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Rebel with a Cause

In Ethan Allen: His Life and Times, the Vermont freedom fighter is revealed as a self-interested but fearless revolutionary

by Ann Morrow on August 2, 2012

On May 10, 1775, Ethan Allen and a mere 80 or so frontiersmen launched a predawn attack on Fort Ticonderoga, the formidable British fortress up north. It was “the first military offensive action in the history of the United States,” and a daring success: Captured heavy artillery was sent to Boston, altering the course of the uprising against the Crown. This pivotal raid wouldn’t have happened without Allen, a physically enormous, work-hardened, and roughly charismatic farmer from the contested territory later known as Vermont. It wasn’t long before Allen was deemed by the redcoats to be the most dangerous man in the colonies, and he narrowly avoided being hanged, drawn and quartered.

In Ethan Allen: His Life and Times, biographer Willard Sterne Randall reaches beyond the mythos of a man who was a legend during his own lifetime to reveal the complex circumstances that produced America’s first true revolutionary. In the first major biography on Allen in 50 years, Randall incorporates newly discovered source material to provide an unvarnished account of Allen’s tumultuous 51 years, as well as an absorbing psychological portrait. Truly a man of his times, Allen was not above enriching his station through real estate deals, even as he railed against the Hudson Valley land barons (including Philip Schuyler, Albany County representative to the Continental Congress) and other wealthy Protestants. As Randall implies, it’s possible that Allen’s heroism was as much a result of restless dissatisfaction—and recklessness—as it was a hallowed belief in liberty at all costs.

Allen was descended from a long line of pioneer Puritans and self-educated primarily through Bible study; his youth was shaped by the religious fervor that boiled over during the “era of sermonizing” known as the Great Awakening. The resulting conflict between traditionalists and reformers set the stage for a larger political rebellion, and also strengthened Allen’s anti-theocratic attitude. Unbeknownst to him, other future founding fathers were similarly rejecting the established religions of their native colonies, creating a profound historical movement that shifted theocratic control away from powerful clergymen, inspiring the determination for separation of church and state.

Like the preachers who dominated New England society, Allen, too, reveled in his ability to hold listeners spellbound with his roughhewn oratory. Later, he would use his flair for words to write an enormously popular memoir about his torturous, three-year captivity as a British prisoner of war (the book’s strongest section).

Though his business dealings bordered on avarice—he lost and gained several fortunes—Allen did not marry for money, unlike many of his contemporaries. While working long hours establishing an iron pot foundry—a criminal act, according to restrictive British trade policy—he married a friend from his youth, a plain girl six years his senior. They had five children and a faithful partnership, though Mary Allen, somewhat unjustly according to Randall, has come down in history as a religious drab and a scold. After being widowed less than a year, Allen remarried: Fanny Buchanan, an illegitimate widow, was as brusque and imperious as he was.

It’s not Allen’s personal life, however (excepting his close relationships with his adventurous father and his courageous rebel cousin), that gives this biography its headlong momentum. That comes from Randall’s skill in placing Allen’s actions meaningfully within the context of the turbulent times he lived in. Allen’s doomed attack on Montreal is described with edge-of-your-seat immediacy, yet Randall is equally assured describing the wider panorama of a continent tumbling toward open warfare.

The author of several American biographies (including Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor), Randall is just as unflinching with his portrayal of the future union as he is with the self-aggrandizing Allen, exposing some of the less democratic tendencies of the earliest colonies, such as how New England leaders schemed against Britain’s policy of religious tolerance for the detested Catholics in the largely French Quebec province, almost becoming carbon copies of the religious persecutors they had fled to the New World to escape.

Less than a generation before the Revolution, there was almost a civil war between New Hampshire and New York over the western frontier (marked by the Connecticut River), not to mention New York’s loyalist sympathies, represented by Thomas Gage, a British general who was severely injured while defending New York during the French and Indian Wars (and who married a Livingston heiress); and later, between New York landowners and Massachusetts immigrants over the great estates along the Hudson River.

In an age of outsized personalities, Allen held his own, starting with his prickly alliance with dandyish, domineering Benedict Arnold, and with his contemporary in incendiary bravura, Samuel Adams, a malt brewer, lawyer, and Boston operative. Several guerrilla skirmishes later, and Allen was de facto commander of the Green Mountain Boys.

Far from being a ragtag troupe of woodsmen, Allen’s militia was the largest paramilitary force in North America, including seasoned veterans and the support of landed gentry, merchants, and shipping magnates. Treacherous political intrigue and secret meetings at the Catamount Tavern in Bennington concerned not only waging war on the Crown, but an almost parallel revolution regarding self-determination—and later, freedom from double taxation—for the New Hampshire grants, the territory later to become Vermont. Eventually settling in Burlington, Allen fought tirelessly for his adopted homestead, agitating for the sovereignty of Vermont as ferociously as he did for freedom from British tyranny.

In a final contradiction, this indomitable man of action died quietly at home, a day after losing consciousness while sledding across Lake Champlain. Just days after General Washington’s election to the presidency, Allen was given a hero’s funeral by his compatriots. More than 10,000 mourners followed his casket.

Though the dangers of a wilderness frontier and the oppression of a vastly superior occupying force are long-distant memories for today’s Americans, the resolution of Allen and his fellow rebels holds perhaps more interest now than it has in over a century, if for no other reason than the enthralling retelling of how rich and poor alike refused to the greatest extreme to be taxed without fairness.