BOOK REVIEW: 'Ethan Allen': New Biography Reveals The Man Behind the Myth

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Ethan Allen': New Biography Reveals The Man Behind the Myth
I'm guessing that even those who pride themselves on their knowledge of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers probably don't know much about Ethan Allen. I didn't until I read Willard Sterne Randall's "Ethan Allen: His Life and Times" (W.W. Norton, 617 pages, 16 pages of illustrations, including maps, notes, bibliography, index, $35.00).

Perhaps the nearest comparison to Allen (1738-1789) would be David Crockett, also the subject of a new biography published by Norton. (Crockett hated the nickname "Davy").  I'm going to review the Crockett biography as soon as I can get my hands on a review copy.The lives of both men are accompanied by a bodyguard of myths, to paraphrase Winston Churchill's statement about truth being accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. 

Randall, the author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold and George Washington, admits in the end-of-book acknowledgments that when he moved to Vermont a quarter century ago to begin to write biographies, he noticed that the name "Ethan Allen" was almost never mentioned alone. It was always "Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys." And virtually all the accounts mentioned his frequent drinking at the Catamount Tavern in Bennington, his informal headquarters.

 And, of course, there's the confusion of his name with the Ethan Allen furniture chain. There is no connection, although Allen's father Joseph Allen was a skilled cabinetmaker. The owners of the the chain used his name because of the Colonial connotations of Allen's name.
Willard Sterne Randall
Willard Sterne Randall

 Randall even mentions the "part Davy Crockett, part Paul Bunyan and two parts Jack Daniel" aspect of Ethan Allen. Joseph Allen and his wife Mary Baker Allen were the parents of 8 children, all of who survived to become adults, which Randall mentions was unusual at the time. The Allen boys -- Ethan was the first-born --  all had Hebrew Old Testament names, Ethan ("strong"),  Heber, Heman, Zimri, Levi, Ira. 

Of course, next to his 32-month ordeal as a British prisoner of war, Allen's seminal moment in history occurred on May 10, 1775 when he captured British controlled Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain with only two boatloads of Green Mountain Boys. At his side was a fellow Connecticut native, Benedict Arnold, also the subject of a Randall biography, "Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor." Allen was born on the frontier in Litchfield, CT, while Arnold (1741-1801) was born in Norwich, CT.

One thing I didn't know was that Vermont was a more or less independent republic -- the first in the Western Hemisphere -- for about 14 years, five more than the Republic of Texas which existed from 1836 to 1845, when it became a state. (All those who scorn Texas and its governor for talking about leaving the union ignore the "Second Vermont Republic" movement). Vermont -- the name was coined by Allen's mentor Dr. Thomas Young, from "corrupted" French for Green (verte) Mountain (montagne) -- was independent from 1777 to 1791 when it entered the union as the 14th state. 

Dr. Young (1731-1777)  participated in the 1773 Boston Tea Party, not only inoculated the young Ethan Allen against smallpox -- a controversial procedure at the time -- but his Deistic religious beliefs "inoculated" Allen against organized religion. Both Young and Allen was attacked by religious leaders as atheists or Deists, equally negative terms to the believers of organized religion.  Young was hauled into court in 1756 accused of saying "Jesus Christ was a knave and a fool" and was forced to recant publicly to the court.

Vermont started out as the "New Hampshire Grants", land west of the Connecticut River which today forms the boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. The problem was that the province of New York in colonial days claimed all the territory to the west bank of the Connecticut River -- today's Vermont. For more than 30 years, this intramural territorial dispute outweighed almost all other considerations and led to the formation of the Green Mountain Boys to discourage "Yorkers" -- the local term for the hated New York land barons -- from enforcing their claims and evicting settlers or charging them fees to legalize their claims in the eyes of New York.

In later life, when he wrote books like "Reason, the Only Oracle of Man" (1785), a very controversial defense of Deism that Randall says influenced Thomas Paine's 1795 work "The Age of Reason"  Allen modestly called himself the "clodhopper philosopher." Modesty was not a typical Ethan Allen characteristic. As a young man, in his teens, he was on his way to a Yale College education when his father suddenly died, forcing young Ethan to manage the family's already extensive properties. 

He was largely self-educated, and was a prolific writer. His account of his brutal captivity as a P.O.W. in Canada, England and later Long Island by the British was a best-seller. His views influenced the constitution of Vermont, the first state to abolish slavery, and a state that completely separated church and state at a time when this was unusual.

Randall's descriptions of Ethan Allen's almost ceaseless land purchases, often for little money down, remind us that a passion for real estate was not unusual in early America. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both were real estate buyers on a grand scale, with the former buying large tracts in what later became the state of West Virginia. In addition to extensive holdings at Monticello, Jefferson owned the 4,800-acre Poplar Forest "retreat" near Lynchburg, VA, and, of course engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, one of the largest land deals in history, with the U.S. paying about $15 million for more than 800,000 square miles of land.

Randall reveals how  Ethan Allen, viewed as a  Robin Hood in the eyes of his dispossessed Green Mountain settlers, shamelessly added to the already extensive real estate holdings of his own family, a fact that is glossed over in many previous biographies. Allen emerges not only as a public-spirited leader but as a self-interested individual, often no less rapacious than his archenemies, the New York land barons of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. As his efforts to have Vermont join the other 13 states seemed to be in limbo, Allen made overtures to join the province of Quebec. He had obviously read Machiavelli. It wasn't until three years after his death in 1789 that Vermont was finally admitted as a state.

Randall's objective and well written life of Ethan Allen is in many ways a biography of the distinctive, sparsely populated state of Vermont. One of the fastest growing states in Allen's lifetime, Vermont grew only 2.8 percent from 2000 to a 2010 population of 625,741.

About the author

Willard Sterne Randall, born in Philadelphia in 1942, is the author of 12 books, including five biographies and two biographical readers. A former investigative reporter, he received the National Magazine Award for Public Service from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the Hillman Prize, the Loeb Award and three Pulitzer Prize nominations during his seventeen-year journalism career in Philadelphia. After graduate studies in history at Princeton University, he turned to writing biographies, which have also garnered three Pulitzer nominations.He has co-authored four books with his wife, the poet Nancy Nahra, including American Lives, a two volume collection of short biographies that has been used in more than 100 colleges and universities. A contributing editor to American Heritage Magazine and to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, he regularly reviews biographies for New York Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and the Journal of American History. He teaches history at Champlain College in Burlington, VT, where he lives with his wife Nancy Nahra.

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