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Classic: Ira and Ethan Allen and the Republic of Vermont

Among the Vermonters there was consternation about why a British general should apologize for the death of an enemy soldier. Once again the Allens were tested by angry questions implying duplicity with the British, and again they were able to alibi answers. The next day they sent a message to St. Leger asking that he not issue the proclamation until tempers had cooled. On the same day St. Leger received this message he learned also that General Cornwallis had been defeated at Yorktown, Virginia. The next day, realizing how events were shaping a different future, he sailed back to Canada.

The episode was a gentle graze against destiny. If St. Leger had not been tardy by a week in reaching Fort Ticonderoga, the scenario might have occurred quite differently, and Vermont’s fate might have been turned in a different direction. Did Ira and Ethan try sincerely to align Vermont with British Canada during the so-called Haldimand Negotiations? Until recently Vermont’s historians denied that their heroes could even entertain such a scheme.

Current historians, however, view the question dispassionately and concede less to the Allen brothers. H. Nicholas Muller 111, a historian at the University of Vermont who is now president of Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire, believes the Allen brothers acted “in earnest” with the British. “One version best fits the facts,” he contends: “The Allens seriously attempted a reconciliation.” Similarly, Professor Charles Jellison of the University of New Hampshire asserts that “Ethan and his accomplices became firmly committed to the idea of taking Vermont back into the British Empire.” Ian Pemberton, a Montreal native now teaching at Canada’s University of Windsor, has studied the Haldimand Negotiations in detail and concurs.

But Jellison argues that Ethan was not a dishonorable man. “It seems much more likely that Ethan was moved to act as he did mainly by a genuine concern for the future of Vermont.”

This viewpoint is shared by J. Robert Maguire, an attorney in Shoreham, Vermont, who has studied the stormy history of the Champlain Valley during the Allen era as diligently as anyone. He believes the Allens conducted the Haldimand Negotiations “in good faith with the British and fully intended to return Vermont to British allegiance.” But he adds, “I don’t view this as having been to their discredit, in light of the treatment Vermont received from the thirteen colonies throughout the Revolution, and the prospect that the Continental Congress would eventually support the claims of New York against Vermont. The heavy measure of self-serving which seemed to color all of the Allens’ political dealings makes their actions appear more reprehensible than is deserved, perhaps.”

But the Haldimand Negotiations were just a prologue to a far more ambitious scheme Ira masterminded in 1796, which has come to be known as “the Olive Branch affair.”

Hiding money in the bottom of his trunk, Ira sailed to France in that year, ostensibly to buy 20,000 muskets and 24 pieces of artillery to arm Vermont’s state militia. The weapons left France bound for Vermont on a vessel ironically named the Olive Branch.

But the British were distrustful of Allen — hardly surprising, in view of their past experience with him. They suspected he wanted the guns and cannon to arm French-speaking citizens of the Province of Quebec for an uprising against the British government of Canada. England was at war with France at the time, and a revolt in French Quebec would be a serious threat to the Empire. A British ship intercepted the Olive Branch on its way to North America and impounded Ira’s cargo of weapons.

Ever since the so-called “Olive Branch affair” historians have wondered about Ira’s protestations that the arms were intended solely to outfit the Vermont militia. But even the most skeptical historians couldn’t prove that Ira was actually involved in a conspiracy to foment rebellion in Quebec. Documents from the 1790s simply did not reveal enough telling evidence to justify that harsh verdict.

But recently a historian from the University of Utah walked into the Archive Nationale in Paris and discovered 16 documents which no earlier students of the “Olive Branch affair” had ever seen. Her name is Jeanne A. Ojala, and with those documents she found a roughly sewn flag measuring about nine-by-twelve inches. She translated the documents from French to English and learned that the flag was Ira’s design. He proposed that this new banner be the official flag to signify the marriage of Vermont and Quebec into the new state of United Columbia.

In a note attached to this flag Ira explained its composition. Five stripes of colored cloth were stitched together vertically — first red, then white, green, and white, and then blue. The red and blue at each end were the colors of France; the green in the middle, separated by white stripes from the red and blue, symbolized Vermont. This attention to symbols “can appear useless to a philosopher,” Ira remarked, “but must have much influence on the masses.” Ira hoped it would motivate Vermonters to invade Quebec.

Elsewhere Ira outlined how the revolt against British authority in Quebec would begin in August of 1797. While Vermonters were streaming northward to capture the City of Quebec, the Provincial capital, a French naval force would bombard Halifax and then sail up the St. Lawrence River. These advancing pincers would guarantee a successful attack. The flag of United Columbia would be hoisted over the first Canadian garrisons that were captured, under the tricolor of the French Republic, and when independence was totally assured the new flag would wave in single splendor.

Ira made it clear that United Columbia was not to be appended to the United States. Indeed, he predicted boldly that the new nation would become “a counterpoise, a rival” to the American government.

After the “Olive Branch affair,” when Ira was accused by his detractors of being involved in a more nefarious project than simply buying muskets and cannon for the Vermont militia, this wily Vermonter proclaimed his innocence in several pamphlets and in a book he published in 1798 entitled The Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont. Until his death in 1814 he pleaded earnestly that he was unfairly maligned. But the documents in Paris, asserts Professor Ojala, “refute his denial and establish the existence of a carefully planned revolution to wrest Quebec from England.”

Why did these incriminating records lie unexamined for so long in the French archives? James B. Wilbur of Manchester, Vermont, came close to discovering these documents when he visited Paris in the 1920s to do research for his two volume biography, Ira Allen: Founder of Vermont, published in 1928. Because he recounted Ira’s visit in 1796 to France in detail, other historians apparently figured he had exhausted all sources on that subject.

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Updated Monday, February 11th, 2008

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