• Previously unknown letter shows hero's doubts
     | May 31,2009

    Christie’s auction house is estimating that this letter signed by Ethan Allen will sell for $50,000 to $70,000 when it is auctioned next month. Allen wrote the two-page letter Aug. 29, 1787, to French aristocrat Hector St. John de Crevecoeur.

    This is not the Ethan Allen of popular imagination. No, the Allen who emerges from a previously unknown letter that he wrote in 1787 is full of doubts about the fate of the United States and even whether the new country had gone too far in granting freedoms to the people.

    "Liberty is not, nor will not be by the bulk of the People, distinguished from licentiousness and any Government that allows such freakish liberties to its subjects cannot endure long," writes Allen, a hero of the Revolution.

    At the time of the letter, the Constitutional Convention was under way behind closed doors in Philadelphia and delegates were debating how to govern the 13 former colonies.

    "Thirteen Independent Heads to one connective Government is a political Monster," he continues, "and monsters are always short lived."

    The document, which is in a private collection, is to be auctioned June 24 by Christie's in New York. The auction house estimates the letter will fetch $50,000 to $75,000, which might make it too pricey for any Vermont institution to buy.

    Still, historians and librarians say they would love for the document to return to Vermont.

    "That's a great letter," says John Duffy, a leading expert on Allen's correspondence. Duffy, professor emeritus of English and humanities at Johnson State College, edited a collection of the known letters written by and to Allen and his brothers. "You can spin (the wording) a couple different ways, but if you put it in the context of what Allen said at the time, it is consistent."

    The letter reminds Duffy of one Allen wrote to the public during the same period in response to civil disturbances in Vermont. In that letter, according to Duffy, Allen "says effectively 'obey the orders of your wiser governors. You are just not wise enough to understand.' It is a very patronizing statement."

    The new letter is Allen's "baldest statement" of that belief, Duffy says.

    Nicholas Muller, a former University of Vermont history professor, sees Allen's concerns as perhaps understandable, given the context of the time, when the future shape of the national government was unknown.

    "I don't think he is criticizing democracy," Muller says. "He is saying that liberty with no bounds is anarchy and lots of folks will confuse liberty with the freedom to do anything you want."

    As for Allen's comment about the fate of the 13-headed monster, Muller says, "He was right. It was short lived." Muller believes that Allen was referring to the union of the former colonies under the Articles of Confederation, the founding document that was replaced by the Constitution in 1789.

    Kevin Graffagnino, former director of the Vermont Historical Society, agrees with Muller. "Looking at this," Graffagnino says, "I see Ethan as saying, 'The Constitution is a better idea. I think we are better off if we have some strength in a federal government than if we do not. We haven't had (a strong government) and it hasn't worked terribly well.'"

    Regardless of what sort of government would emerge from the Constitutional Convention, it's not clear that Allen even supported the idea of Vermont joining the Union, says Muller. He was interested primarily in ensuring that Vermont could maintain its most lucrative trading relationship, that with British Canada.

    Allen had recently discussed with British officials Vermont's becoming part of Canada. He might have preferred that Vermont be an independent republic; whatever served its trade interests.

    Allen's worries about how the new government would affect Vermont are evident in the letter, says Will Randall, a history professor at Champlain College who is writing a biography of Allen.

    "At this point, Allen was very nervous about a new Constitution and the possibility of a strong federal government," Randall says. A strong government might back New York in its long-running claim to the territory that is Vermont and help lead a military invasion of the region. Conversely, Randall says, Allen fretted that the new federal government being hatched might prove too weak to stop New York from attacking.

    'Dear …'

    The letter's recipient was Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, an aristocratic Frenchman who had moved to the Colonies and supported the American Revolution. Crevecoeur gained fame for his 1782 book, "Letters from an American Farmer," which gave European audiences a glimpse of the new country.

    Allen fostered a relationship with Crevecoeur out of friendship and the hope that forging strong ties with France might help Vermont. Allen also hoped the Frenchman would use his connections to have Allen's recently published philosophical tome, "Reason, the Only Oracle of Man," presented to the French Royal Academy.

    Crevecoeur was equally solicitous of Allen, who helped make the Frenchman's sons naturalized citizens of Vermont. Crevecoeur hoped that as newly minted Vermonters, the boys could prove they were friends of the French government and could someday inherit their father's estate in France.

    At Crevecoeur's suggestion, and to curry favor with France, Vermont had named towns after prominent French noblemen — Danville (for the royal cartographer, d'Anville) and Vergennes (for the Comte de Vergennes). At Allen's suggestion, St. Johnsbury was named in Crevecoeur's honor.

    At the time Allen wrote this letter, "Crevecoeur is still genuflecting to him, because to him Allen is still the (Revolutionary War) general," Randall says. He doesn't realize that Allen has lost his clout.

    By 1787, Allen had moved far from the state's power base, Bennington, and established a farm. "He is just up there in Burlington, in the Intervale, having a good but boring time," says Duffy.

    Hidden gem

    Allen's influence might have been at low ebb, but that doesn't make the letter any less significant, valuable or intriguing.

    What has happened to the letter since Crevecoeur received it is unknown to Christie's officials, who know only the identity of the seller — and won't reveal it. Indications, however, are that the document has been in a French collection.

    If the letter has indeed been in France these last 222 years, then its survival is something of a miracle. Consider that its recipient, having returned to France, was targeted during the French Revolution. Crevecoeur went into hiding, perhaps taking this letter with him or stashing it somewhere.

    In the two centuries since, France suffered turmoil and invasion during the Napoleonic Era, the Franco-Prussian War, and the First and Second World Wars.

    The document has not only survived but is in excellent shape, according to Chris Coover, senior manuscript specialist for Christie's.

    "The thing is in gorgeous condition," Coover says. The letter is clean, the paper crisp, and the ink has not faded. Fortunately, Allen wrote it on high-quality, linen rag paper, which is durable, provided it is kept dry.

    "Ethan Allen is a tremendously rare signature, not to mention letter," says Peter Mallary, who for years directed the rare book and manuscript department for Christie's rival, Sotheby's.

    After being read the letter over the phone, Mallary pauses for a moment, then says, "Wow, that's about as good as it gets. It is just so outspoken and crystal clear, and Ethan Allen is not always known for his crystal clarity. You don't often come across comments about the early days of this nation from anybody, much less Ethan Allen."

    The rarity and quality of the letter justify the pre-auction estimate, says Mallary.

    Though he has recently taken a job at the University of Michigan, Graffagnino hopes the Allen letter returns to the state in which it was penned. "I think anything written by Ethan Allen ought to end up in Vermont," he says. "He's our guy."

    Mark Bushnell's column on Vermont history is a weekly feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine. He can be reached at vermontpastlane@gmail.com.

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