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?
Since Allen’s impassioned oratory made not the slightest impression on the royal government of New York, he turned as a last resort to coercion. Failed petitions and hostile courts had set off a genuine insurgency. The logic of armed resistance was persuasive to those holding lands from New Hampshire. On his own authority Allen organized the Green Mountain Boys in 1771. Over the next few years these ordinary farmers administered their own forms of justice. Although bloodshed was rare, the vigilantes used intimidation to great effect. They frightened sheriffs from Albany trying to evict families from the Grants, drove out surveyors employed by New York speculators, and threatened with violence the Vermonters who sided with New York.
Within a short time, Allen and his armed followers made it impossible for the dreaded New Yorkers to do business in Vermont. Why New York authorities did not counter with even greater force remains something of a mystery. They sputtered and complained, but they did not dispatch soldiers. And while the Green Mountain Boys were administering the people’s law, Ethan and his brothers established the Onion River Land Company, an ambitious partnership that speculated in the best lands of the Champlain Valley.
The American Revolution played into Allen’s hands. He hated aristocratic rule and needed no persuading to support his fellow New Englanders during the spring and summer of 1775. News of the battles at Lexington and Concord spread quickly through the Vermont countryside. But as Allen also knew, New York had been slow off the mark. That colony’s tepid response to appeals for resistance to king and Parliament allowed Allen to portray himself as a leader of the Revolution. As Michael Bellesiles explained, Allen successfully
clothed the Grants cause in the language of American resistance to Parliament and king, equating the struggle of the Sons of Liberty with that of the Green Mountain Boys. America battled for control of its property and future; so did the New Hampshire Grants. If the Grants equaled America, then New York was its Britain.
Allen moved quickly to seize Fort Ticonderoga, bellowing as he entered the poorly manned British post that he acted “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” In fact the members of the Continental Congress never authorized the attack.
Even at this glorious moment Allen managed to compromise his own reputation. On the eve of the assault, he got into an embarrassing quarrel with another American officer, Benedict Arnold. And then, a few months later, after some Vermonters questioned whether Allen had the temperament to command a formal military campaign, he organized a hare-brained scheme to conquer Montreal. Almost every aspect of the attack went wrong. He ended up as a British prisoner. For two years he languished in unsanitary English and American jails. His guards seemed to delight in humiliating the uppity American. But undaunted by the experience, he turned his ordeal into a best-selling book. A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity recounted Allen’s steadfast dedication to the principles of the American Revolution. If nothing else, this account helped him restore his own sense of self-esteem.
In 1778 Allen returned to Vermont from a British prison in New York City as a hero. In his mind, there were a lot of old scores to settle. During his absence Vermont had established its own government. The Continental Congress refused to recognize it as an independent state largely because the New York delegation blocked the move at every turn. New York still thought that it could gain control over the lands of Vermont. As anger built among those who had title from New Hampshire, Allen convinced his friends that they should appoint him to the top position in a quasi-judicial body known as the Board of Confiscation. This group was charged with seizing lands belonging to known enemies of the United States. The commission then sold the sequestered property at auction and the money poured into the Vermont treasury.
The popularity of this scheme owed much to the fact that, by virtue of it, Vermont was able to finance the costs of waging war without having to raise special taxes. At first, Allen focused on estates deserted by their Tory owners. But he gradually expanded the net to include supporters of New York who remained in Vermont. These people were driven out after being exposed by the board. Soon the definition of enemy came to include citizens who denied the legality of the New Hampshire Grants. About Allen’s motives, there can be no doubt. He confessed to a New Hampshire congressman that his aim was to expel “New York Malcontents” from Vermont. Without the slightest indication that his own financial interests were involved, he announced, “These inimical persons are Yorkers as well as Tories.”
In 1782 one community tried desperately to hold out against Allen. The people of Guilford were determined to remain under the authority of New York. They badly misjudged the determination of their adversary. Allen mobilized the Green Mountain Boys, marched to Guilford, and when the New Yorkers threatened to resist, he announced that he would “give no quarter to Man, Woman, or child who should oppose him.” Indeed, if Guilford did not surrender, “he would lay it as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah.” Allen may have been bluffing; he often did. But it took courage to challenge him, and Guilford gave up its allegiance to New York.
Allen’s obsession with full statehood for Vermont—meaning, of course, complete independence from New York—led him to make what may have been the greatest misjudgment of his life. During the closing months of the Revolutionary War, he and a tight-knit circle of political allies entered into secret negotiations with General Frederick Haldimand, the British governor-general of Canada. Allen hinted that if New York refused to allow Vermont to join the United States, then the people of Vermont might seriously consider returning to the British Empire as a colony.
It was a dangerous strategy. Allen apparently reasoned that he could play the British off against the United States Congress. By threatening to restore Vermont to the Empire, he might frighten American legislators into granting immediate statehood. For months he intimated that Vermont was so fed up with New York’s interference into its affairs that it would entertain the possibility of reaffirming its allegiance to the king. Haldimand was rightly skeptical, but he and Allen continued to exchange notes, which if made public would have left Allen open to charges of treason.
It seems extremely unlikely that Allen was serious about withdrawing from the United States. Randall makes a persuasive argument that he was simply playing for time. After the talks fell apart, Haldimand concluded in disgust:
I am assured by all [Loyalist spies], that no dependence can be had in Him. His character is well-known and his Followers…are a collection of the most abandoned wretches that ever lived, to be bound by no Laws or Ties.
New York finally gave up on Vermont. Governing such “abandoned wretches” was too difficult. Two years after Allen’s death in 1789 Vermont finally became the fourteenth state.
During the late 1780s the issues driving the great land war with New York became less pressing. Ordinary Vermonters no longer worried so much about ejections and foreclosures. The violence that Ethan Allen had visited on the enemies of Vermont faded into memory, or was forgotten altogether. In 1794 Samuel Williams wrote, “The controversies which took place between the states of Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire, were of the most dangerous nature; and they were agitated for a while, with a violence greatly unfavorable to the peace and safety of the whole union.” Allen had given voice to the people’s anger and frustration. As Williams observed, no one could have expected the people of Vermont voluntarily to surrender lands they had purchased from New Hampshire and had “made valuable by their labours and sufferings.”
Whatever Allen’s flaws may have been, he understood a central aspect of Vermont’s political culture. The farmers who so enthusiastically supported the Green Mountain Boys shared Allen’s contempt for special privilege. They believed that ordinary people enjoyed the same rights as did the rich. During their bitter fight to secure their property—during a time of insurgency—they developed an extraordinarily egalitarian society. The Vermont Constitution of 1777 reflected their fundamental democratic values. The document endorsed universal manhood suffrage, the first state to do so. Moreover, in a Declaration of Rights, the Vermont Constitution proclaimed:
No male person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one years, nor female in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their consent, after they arrive at such age.
These were radical principles for the times. Randall is correct to draw attention to the fact that “the Vermont Constitution went further than any other state constitution in guaranteeing human rights.” Allen would probably have endorsed these ideas, although when the Constitution was drafted, he was a prisoner of war. But even without his leadership, the people of Vermont managed to do what some insurgent groups seek to accomplish today. They made certain that Allen’s militant populism did not take a vicious or authoritarian turn. It is this achievement that gives the early history of Vermont enduring relevance.