J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ethan Allen and Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos provided links about a previously uncollected letter from Ethan Allen to Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (shown above), now being auctioned at Christie’s, and a Vermont Times-Argus article about it.

Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) was the first of a long line of French intellectuals who spent some time in the United States and then returned to Europe to write a book about it. In fact, he settled in Orange County, New York, years before the Revolution and raised a family there. Crèvecoeur left for Europe during the war. In 1782, while in London, he published the first edition of his Letters from an American Farmer, which was such a hit that he expanded it through the 1780s. After the Treaty of Paris, Louis XVI made Crèvecoeur the French consul to the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, so he was back to the U.S. with some standing.

Meanwhile, Allen was a big man in the independent republic of Vermont. He too was an author, known for his Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity. But Allen was losing influence with his fellow Vermonters, many of whom wanted to join the U.S. of A. He thought the republic’s interests lay with Canada, its major trading partner, and even talked about giving up independence to rejoin the British Empire. He left the capital of Bennington and settled in Burlington, closer to Vermont’s northern neighbor.

During their correspondence, Allen was able to make Crèvecoeur’s American sons into citizens of Vermont, and to have the town of St. Johnsbury named in his honor. (Crèvecoeur used St. John as his surname when he was farming in America.) Allen also sent the consul the book he’d developed from a manuscript of the late Dr. Thomas YoungReason, the Only Oracle of Man—hoping it would find favor in France.

The newly discovered letter, dated 29 Aug 1787, reveals Allen’s jaundiced view of the prospects for the U.S. of A.:

I fancy that the confusions in the United States have increased beyond your expectation for so short a time, ever since the peace I have been apprehensive that the Federal Government of the United States would be but of short duration. This I suggested to you in our late personal conference. Liberty is not, nor will be, by the bulk of the People distinguished from licentiousness, and any Government that allows such freakish liberties to its subjects cannot endure long. Thirteen independent heads to one connective Government is a political monster and monsters are always short lived...
By “freakish liberties,” Allen was probably talking about the 1786-87 uprising in western Massachusetts that came to be called Shays’ Rebellion. He refused to support that movement, seeing it as a danger. Many of Allen’s fellow Vermonters, however, supported the men behind the uprising; Daniel Shays and others found shelter in the republic.

Even as Allen wrote, the U.S. Constitutional Convention was taking place in Philadelphia, and the New York delegates quietly agreed to let Vermont join the “more perfect Union,” dropping their state’s claim to that land. Vermont was admitted in 1791 at the same time as Kentucky, preserving a north-south balance. Allen had died two years before.

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