History lesson

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(HOST) John Negroponte’s graduation speech at St. Johnsbury Academy last week included a mistaken assumption about a bit of Vermont history, and commentator Allen Gilbert would like to set the record straight.

(GILBERT) John Negroponte’s visit to St. Johnsbury last week caused quite a stir.

Negroponte is national director of intelligence. He has served in numerous government positions over the last thirty years. He’s become something of a lightning rod for those opposed to policies of the Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Negroponte gave the graduation address at St. Johnsbury Academy. His son was a senior there. The school thought that it was a nice gesture to have a famous dad salute his son and classmates. Negroponte critics staged a protest. Four protesters were arrested.

But for a moment, forget the politics of the event. There’s an angle to the Negroponte speech that will amuse Vermont history buffs, and I think it’s funny because with all the government researchers you would think Negroponte has at his disposal, our national intelligence director didn’t uncover the real story.

Negroponte chose as a theme for his speech the Gospel of St. John. Choosing a religious theme for a high school graduation is a bit unusual. But St. Johnsbury Academy is a private school and so flies under the radar of many constitutional constraints.

Here’s what I found particularly interesting about Negroponte’s reference to St. John. Negroponte said he chose the theme of the Gospel of St. John because St. John was the town’s namesake.

That may sound logical. But it’s wrong.

St. Johnsbury was named for Hector St. John Crevecoeur. Crevecoeur was a French emigre to America. He arrived in 1754 and made his living as a plantation farmer in the New York colony. When the Revolution came, Crevecoeur was torn. His wife’s family were British Loyalists, yet Crevecoeur believed deeply in Americans’ attempts to establish a new, independent republic. Crevecoeur returned to Europe. In 1782 he published the book, Letters from an American Farmer. It quickly became a bestseller. There was great interest in Americans’ efforts to establish a constitutional republic and to put the ideas of the Enlightenment into practice. Crevecoeur was a big supporter of the American “experiment.”

Crevecoeur was so much admired in Vermont that in 1787 he and his three children were “adopted” as citizens by the General Assembly.

Three years later, Ethan Allen encouraged St. Johnsbury’s first residents to honor Crevecoeur by naming their town after him. Crevecoeur himself suggested the name “St. Johnsbury,” pointing out that many towns already had the name “St. John,” but none was called “St. Johnsbury.” Local residents agreed.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Negroponte by relating the real story behind the naming of St. Johnsbury. And it’s true that Crevecoeuer himself carried the name of the evangelist, and so there’s an indirect connection between the town’s name and the saint. But the first residents of St. Johnsbury wanted to be linked to a man who was an articulate, perceptive analyst of American life and American values – someone who believed in this experiment called “democracy.” I think they’d want today’s young Americans to know that.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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