John J. Duffy, H. Nicholas Muller III. Inventing Ethan Allen. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2014. 304 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61168-553-4; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61168-554-1.
Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells (Quincy College)
Published on H-War (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The various individuals who comprise the so-called Founding Fathers were a diverse mixture to be sure. Some remain household names, others have experienced a renaissance, and still more have receded into the depths of history. Possibly the least understood of these men is Ethan Allen, with whom Vermont is inextricably linked. Most early histories of Allen are more mythos than true history, and a more critical eye is needed. John J. Duffy of Colby-Sawyer College and H. Nicholas Muller III of the University of Vermont have gamely accepted the challenge.
The overriding theme of the volume is just who Allen really was. “Will the real Ethan Allen please stand up?” is asked several times in the book. The problem is that only ancillary evidence about the man remains. After Allen’s death in 1789, his brother Ira waged a one-man campaign to ensure that Ethan and Vermont would be forever intertwined. There seem to be two widely separated versions of who Allen was. The first vision of Allen seems hard to believe, while the second version one wants not to believe.
The first version is definitely in line with the Founding Father mythos. Most colonies and states needed a near-mythical figure. As the newest colony, there were almost no individuals who could trace their lines in the area back to the seventeenth century. Rather, most Vermonters were a hodgepodge of transplants from New England (Connecticut and New Hampshire, primarily) or New York. The Allen family was originally from Litchfield, Connecticut. Allen’s activities as a farmer, land speculator, and rabble rouser against encroaching New Yorker land claims made him well-known in Vermont; while the attacks on Fort Ticonderoga and Montreal made him well-known in the Patriot cause.
The second version is definitely more critical of Allen and his place in early American history. This Allen was in many ways similar to John Brown a century later, yet without the sense of purpose behind the violence. This Allen was a failed farmer, whose land speculation skills were due less to legal or financial prowess than to intimidation from violence, whether it was real or inferred. Fort Ticonderoga was a ramshackle installation that was weakly defended. The Green Mountain Boys followed up their victories by engaging in a drunken riot; they were later heavily defeated outside the walls of Montreal. (It should be said that the lead prosecutor in this chain of events was Benedict Arnold, whose legitimacy is also questioned.) After being released by the British, Allen was implicated in the Haldimand Negotiations, wherein Vermont (after being refused by the Continental Congress) approached the British governor of Canada in regard to becoming part of the empire. This episode is regaled by pro-Allen supporters as equal parts incompetence on the part of the Continental Congress and Allen’s ability to play the British negotiators off each other. As Connecticut transplants, the Allens had African servants (Connecticut was the last New England state to outlaw slavery, despite Vermont being the first), though whether Allen had slaves is unknown. His daughter Lucy Allen Hitchcock owned slaves in Alabama and Vermont, one of whom was freed by a paid manumission (illegally, since slavery was technically against the law).
Allen and his escapades, real and imagined, take up the first part of the volume; the remainder touches on his legacy. The first of all Vermonters, a Patriot hero, what else is to be said about Allen? It turns out quite a bit, actually. Barely was Ethan in the ground before his brother Ira began the efforts that continue to this day. There were no doctoral trained historians in residence at Vermont colleges until well into the nineteenth century, so the bulk of the early work was done by the Vermont Historical and Antiquarian Society (now the Vermont Historical Society). The institution was courted by the Allen camp from the beginning; and most books, both scholarly and popular, on Allen and the Green Mountain Boys often used his accounts verbatim. The few revisionist histories that appeared were offset by many more traditional accounts.
So who was Allen? In many ways this volume asks more questions than it answers. Allen’s place, especially in Vermont, is more mythic pop cultural than historical. When I was an undergraduate student in Vermont, several of my classmates trained at the Ethan Allen Range; less than a mile from where I type this review there is an Ethan Allen furniture showroom. The authors ask “Will the real Ethan Allen please stand up?” He will, but only through more volumes like this.
This is a good book overall, and should appeal to anyone interested in America’s struggle for independence or Vermont history.
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Nathan D. Wells. Review of Duffy, John J.; Muller III, H. Nicholas, Inventing Ethan Allen.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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