Book review: ‘Ethan Allen: His Life and Times’
His Life and Times
Willard Sterne Randall
W.W. Norton: 619 pp., $35
As any student of Vermont history can tell you — and the recent flood devastation in that state underscores all too well — water has played a huge role in shaping what would become the 14th state to join the Union. The Connecticut River forms Vermont’s eastern border with New Hampshire, and Lake Champlain forms the majority of the state’s western border with New York.
But the boundary lines of current-day Vermont were hardly the result of riparian randomness: The future state was carved out of competing colonial claims asserted by New York and New Hampshire, and if there were a single individual who was as much a force of nature as the waters themselves at shaping the Green Mountain State, most historians would agree it was Ethan Allen. The exploits of this rebel, philosopher, land speculator and early hero of the American Revolution in defense of the property interests of Vermont’s earliest settlers made the lesser-known founding father a nearly saint-like figure to anyone growing up in Vermont (as I did).
Whether “Ethan Allen: His Life and Times” will change the Allen who is introduced to Vermont schoolchildren remains to be seen, but Willard Sterne Randall — a Champlain College professor and biographer of Thomas Jefferson and Benedict Arnold — takes great pains to paint a more nuanced, multidimensional (and far from flattering) portrait of Allen, intimating that he was as much of a terrorist, turncoat and narcissist as rebel patriot, and someone whose brash actions ended up doing as much harm to Vermont’s bid for statehood as his early actions did to advance the cause.
Randall is quick to acknowledge the Ethan Allen of legend. He describes him as “part Davy Crockett, part Paul Bunyan and two parts Jack Daniels.” His book hits on all the requisite tales of the Ethan Allen story. We’re told how he represented Bennington landowners against the hated “Yorkers,” organized a militia known as the Green Mountain Boys and had a crucial role in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga — which Randall calls “the first offensive military action” in U.S. history.
But the bulk of the book mines the lesser-known periods in Allen’s life, and Randall paints a vivid picture of everything from what clothes Allen favored (a beaver tricorn hat would become his sartorial signature) to what the streets of Philadelphia would have looked like during Allen’s first visit there. The book is subtitled “His Life and Times” for a reason.
To explain Allen’s well-known contempt for authority and his attitude toward religion, Randall spends some time focusing on the forces that shaped his early years. Born in Litchfield, Conn., in 1738, Allen grew up amid a religious revival that bitterly divided towns and congregations throughout New England. The only formal education for the man who would become a prolific writer and self-described philosopher was a nine-month stretch of intense preparation to enter Yale, which Allen didn’t do because of his father’s unexpected death, which put the 17-year-old front and center in the family business. His decision to get a smallpox vaccination — banned at the time — made him a pariah, a string of failed business endeavors left him strapped for cash, and Allen’s move from Connecticut north to what was then known as the New Hampshire Grants was an act of desperation.
Curiously, the actual raid on Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, is covered in just a handful of pages — many of which also involve Allen’s contentious relationship with Benedict Arnold, who accompanied Allen in the assault. It’s after that event that most accounts of Allen tend to fast-forward, fragment or both; some stories focus on his ill-fated raid on Montreal and capture by the British, others mention it only in passing and focus instead on his extensive land dealings and philosophical writings. Regardless of where they meander, most accounts converge around the time of Allen’s death at age 51 — two years before Vermont’s statehood.
But it’s during this period — May 1775 to February 1789 — that Randall’s book feels like it’s charting territory as unexplored as the acreage that Allen and his brother Ira (who would found the University of Vermont) snapped up as part of their Onion River Land Co. The author details the way Allen was perceived in the aftermath of Ticonderoga by everyone from his Bennington contemporaries (not well) to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (much better), and he makes a pretty strong argument that Allen’s actions could just as easily have been motivated by greed, revenge or a sense of inflated self-importance.
The most notable assertion Randall makes is that Allen’s treatment during, and repatriation after, 952 days as a British prisoner of war for his assault on Montreal served “as a precedent for how to treat, and not mistreat prisoners of war; how to provide for their exchange; and how to think about the troublesome intersection of prisoner-of-war negotiations and diplomatic recognition of a state or union in rebellion.” So at the same time that Randall makes the mythical Ethan Allen more human, in a way it also makes him more important — even to those who don’t know or care about his role in shaping Vermont.
One oft-observed fact about Allen (and one repeated in this biography) is that despite the long shadow he cast over the early chapter of Vermont’s history, there were no portraits painted of him during his lifetime — and precious few afterward. What Randall has managed to do, some 222 years after Allen’s death, is provide the most detailed and unvarnished, snapshot of Allen to date.
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