by John McClaughry
Forty two years have passed since the appearance of an academically respectable biography of Vermont’s patron figure (clearly not a patron saint!), Col. Ethan Allen of Sunderland and Burlington. Burlington journalist-historian Willard Sterne Randall has now given us Ethan Allen: His Life and Times. It’s a lively, readable biography of a remarkable American, a man of whom author Stewart Holbrook remarked, “riot and tumult and followed in his wake.”
How one views Ethan depends a lot on one’s own preferences. Boozer, brawler, blasphemer, bully. “Lover of liberty and property.” Bold, brave, hot headed, intemperate, philosopher, pamphleteer, commanding presence.
Remarkably self-educated, a friend of scientific inquiry and calumniator of Puritan divines. Military hero, foolish adventurer, scourge of Tories, prisoner of war, author of the second most widely read work of the revolutionary era (after Paine’s Common Sense), A Narrative of Col. Ethan Allen’s Captivity.
Successful and failed businessman, absentee father, enthusiastic land speculator. Duplicitous negotiator (with the British). Father of independent Vermont.
Randall’s work gives ample coverage to all these features and more. It portrays Ethan not only as he saw himself – heroic – but as others saw him, ranging from George Washington to the Albany Junto to his British captors in England.
What, then, can modern Vermonters take away from Ethan’s rambunctious life? Let’s select just three aspects.
First, Ethan’s audacious capture of the Crown’s largest fortress in North America, Ticonderoga, was the first offensive act by the American colonists. Ethan’s startling, bloodless victory over King George’s mighty empire thrilled patriots throughout the 13 colonies.
Second, Ethan proved himself a skillful – and duplicitous – negotiator with Congress and the British governor in Montreal. Using the possibility of independent Vermont rejoining the British Empire, and a threatened expansion of “Greater Vermont” into New York and New Hampshire, Ethan kept the British waiting for Vermont’s return to the empire, while at the same time luring Congress into admitting independent Vermont to the American confederation. This was a major diplomatic achievement.
Finally, Ethan clearly understood the crucial importance of property ownership to liberty and self-government. He learned this from visiting the Hudson Valley of New York, where hundreds of thousands of mostly Dutch farmers lived as feudal serfs on the vast manors of the Schuylers, Livingstons, and Van Rensselaers.
The Hudson Valley farmers were not slaves, because they could always collect their household belongings and move on. But the baron owned the land itself, required two weeks of labor each year to maintain his roads, and insisted that all grain be ground at the baron’s grist mill, at his price. The baron enjoyed the legal right to evict his tenants whenever they made significant improvements to their plot, which could then be re-rented at a higher price. The tenant’s only right was to bequeath his servile tenure to his descendants.
By contrast, the New Hampshire Grants offered freehold ownership.
The owners could improve, sell, and bequeath their land in their own interest, and enjoy the economic value of their improvements.
Entering Vermont from New York in 1791, James Madison noted in his journal that the houses were larger, more substantial and closely settled, the fields “full of corn and potatoes, flax to make linens, wheat and clover and half a dozen grass crops for feeding livestock.” What a difference from the threadbare tenant farmers and ramshackle hovels of feudal New York!
The first two points are historical. The third, the importance of freehold ownership, is very much contemporary. Ethan’s allies of 1777 began Vermont’s first constitution, still in effect, by declaring “that all men have natural and unalienable rights, amongst which are enjoying and defending life and liberty [and] acquiring, possessing and protecting property.”
That hallowed constitutional right to property has been under attack in Vermont for the past 40 years. One can only imagine what Ethan Allen, come back from the grave, would say and do about the land use control schemes so favored by the pretty people who long ago supplanted the frontier freeholders who erected this little republic out of the northern wilderness.
A good guess would be: “Before those villains and schemers steal the property rights of freeborn Vermonters, I will make Montpelier as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah, by God!”
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.