- Michael A. Bellesîles
Allen, Ethan (1738–1789), revolutionary army officer and politician in America, was born on 10 January 1738 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the eldest of the seven children of Joseph Allen (1708–1755) and Mary Baker (1708–1774), farmers. The Allen family lived in what was then a frontier region of New England.
Allen served briefly in the French and Indian War, though he did not experience combat. In 1762 he married Mary Brownson (1732–1783), farmer, with whom he had five children, and opened a productive iron forge in Salisbury, Connecticut. Allen's unusual religious opinions (as a deist) and outrageous personal conduct ruined this early promise, as he was warned out of Salisbury in 1765 and Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1767.
Allen turned next to hunting, at which he excelled, becoming one of the most notable professional hunters in New England. In 1770 he moved to the Green Mountains and began investing in New Hampshire titles to these lands, which were nearly worthless as New York claimed the region. Within a year he became the leader and chief propagandist of the largely bloodless resistance to New York's jurisdiction. In 1771 he founded the Green Mountain Boys to resist authority in the region of settlers backed by New York, and as a result a £100 reward for his capture was announced in the province of New York.
In his many newspaper articles and books Allen extended John Locke's ideas to a logical extreme. He argued that the land belonged to those who worked it, with or without proper legal title, and denied the right of any government to interfere with this labour theory of land value. Frontier farmers, Allen held, were therefore entirely justified in resisting those who tried to steal the land they worked. As Allen wrote in the Connecticut Courant (31 March 1772), 'we mean no more by that which is called the Mob, but to defend our just Rights and Properties'. After four years in which he had successfully nullified New York's rule in the Green Mountains, he used this line of thought to justify a call for the settlers in the region to create their own state and formulate its government according to their desires. The British government realized the radical danger in Allen's political theory, and the privy council made plans to send troops against the Green Mountain Boys in May 1775.
The outbreak of the American War of Independence prevented the planned military action against Allen's forces. Instead, on 10 May 1775, Ethan Allen led his Green Mountain Boys in a bold surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga. Within two days his forces had taken control of Lake Champlain without a single casualty, taking captive every British soldier in the area and capturing valuable stores of munitions. News of this first offensive victory made Allen an instant national hero, and the continental congress awarded him command of the Green Mountain regiment of the continental army. The elderly leaders of the Green Mountain towns, however, distrusted Allen as too radical, and gave the command to his cousin Seth Warner.
Undeterred, Allen joined the staff of the patriot general Richard Montgomery as a recruiter, enlisting American Indians and French Canadians to join the forces invading Canada. Allen made a serious miscalculation in launching a daring and unsupported attack on a weakly defended Montreal. He was taken prisoner and spent the next two years in brutal captivity in British prisons, aboard prison ships, and in the New York city gaol. Allen's family transformed his cruel treatment at the hands of the British into a cause célèbre in Britain and America. Having finally been exchanged in May 1778 for Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell, Allen wrote a narrative of his captivity that lacerated the British as vindictive monsters, while calling on Americans to abandon any thought of compromise. The work was an enormous success, going through eight editions in two years, and is rated the second best-selling book of the American revolutionary period after Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776).
In Allen's absence from the Green Mountains the region had declared its independence to become the state of Vermont, though in the face of unrelenting opposition from New York. Between 1778 and 1784 Allen operated as commander-in-chief of Vermont's forces, unofficial member of its legislature, chief diplomat, adviser to Governor Thomas Chittenden, and ex officio judge of Vermont's court of confiscation. He devoted his energies in these years to defending Vermont, in the process adopting policies that permanently tarnished his fame as a patriot.
From 1778 to 1781 Allen tried to convince congress to accept Vermont's statehood. Twice congress promised to admit Vermont into the union, only to renege on these engagements when the government of New York threatened to abandon the revolutionary struggle. In a dangerous gambit, Allen opened negotiations with the British commander in Canada, General Frederick Haldimand, to determine possible grounds for Vermont's joining the British empire as an autonomous province. Over the next three years Allen moved adroitly between congress and Britain, keeping each just slightly informed of his dialogue with the other. Allen stopped negotiations with the British in 1784, when passions within New York to retain Vermont died down. In 1786, in response to Allen's refusal to lead Shays's rebellion, New York's legislature finally gave up its effort to reclaim Vermont, though the state's governor, George Clinton, refused to approve Vermont's entry into the union until 1791.
Although he lacked a formal education, Ethan Allen had aspirations to be accepted as an Enlightenment philosopher. From 1781 to 1785 he worked to reach these ambitions in Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1785), the first known deistic work by an American. One-third of this long theological study is dedicated to showing the perceived fallacies of Christianity, the other two-thirds to putting forth a deistic religion of nature. Most copies of Reason were destroyed in a fire, traditionally assumed to have been set intentionally by religious opponents. Those who read Reason were generally shocked by its contents, and dismissed it and its author as ‘atheist’. This book faded from sight, though not without further undermining Allen's reputation.
Many Americans were repelled by Allen's religious heresies, agreeing with the Revd Lemuel Hopkins's portrait of Allen as a frontier thug:
One hand is clench'd to batter noses,While t'other scrawls 'gainst Paul and Moses.
Smith, 142Others found his political views reprehensible. The loyalist Peter Oliver thought Allen was 'of a bad Character, & had been guilty of Actions bad enough to forfeit even a good one' (Oliver, 138). But despite Allen's deism, even political opponents shared George Washington's estimation in 1778 that 'There is an original something in him that commands admiration'. Allen himself gloried in the controversies he raised as a 'clodhopper philosopher' (Allen to Crevecoeur, 2 March 1786, Ethan Allen papers, Vermont State Archives, Montpelier).
Despite his disappointment that Reason did not raise more of a firestorm, Allen enjoyed his brief retirement. In 1786 he made a successful journey to the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania, in support of the squatters there who proclaimed their right to the land they worked. He spent his final years just outside Burlington with his family. He had three children with his second wife, Frances Montresor Buchanan (1760–1834), whom he married in 1784. Allen died near his home in Colchester, Vermont, on 12 February 1789, and was buried in Colchester four days later.
- M. A. Bellesîles, Revolutionary outlaws (1993)
- J. L. Barr and S. Caswell, The genealogy of Ethan Allen and his brothers and sisters, ed. L. P. Krawitt and others (Burlington, VT, 1991)
- J. Pell, Ethan Allen (1929)
- E. Allen, Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's captivity (1779)
- P. Oliver, Origin and progress of the American revolution: a tory view, ed. D. Adair and J. A. Shutz (1961)
- E. H. Smith, American poems (1793)
- J. Duffy and others, eds., Ethan Allen and his kin: correspondence, 1772–1819, 2 vols. (1998)
- University of Vermont, Burlington, Bailey–Howe Library, family papers
- Vermont State Archives, Montpelier, papers
Wealth at Death
$70,000: Chittenden county probate records, Burlington, vol. 1 (1789)