Barker began writing in 1804. The Spanish Rover was a three-act play based on Cervantes. However, only one act was completed,[5] and eventually burned.[6] His studies were also challenged by travel. He joined an expedition to the West Indies in 1806, much to his parents' unease.[7] His first produced play,Tears and Smiles (1807), was a social comedy. It premiered on March 4, 1807, at The Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia.[8] His next play, The Embargo; or, What News? (1808), was a drama about the Embargo Acts of December 22, 1807, and February 19, 1808, which forbade vessels to engage in foreign trade.[9] Barker was a lifelong Democrat,[10] and his father John served as a mayor of the city[11] from 1808-1809.[12]

In September 1808 Barker joined "The Democratic Young Men," a Philadelphia political organization. His involvement in the organization led to his naming as a member of vigilance to supervise the voting at the election, which led to the Democratic control of councils. This control then led to his father's second term as mayor of the city[1] from 1812-1813.[12] In 1809, 25-year-old Barker was sent by his father to Washington to get political experience, and to prepare for a political career.[13] This visit both served to train him in politics, and to give young James political contacts, as he was invited to meet with James Madison.[1] In 1811, Barker married Mary Rogers.[14] His daughter, Rachel Jackson Mary Barker, was named after Andrew Jackson's wife Rachel Jackson.[15]

Literary influence[edit]

Barker's plays show awareness of the problems with the government's attitude that it was the center of the new America's society.[16] He sought to demonstrate that the American experience could be used to shape national identity.[17] He considered himself to be an American playwright who was committed to exploring native subjects and themes.[18] His work reflected the conflict for American authors in finding their own native voice.[19] He believed that American artistic tastes should be independent of those of Europe, and condemned Americans' feelings of inferiority.[20] He took the position that American art was to be both democratic and useful.[21] Two of Barker's most popular plays were The Indian Princess and Marmion. [22] Superstition is considered one of Barker's best plays.[23]

The Indian Princess[edit]

The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage (1808), is a melodrama about the Pocahontas story. Though originally written as a play, barker decided to turn it into an operatic melodrama,[24] collaborating with Englishman[25] John Bray, who wrote the music.[26] It is the first play that survives in its entirety to have Native American characters,[24][27] (Ponteach from 1766, for example, was a play about Native Americans that was never produced).[28] And it was also the first original American play to be produced in London after premiering in America.[24] However, according to American music scholar H. Wiley Hitchcock, the London production was "a bowdlerized version" of the original.[29] In a letter to William Dunlap from June 10, 1832, Barker said that the London production at Drury Lane "differs essentially from mine in the plan and arrangement"[24] It Premiered at The Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia[30] It is based on Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia (1624),[31] though he used Smith's text freely.[32] Its New York premiere was at the Park Theatre on June 14, 1809.[28] It satisfied intrigue for both American and English audiences regarding the figure of the Native American.[33] Even though romantic conquest takes precedence over colonial conquest, it is evident that the connection between the two is strong.[34] The Indian Princess gained popularity due to a search for a national identity, as American history was becoming more popular.[32] As Susan Scheckel states, "In bringing Pocahontas to the popular stage, James Nelson Barker enlisted the conventions of melodrama to produce a romanticized version of American history that resolved conflicts implicit in past acts of conquest and revolution and defined national identity in terms that reinforced a sense of moral and cultural integrity."[34] Though historical accuracy is overshadowed by romantic melodrama, Barker was aware that that was what his audience wanted, as they were accustomed to romantic melodramas from England.[35] As Jeffrey H. Richards notes, "in Barker, the Native Americans are identified specifically with a history of the North American mainland and a people that spectators in 1808 would easily identify as Indian."[36] A common practice of the time was to add music to performances, whether in song or not.[37] Because of the music, audiences flocked to it.[37][38]


Marmion; or, The Battle of Flodden Field (1812), premiered in New York at the Park Theatre on April 13, 1812.[39] It is a blank-verse dramatization of Sir Walter Scott's poem. It premiered in New York because there was already a production in Philadelphia with the same name at the Olympic Theatre.[40] Marmion had its Philadelphia premiere on January 1, 1813. Though it is set in sixteenth century England and Scotland, it addressed nineteenth century America and its relationship with England regarding a heated debate with congress about the imprisonment of American seamen.[40] It was initially purposefully attributed to English dramatist Thomas Morton, out of fear of disregard for a play by an American. It was believed that when the true playwright was revealed, ticket sales would drop.[41][42] However, according to the diary of William Wood, who requested that Barker write the play, the ticket sales were as follows: Jan. 1, 1813, $1414.75; Jan. 2, $357.25; Jan. 11, $578; Jan. 18, $845, Feb. 5, 332; Feb. 15, $466. According to Wood, the truth was revealed after the sixth or seventh performance. Ticket sales remained constant,[43] and Marmion was one of the longest running dramas of Barker's career.[44] By the time Marmion premiered in Philadelphia, Barker had gone to the Canada–US border as Captain of the Second Artillery Regiment.[45]

Superstition; or, The Fanatic Father[edit]

Superstition, or, The Fanatic Father (1824) was first staged on the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 12, 1824.[23] Superstition is a melodrama written during the Romanticism movement that took form in America in the early 1800s. According to Allan Gates Halline in his introduction to Superstition in American Plays, "The appeal to reason and knowledge suggest that Barker was reflecting the rationalistic thought current shortly before and partly during the period in which he was writing."[46] The setting of Superstition takes place in the Puritan's Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th-century. The play's protagonist, Charles Fitzroy, and his mother, Isabella, are unfairly condemned by the town's Puritan leader, Reverend Ravensworth. After the New England town defends itself from a Native American raid, Charles and Isabella are put on trial and are executed for supposed witchcraft. Superstition both addresses the hypocritical practices of the Puritans as well as glorify American exceptionalism.[47] While this melodrama does follow many of the common tropes and character archetypes that 19th-century melodrama was known for, Barker subverts many of these expectations by including a tragic ending where the protagonist dies and the antagonist goes unpunished. According to John Gassner's introduction to Superstition in Best American Plays, "It [Superstition] was also the culmination of Baker's most distinguishing characteristics, as a playwright--namely, his concern with American subjects and problems."[23]


Barker served as a soldier in the War of 1812.[48] He was appointed captain in the Second Regiment of Pennsylvania Artillery on May 26, 1812, by William Eustis, Secretary of War.[1] In 1814, he was severely wounded in a duel.[11] He was shot in both legs by Major Wade Hampton, father of the Confederate general, and he was incapacitated from active service for several years.[1] He was appointed major[49] when he was made assistant adjutant general of the 4th Military District by President Madison on April 8, 1814. He was honorably discharged in June 1815.[1] After he was discharged, he returned to Philadelphia, where he continued working in politics, as well as writing and supporting theater. Between 1815 and 1817, he wrote reviews for the Chestnut Street Theatre, and he was a trustee of the Theatrical Fund for Indigent Actors.[10] Barker wrote his next drama, The Armourer's Escape; or, Three Years at Nootka Sound, in 1817. It was based on the real-life adventures of John Jewitt, who played himself at the premiere. Though the playbill survived, the two-act melodrama hasn't. It premiered on March 21, 1817.[50] His next piece, An oration delivered at Philadelphia Vauxhall Gardens, on the forty-first anniversary of American independence, was published in 1817, Printed by John Binns (Philadelphia). In the spring of 1817, James Nelson Barker took his father's seat on the Philadelphia board of Aldermen.[13] In 1819, Barker was elected Mayor of Philadelphia. As Mayor, he was known for being fair, speaking out against slavery, raising funds for local charities and sending aid to Savannah after the city was hurt by a devastating fire.[10]

Later life[edit]

After his term as Mayor had ended, he continued to write. Superstition; or, The Fanatic Father (1824), is a tragedy, Produced at the Chestnut Street Theatre, 1824 with Mary Ann Duff as Mary. According to historian Arthur Hobson Quinn the plot revolves around "Puritan refugee Goff, issuing from his solitude to lead the villagers to victory against the Indians. With this theme he interwove that of the intolerance of the New England Puritans and their persecution for witchcraft." [51]

Superstition Poster

His play How to Try a Lover was written in 1817, however it was not produced until 1836 as The Court of Love. It premiered in Philadelphia on March 26, 1836, at the Arch Street Theatre.[52] It is a dramatic adaptation of the French picaresque novel La folie espagnole by Pigault-Lebrun (1753–1835). Barker states, "it was the only drama I have written with which I was satisfied." [52] However, Barker felt he could better serve society as a politician than a dramatist.[53] He was unable to combine his political and literary roles, which led to him seeing himself as primarily a politician and an author secondary.[53] He turned his focus from writing plays to writing political tracts, commemorative poems and local history between 1818 and 1858.[54] His non-fiction works include A Sketch of Primitive Settlements on Delaware River (1827), and contributions to the columns of many democratic journals during the Bank War and Panic, from 1832 to 1836 which were highly valued.[11] In addition to writing, from 1829 to 1838, Barker was the collector of the port of Philadelphia, and from 1841 to 1858, he served as the assistant comptroller of the U.S. Treasury.[48] He was involved in the Presidential campaigns for both Jackson and Van Buren during the 1820s and 1830s.[10] He died in 1858 of pneumonia in Washington, D.C.[10]


Barker's literary work advocated native dramas[55] and emphasized a growing desire among American writers to claim the nation's early history.[56] His plays are set in America, which was unusual for that period,[41] and he is considered to be among the first generation of American playwrights.[56] He knew that his plays could shape national identity[57] by creating an independent American consciousness.[57] Quoted in the Philadelphia Democratic Press, Barker believed that theatre had a higher goal, "to keep alive the spirit of freedom; and to unite conflicting parties in a common love of liberty and devotedness to country."[57]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Musser, Paul H. James Nelson Barker, 1784-1858; With a Reprint of His Comedy Tears and Smiles. U of Pennsylvania P; London, H. Milford:Oxford UP, 1929
  2. ^ Musser 1929, 7
  3. ^ Gates, Robert Allen, Ed.
  4. ^ Gates, Robert Allan
  5. ^ Musser 1929, 13
  6. ^ Quinn 1943, 137
  7. ^ Gates, Robert Allen, Ed. 18th- and 19th- Century Drama. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1984. P. 121. Print.
  8. ^ Richards, Jeffrey H. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. P. 109. Print.
  9. ^ Quinn 1943, 138
  10. ^ a b c d e Gates 1984, 121
  11. ^ a b c The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians, Now Deceased: Collected from Original and Authentic Sources, by Henry Simpson, published by W. Brotherhead, 1859.
  12. ^ a b Young, John Russell, Ed. Memorial History of the City of Philadelphia: From its First Settlement to the Year 1895. New York: J. B. Rodgers Printing Co., 1895. P. 443. Print
  13. ^ a b Crowley, John W. "James Nelson Barker in Perspective." Educational Theater Journal 24.4, P. 364. Print.
  14. ^ Musser 1929, 43
  15. ^ History of Baltimore, Maryland, From its Founding as a Town to the Current Year 1729-1898. Maryland: S. B. Nelson, Publisher, 1898. P. 828. Print.
  16. ^ Wilmeth, Don B. and Bigsby, Christopher, Eds. The Cambridge History of American Theatre Volume 1: Beginnings to 1870. United Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print
  17. ^ Crowley 1972, 364
  18. ^ Miller, Tice
  19. ^ Bryer and Hartig 2010, 55
  20. ^ Miller 2007, 43
  21. ^ name=Crowley
  22. ^ name=Miller
  23. ^ a b c Gassner, John (1967). Best American Plays. Crown Publishers, Inc. pp. xxx.
  24. ^ a b c d Hitchcock, H. Wiley
  25. ^ Richards, Jeffrey H. Drama, Theatre and Identity in the American New Republic New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. P.169. Print.
  26. ^ Vickers, Anita. The New nation. Westport, Connecticut: Green Wood Press, 2002. P.215. Print
  27. ^ Richards, Jeffrey H. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin Books 1997, P. 109. Print.
  28. ^ a b Quinn 1943, 139
  29. ^ Hitchcock, H. Wiley. "An Early American Melodrama: The Indian Princess of J. N. Barker and John Bray." Notes: Second Series 12.3, P 375. Print.
  30. ^ Miller, Tice L. Entertaining the Nation: American Drama in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2007. P. 43. Print
  31. ^ Richards 1997, 109-110
  32. ^ a b Richards 1997, 169
  33. ^ Vickers 2002, 215
  34. ^ a b Scheckel, Susan. "Domesticating the Drama of Conquest: Barker's Pocahontas on the Popular Stage." American Theater Quarterly 10.3 (1996). Print
  35. ^ Richards 1997, 173
  36. ^ Richards 1997, 174-175
  37. ^ a b Richards, Jeffrey H.
  38. ^ Vickers, Anita
  39. ^ Quinn 1943, 140
  40. ^ a b Miller 2007, 42
  41. ^ a b Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C. Eds
  42. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson
  43. ^ Quinn 1943, -140-141
  44. ^ Musser, Paul Howard
  45. ^ Quinn 1943, 144
  46. ^ Halline, Arthur Gates (1935). American Plays. New York: American Book Company. pp. 122–123.
  47. ^ Halline, Allan Gates (1935). American Plays. New York: American Book Company. p. 123.
  48. ^ a b Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C. Eds. The Facts on File Companion to American Drama, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sheridan Books, 2010. P. 55. Print
  49. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. A History of the American Drama: From the beginning to the Civil War. New York: F. S. Crofts and Co., 1943. PP 136-137. Print.
  50. ^ Quinn 1943, 144-145
  51. ^ Quinn 1943, 147
  52. ^ a b Quinn 1943, 145
  53. ^ a b Crowley 1972, 365
  54. ^ Crowley, John W. "James Nelson Barker in Perspective" Educational Theater Journal 24.4 1972 p. 366
  55. ^ Miller, Tice L.
  56. ^ a b Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C. Eds.
  57. ^ a b c Crowley, John W.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Wharton (Philadelphia)
Mayor of Philadelphia
Succeeded by
Robert Wharton (Philadelphia)