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Classic: Ira and Ethan Allen and the Republic of Vermont

Classic: Ira and Ethan Allen and the Republic of Vermont
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With a reference to Benedict Arnold, Allen said he would not agree to any “dam’d Arnold plan to sell his country and his honor by betraying the trust reposed to him.” More practically, Ethan told Sherwood that if the people of Vermont knew that he was talking seriously about reunion with Britain, they would “cut off his head.” Allen insisted that Vermont could do no more than be neutral even if Haldimand promised to send troops to help Vermont repel an invasion sent by the Congress to subdue a Vermont rebellion against the colonies. Allen and Sherwood agreed to keep their negotiations secret and to terminate them if the Continental Congress recognized Vermont’s independence. Sherwood promised that the British would suspend offensive operations in Vermont and northern New York. They would continue to talk, they said, under the guise of trying to arrange an exchange of prisoners.

Negotiations were continued but the Allens, while professing to the British a firm desire to rejoin the Empire, were also finding ways to delay and complicate the process. The ice on Lake Champlain impeded travel, Ira told Sherwood, and he couldn’t get to Isle aux Noix, the narrow island in the Richelieu River only a few miles above Lake Champlain where they agreed to meet. When he did get there in May 1781, he said the time wasn’t ripe for reunion. Vermonters were warm towards admission to the union of American states, he claimed, and they would have to be educated about rejoining England. Nothing could be done until after the legislature had met in June.

Ira and Sherwood agreed to talk some more in July, and in July they agreed to talk some more in September. The British were impatient; they hinted they might use force if the Vermonters didn’t act on their own to reunite. The Vermonters were fidgety too. Rumors were flying about disloyalty in high places.

Ira proposed to Sherwood that when the next legislative session convened in October Haldimand should issue a proclamation of the terms offered to Vermont if it rejoined. It was agreed that a British force would be at Fort Ticonderoga when the proclamation was released in case British troops were needed to protect Vermont or to quiet dissent within the republic about joining the Empire. The British were optimistic about the way the negotiations were culminating, but in case the Vermonters rejected the offer the British spoke direly of “melancholy consequences” which would smite the fickle Yankees.

In October, a week after the Vermont legislature had convened, General Barry St. Leger with two thousand British troops arrived at Fort Ticonderoga. He was carrying Haldimand’s Proclamation, and he was waiting to hear from Ira as to when it should be released. When Ira sent no word St. Leger decided to send a message to him by capturing a Vermonter and sending the prisoner as a courier. But capturing a Vermonter proved more difficult than expected; a party sent over to Mount Independence exchanged shots with some Vermonters and accidentally killed Sergeant Archelaus Tupper. The General was horrified when told of this. Despite the fact that war existed between the British and the Vermonters, just as it did between the British and the colonials elsewhere in North America, St. Leger had been warned by Haldimand that “every appearance of hostility must be carefully avoided.” St. Leger wrote a letter of apology to Governor Chittenden and invited the Vermonters to come over for the grand funeral he promised to give Sergeant Tupper. The Sergeant’s clothes were bundled and sent to his widow.

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.”

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