Classic: Ira and Ethan Allen and the Republic of Vermont
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.