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The Vigilantes of Vermont

Granger Collection
Ethan Allen capturing Fort Ticonderoga, May 1775; nineteenth-century engraving

Like many ambitious people, Ethan Allen felt certain that his life contained the stuff of legend. A prolific writer and shameless self-promoter, Allen made much of his rise from a restless youth to revolutionary leader. Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1738, he joined thousands of hard-working New Englanders in moving north to the region that would one day become Vermont. When these migrants who dreamed chiefly of owning their own land were caught in the middle of a bitter controversy between New York and New Hampshire over which colony actually controlled the territory, Allen courageously championed their rights.

When legal appeals failed after 1770 to settle the disagreement, Allen organized the Green Mountain Boys, a formidable paramilitary force. Under his leadership, these insurgents resisted powerful New York speculators who threatened to strip the settlers of their holdings. As Samuel Williams, Vermont’s first historian, wrote in 1794:

In this scene of violence, and opposition to the proceedings of New-York, Ethan Allen placed himself at the head of the opposition. Bold, enterprising, ambitious, with great confidence in his own abilities, he undertook to direct the proceedings of the inhabitants.

In a brilliant move that merged local grievances with the larger Revolutionary crisis, on May 10, 1775, Allen and his followers seized Fort Ticonderoga, a British stronghold on Lake Champlain. Not surprisingly, Allen depicted himself as the hero of the day.

In his thoroughly researched and well-written study, Willard Sterne Randall does not dispute the general outline of Allen’s life story. Randall reminds us, however, that Allen exaggerated his own accomplishments. The leader of the Green Mountain Boys may have railed against greedy speculators from New York, for example, but he did not have much to say about the complex land deals that brought him and his brothers a small fortune. Nor did Allen dwell on the fact that taking Ticonderoga did not represent a major military challenge since only a small detachment of British soldiers defended the fort. To be sure, Randall’s Allen remains a remarkable figure, a bold, physically imposing man with a flair for the dramatic. But because Allen was also stubborn and combative, he made poor judgments that undermined his own heroic tale.

A balanced account of Allen’s life requires considerable finesse. The problem is not simply resisting the appeal of Allen’s self-serving rhetoric, as Randall does. The more pressing issue is rather that the details of Allen’s life become so entangled with the aspirations of the ordinary farmers of Vermont that they may merge into a single story. When this occurs—as it occasionally does in Randall’s telling—Allen becomes a representative figure who gives voice to the values of the people. The assumption works well enough during the years before the Revolution. Allen’s militant populism appealed to the poor settlers who saw themselves as the victims of venal legal and political institutions.

But after 1775 the two stories diverge. At a certain moment, the people of Vermont no longer needed an insurgent leader. They wanted to establish a secure state that would govern within a constitutional frame. In 1777, without guidance from Allen—he was then a British prisoner of war—Vermonters not only declared themselves citizens of an independent republic, but also ratified one of the most liberal, egalitarian constitutions in American history. Randall’s book thoughtfully explores the process of state-building. He invites readers to consider how a populist movement led by a violent, charismatic figure managed to give birth to an extraordinarily stable democratic society. In this, Randall complements an earlier study by Michael A. Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (1993). Both books suggest that ordinary people can be trusted to make fair political decisions. That is a story that modern readers may find consoling.

Ethan Allen was raised in a solid middle-class Connecticut family that traced its roots to the founding of New England. When Ethan’s father died unexpectedly, the son, who had planned to enter Yale College, found himself supporting a large group of siblings. Although he worked hard and was amazingly fit, he never was able to fulfill his own high expectations for success. He tried his hand at agriculture, and then in 1762 he constructed a blast furnace in Salisbury, and for a time this enterprise provided the clever, self-educated young man a good income.

But Allen remained unsatisfied. Running a small business was limiting, and perhaps to fight boredom he spent long evenings with his neighbor Dr. Thomas Young discussing religion and political philosophy. A radical thinker for the times, Young exercised a powerful influence over Allen’s intellectual development. In 1764 Allen asked Young to inoculate him against smallpox. While many enlightened Americans endorsed this procedure, the colonial government of Connecticut did not. The authorities feared that inoculation might actually spread the disease. Law or no law, Allen pressed ahead. As Randall explains, “After Congregational services on a Sunday morning, in front of the Salisbury meetinghouse…Dr. Young inoculated Ethan Allen before a horrified crowd.” Allen’s brazen defiance of the law not only frightened the community but also angered the local pastor. No longer welcome in Salisbury, Allen moved to Massachusetts, where he managed a lead mine in Northampton. Once again, after a promising start, he clashed with local authorities. He not only mocked orthodox religion as practiced in the community, but also told rude jokes to the workers in the lead mine. His behavior resulted in his being ousted from Northampton by the local select board.

Thirty years old, married, and lacking financial resources, Allen turned his attention to Vermont. Many young men from New England made the same decision. Some of them had fought for Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), and as they battled French forces on New England’s northern frontier, it occurred to them that the open lands along the Connecticut River and the Champlain Valley would make excellent farms. No one worried about Native American claims. For families on the move, Vermont offered the prospect of a new economic start.

These adventurers soon learned a hard lesson. The seemingly vacant tracts of land sparked a frenzy of speculation. Although he had no authority to do so, Benning Wentworth, the royal governor of New Hampshire, had sold off thousands of acres of Vermont. Brazenly corrupt and eager to enrich his own family, Wentworth peddled scores of townships, which became known as the New Hampshire Grants, or simply the Grants. Soon people throughout New England were purchasing shares of Vermont townships. Many speculators did not have the slightest intention of moving to the Vermont frontier. They waited for the market in shares to rise and then transferred their questionable holdings—often only a hundred acres—to another person who hoped to make a profit before the bubble burst.

The confused situation became chaotic when leaders of colonial New York reminded Wentworth that during the late seventeenth century the crown had awarded all of the territory bordering on the western side of the Connecticut River to New York. They had documents to support their claim. And in 1764, after reviewing the controversy, George III officially reaffirmed New York’s ownership of the entire region.

The order had almost no impact. Wentworth defended his unscrupulous practices. Even without possession of a clear title, people continued to trade shares of the Grants. New York officials responded by selling off huge tracts of land, ten or twenty thousand acres at a time, some of which had long since been granted by Wentworth. People of modest means who had cleared small farms thinking that they possessed a legal title from New Hampshire suddenly discovered that New York had awarded their holdings to someone else. By the late 1760s sheriffs from Albany began to threaten those who purchased land from Wentworth with eviction.

Allen had real talent as a speculator. He had explored much of southern and western Vermont, and knew the potential value of the rich valley lands. By 1770 he had thrown in his lot with the proprietors, claiming authority from New Hampshire. Although the financial risk was high, he traveled throughout New England buying up shares to the Grants. Market prices were low since sellers rightly worried that they might never obtain clear title to Vermont land. Once he had a stake in the territory—especially in the fertile lands along Lake Champlain—he employed every resource in his command to nullify the authority of New York.

Allen’s financial ambitions merged smoothly with the concerns of ordinary Vermonters. In newspaper essays and pamphlets, he demonized the large speculators from New York. He played the class card with populist abandon, depicting the land controversy as a contest between aristocratic New Yorkers and the hard-working farmers of Vermont. Allen blasted the “court sycophants and land jobbers” who threatened the honest settlers. In their attempt to monopolize the best acreage, the exploiters from New York had revealed themselves as “wicked, inhuman, most barbarous, infamous, cruel, villainous and thievish.” As Samuel Williams observed, although Allen was an indifferent writer, his

pamphlets were much read, and regarded; and had a great influence upon the minds, and conduct of the people. The uncultivated roughness of his own temper and manners, seems to have assisted him, in giving a just description of the views and proceedings of speculating land jobbers.

Whether Allen fully comprehended the dimensions of Wentworth’s spec- tacular fraud is unclear. Although he stood to make a lot of money from the Grants, he transformed the entire dispute into a moral battle. For him—at least in his many publications—the cause of the small farmers was righteous. At every turn learned legal adversaries dismissed his arguments, observing quite correctly that New Hampshire had never owned a single acre of Vermont. Allen was unfazed. He interpreted setbacks in the courts of New York as evidence of gross corruption. After one defeat in Albany, he queried,

Can the New York scribblers…alter wrong into right? Or make any person of good sense believe that a great number of hard laboring peasants, going through the fatigues of settlement, and cultivation of a howling wilderness, are a community of riotous, disorderly, licentious, treasonable persons?

During the early 1770s, Allen stressed even more forcefully the clash of class interests. The poor farmers of Vermont, he insisted, had been made the sacrifice of elite officials in New York. In his crusade against special privilege and excessive wealth, Allen advanced a natural rights theory of property most often associated with the philosophy of John Locke. By the sweat of their brows, Vermonters had established ownership of the land. What the lawyers had to say about common law was irrelevant. He demanded to know whether

any man, in the exercise of reason, [can] make himself believe that a number of Attorneys and other gentlemen, with all their tackle of ornaments, and compliments, and French finesse, together with their boasted legality of law,…have just rights to the lands, labours and fortunes of the New–Hampshire settlers?
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