The Vigilantes of Vermont

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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 …

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