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Ethan Allen: A Man Too Complex to Fit Into History’s Portrayals

  • Ethan Allen's capture of Fort Ticonderoga is depicted in a 1910 painting by artist Percy Moran. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

    Ethan Allen's capture of Fort Ticonderoga is depicted in a 1910 painting by artist Percy Moran. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

  • Ethan Allen's capture of Fort Ticonderoga is depicted in a 1910 painting by artist Percy Moran. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Inventing Ethan Allen

By John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III

University Press of New England

304 pages, paperback, $29.95

Say what you want about Ethan Allen. Call him a hero for capturing Fort Ticonderoga. Call him a terrorist for leading mobs that torched homes and farms and horsewhipped civilians. Call him an opportunist, for speculating in frontier land. Call him a backwoods philosopher and scandalous freethinker. Call him a traitor, for threatening to unite Vermont with Canada if Congress wouldn’t grant statehood.

Whatever you think of the man, at least we can agree on this: he won the New York War.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of that conflict? Don’t I mean the Revolutionary War?

Well no, Allen didn’t win that one, though he certainly contributed to the ultimate victory. The 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga — for which Allen tends to get all the credit, though he shared command with another iffy figure, Col. Benedict Arnold — temporarily secured rebel control of the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River corridor. More importantly, it provided Washington with heavy guns that chased the British out of Boston, permanently. But Allen’s war went downhill from there.

All in that busy year of 1775, Allen led a disastrous raid on a Canadian fort, lost command of his Green Mountain Boys, took part in Montgomery’s assault on Quebec and was captured by the British. Though he was exchanged in 1778, his participation in the Revolutionary War was over.

But not his war on New York.

Indeed, a case could be made that Ethan Allen’s participation in the Revolutionary War was only an episode in his campaign against “the Yorkers.” Those terror raids against civilians? They started back in 1771. And their victims weren’t Tories, but fellow settlers in the Vermont wilds who’d made the mistake of buying their land from New York, which claimed the wilds between the Hudson and the Connecticut — a claim upheld by King George III.

Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys had bought their land from New Hampshire’s Governor Benning Wentworth. New York rule would ruin them. They interpreted New York’s often heavy-handed attempts to assert its legal rights as tyranny, and their own desire to hold onto illegally purchased land as a love of liberty.

They expressed this ardent love in flame and riot for years before the battles of Lexington and Concord involved the colonies in war against the British Empire. For Allen and his followers, Fort Ticonderoga was less important as an extension of London’s power than as a prop of the New York colonial establishment. A destabilized New York could not press its rights in Vermont.

Ethan Allen may indeed have told the British at Ticonderoga that he was taking the fort on the authority of “the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,” but he was often at odds with Congress and no one’s idea of a pious man. It’s likely that neither God nor the rebel government meant nearly as much to him as the Wentworth land grants.

It’s still more likely that none of this sounds like the Ethan Allen you learned about in school, or the one you’ve read about in biographies that emphasize his battlefield daring and American patriotism. That makes the achievement of John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III, authors of Inventing Ethan Allen, all the more impressive and revelatory. Rather than offer yet another biography, Duffy and Muller tell us how Allen’s messy, conflicted and inadequately documented real life became an absurdly airbrushed legend.

Starting with the problematically great man’s puzzling death and whoopsical burial (no one knows where his bones are), then looping back to his beginnings, they give us not only a succinct and insightful life story but also a history of the processes by which we have reshaped Allen to suit our needs.

That process began, of course, with Allen’s own spin-doctoring, most notably with his bestselling account of his capture and imprisonment by the British, who did the writer in Allen a favor by hauling him all around the war zone in various prison ships, supplying his memoir with newsworthy incidents and acquaintances. But his celebrity established a cottage industry of Allen-interpreting — much of it, in the early years, Allen-damning, until his character was amnestied in the eventual mellowing of all the Founding Fathers’ reputations.

Inventing Ethan Allen is a deeply satisfying read, in the manner of honest, such all-sides histories as John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive. We enjoy re-learning Allen’s own knotty story, but are even more delighted by the authors’ nimble leaps between Allen’s time and all the decades leading to our own. It took two centuries’ political discourse, newspaper debate, mainstream scholarship and self-congratulatory patriotism to wear Ethan Allen’s image to an almost unrecognizable smoothness.

The man himself was almost unforgivably rough. By the time Allen returned from captivity, Vermont had declared itself an independent republic. Allen set to work rooting out Tories; they were banished, and their land sold at auction. Curiously enough, the alleged traitors Allen fingered were usually Yorkers. He prosecuted this legalistic phase of his New York War with unrelenting vengeance — even accusing his brother Levi, with whom he just happened to be involved in a land dispute.

By contrast, Allen’s commitment to war against Britain was quite conditional. As the Revolutionary War wound down, and Congress made no move to accept Vermont into the new United States, Allen and other Vermont leaders negotiated with Quebec’s Gov. Frederick Haldimand. Perhaps Vermont would be better off as a British province than as the very small neighbor of a huge and aggressive new nation? Those who interpret Allen’s role in these negotiations as merely an attempt to put pressure on Congress have to contend with his own words, including his written promise to Haldimand to “do everything in my power to render this state a British province.” It’s no wonder that many considered the negotiations treasonous.

The Yorkers remained Allen’s real enemies. The revolutionary governor of New York tried almost as hard as his colonial predecessor to impose New York rule on Vermont. In 1782, Ethan Allen took the matter in to his own hands, raised a mob — or militia, depending on your interpretation — and attacked the Yorker leadership, who the new republic treated like so many Tories. The New York War — Vermont’s own, true War of Independence — was more or less over, and Ethan Allen had won.

Patriot or opportunist? Freedom fighter or terrorist? The trick to understanding Ethan Allen — and to making real sense of history — may be in accepting that opposite interpretations may both be true. Duffy and Muller’s Inventing Ethan Allen entertains and enlightens by explaining how we taught ourselves to see only one side of a fractally complex man.

William Craig is the author of Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantanamo . He is a visiting professor at Dartmouth College and lives in Thetford Center.