Ethan Allen: His Life and Times

  • Willard Sterne Randall
  • W. W. Norton & Company
  • 617 pp.
  • September 20, 2011

A long overdue look at the champion of colonial farmers in Vermont and first hero of the American Revolution.

Reviewed by James A. Percoco

Ben and Jerry’s. Stowe and Killington. Maple syrup. These terms conjure up images of the bucolic Green Mountain State, Vermont. The state has hit the front pages recently as a result of the battering inflicted by Tropical Storm Irene. But the tempest unleashed on Vermont last month is nothing like the storms that wracked Vermont for more than two decades from the mid-1760s to the late 1780s. At the center of this 18th-century vortex was Ethan Allen, a figure akin in American myth and imagination to Daniel Boone or Davey Crockett. Thankfully, Willard Sterne Randall has provided for us a long overdue biography of this first hero produced by the American Revolution.

While Randall’s work could have used some judicious editing, he paints a portrait of a time and place in American history often forgotten: the struggle of Vermont settlers, caught in the vise-grip of scheming colonial governors of New Hampshire and New York. In many ways Randall’s account is more about the Founding Father of Vermont and how the struggle led by Ethan Allen, with a particular sense of destiny, purpose and craftiness, conflicted with British colonial policy’s paternalistic attitude towards the American empire — a behavior often inculcated by colonial royal governors and their cronyism.

Randall’s sub-title, all too commonly used in biographies, is an apt description of what the author presents. Between the covers readers encounter a cast of characters ranging from historical giants such as George Washington and Benedict Arnold to Allen’s large extended clan, and from Allen’s hand-picked Green Mountain Boys to the spurious British officials and their minions who enforced royal authority. Eighteenth-century Vermont was characterized by greed, graft, corruption and duplicity parceled out to those who could least defend themselves.  It was in this world that Allen proclaimed himself the champion of ordinary colonial farmers and their families who settled the fertile lands west of the Connecticut River and east of Lake Champlain — the Hampshire Land Grants. Vermont’s 18th-century geographic beauty as well as its climate plays a large role in the story as well.

Lured north, in part by Allen, who had reconnoitered the Land Grants, settlers poured into the region seeking a better life. They paid for the land through the agency of the Governors of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth and then his nephew, John. The land was purchased on the assumption that it was free from others’ claims. But several governors of New York claimed the land as part of their colonial holdings. Trite concerns were aired in correspondence between New York and New Hampshire, but no more. The colonial office in London likewise cared little that those who settled the land were intimidated, harassed, and arrested by New York agents. Allen, a shrewd land speculator himself, also seeking to pocket some spoils, played the game to his advantage when he could, though always under the pretext of supporting the settlers claiming that the land had been fairly purchased from New Hampshire. In this mix was founded America’s first paramilitary organization, the Green Mountain Boys, with Allen at the head.

Randall asserts, “Allen and his militia of roughshod Vermont settlers were, to be fair, exerting an eighteenth-century vigilantism … Coupled with the tactics of intimidation used by ten thousand Sons of Liberty in the period before the Revolution, it raises an unsettling question: was America founded, at least in part, on terrorism?” This may say more about Willard Sterne Randall and his times than it does about life in colonial New England.

The frontier struggle of New England during this era continued to be played out against the backdrop of the struggle for American independence. Randall skillfully weaves together the tale of Allen and his attack on Fort Ticonderoga, his efforts in person to solicit the support of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and his botched attack on Montreal, which landed him in the hands of the British as a prisoner of war. Incarcerated in deplorable conditions in North America and later in England, Allen was subsequently exchanged with the assistance of George Washington. The post-Revolution Allen worked to secure statehood for Vermont as the 14th state in the Union.  Sadly, Allen never lived to see that outcome, dying at age 51, though having lived a life of many lives.

Randall’s biography shows us a complicated and complex man. Allen was brilliant, though his collegiate career at Yale never materialized through no fault of his own. He was focused, zealous and well read in contemporary political and religious tenets. His autobiography of his imprisonment was an early American bestseller, popular well into the 19th century. The last chapter’s title, “Clodhopper Philosopher,” provides readers a peek into Randall’s affection for his subject, though it is in no measure gushing. The author has shown us a fully realized human being. Allen was a bulk of a man both physically and mentally, but his sometimes mixed motives also show him to be psychologically nuanced. The author gives us insight as to how Vermont and the residents of the Green Mountain State remain singularly independent.

James A. Percoco is a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame and is director of education for the Friends of the National World War II Memorial.

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