DescriptionWilliam Vernon Jr. Collection of Letters, covering the years 1776 through 1798. These interesting (and numerous) letters, with some documents included, mostly contain communications from William Vernon Jr. and William Vernon Sr. (some as retained copies) which tell the interesting story of young Vernon's extended - and mysterious - stay in France during the French Revolution.
Vernon graduated from the College of New Jersey (modern Princeton University) in 1776. He sailed for France in February 1778 to establish himself with a French merchant house and to learn the French language. Crossing the Atlantic on the same frigate, the Boston, was John Adams. The two became quick friends, with Adams later writing letters of introduction for the young Rhode Islander. Vernon's father, William Vernon Sr., was a prosperous Newport, Rhode Island, merchant and slave trader who fled to Boston following the British invasion of Rhode Island in December 1776. While in Boston, Vernon Sr. was chosen by the Continental Congress to serve on the Eastern Navy Board. He was acquainted with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the marquis de Lafayette.
After young Vernon arrived in France in 1778, he inexplicably stopped writing letters home and neglected the merchant activities for which he was responsible while in France. In one letter, the French merchant house of V. & P. French & Nephew writes Vernon Sr. in Rhode Island, "It is very distressing to us, that your Son Mr. William Vernon, will neither answer our Letters relative to his Wines, perishing with old age in our hands, nor settle matters & Accounts [February 1787]." His father became disturbed, especially since young Vernon continued to spend money. Many letters are included from Vernon Sr. notifying various individuals about the "distressed situation" of his son. Over the years, Vernon Sr. received help at various times from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the Marque de Lafayette, but nothing seemed to work. And of course, there are frequent letters from Vernon Sr. attempting to coax letters home. Finally in August 1795, Vernon Sr., in desperation, wrote to Vernon Jr. in Bordeaux, "I once more renew my application with sincere ardency - and inform you that I have executed my Will near Three Years past, and have given & devised to my Son William. One Shilling. You may be assured that it will remain unalterable until the moment of embracing you. My Estate is estimated at Twenty Two Thousand pounds sterling, that you would undoubtedly have shared equally with your Brother Samuel, had you been present at the Time of Execution thereof. And may yet possess & enjoy it, should you return Home before my decease: but this event is suspended upon the precarious Thread of Life. I am Seventy five Years Old." This letter seems to have had its intended effect. Vernon Jr. writes his father ("My dearest Friend") on December 1, 1796, notifying him of his "intention of returning to America. . . . Let every doubt, I intreat of you my good & affectionate friend, let every doubt be removed from you mind respecting the execution of my promise, for my moral happiness depends upon my reconciliation with you. Whatever may have been my negligence & errors my heart & affections were constantly yours." Vernon finally left France for Rhode Island in May 1797.
So for nineteen years, Vernon Jr. had remained in France. What he was doing there is mostly a mystery, but this collection contains many other letters which might help solve the mystery. Some of the more interesting letters are the love letters between Vernon Jr. and his mistress, Fannie St. Firmin of Paris. Also included are numerous documents and letters (some in French) concerning the French Revolution, with hints about Vernon's mysterious involvement (including a short term of imprisonment during the Reign of Terror [it is thought that Vernon Jr. smuggled many members of the French nobility to safety and was repaid with art, which he sent to his father's house in Newport]). This is a fascinating and delightful collection which has been well-cared-for.
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