- Virginia Johnson
If you don’t live in Vermont, the name Ethan Allen may just be a furniture brand to you. But the life of this key figure in the American Revolution embodied a lot of the conflict between the colonists and their English overlords. From relatively humble beginnings, the Allen family became involved in trade and land ownership. The problem was, wildly rich speculators from New York had in mind to keep New Hampshire land under the tenant farm system whilst the struggling farmers wanted to be able to own their land outright. Eventually the disputed land would be known as state of Vermont—after a time as the independent Vermont Republic—and Ethan Allen, a mostly self-educated man, would wield real power as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys—men like himself who lacked connections and great wealth but had ambition.
As the American Revolution came about, Ethan Allen called up his “Green Mountain Boys,” and they served with distinction. When they rallied before the important attack on Fort Ticonderoga, another then-American general—one Benedict Arnold—tried to pull rank and attitude on Allen and take over “the Boys.” It didn’t go so well:
“The two men faced off in front of the Boys in a field at Shoreham on May 9. At first, Allen, nearly a head taller than Arnold, seemed to cave in before Arnold’s ramrod-straight physical presence, but it was only an act. Allen knew that he had no more and no less legal authority than Arnold. But he also knew that the Green Mountain Boys around him, clutching their guns, would follow only his orders. He had successfully wielded de facto authority in the forests for four years. He did not intend to relinquish it now, much less to a bombastic elitist like Arnold. In a loud, mocking voice, Allen announced that Colonel Arnold would henceforth command the Boys. If they followed Arnold, their pay would be the same two dollars a day.
“Allen’s uncharacteristically unassuming tone sent a signal to his men. Without a word, they silently drifted to the edges of the clearing and stacked their guns. To a man, the Boys refused to fight under anyone but the officers they had already elected. If they could not have Ethan Allen as their leader, they would club their muskets over their shoulders and march home. Arnold had no choice but to back down.” (p. 39)
In Ethan Allen: His Life and Times, Willard Sterne Randall creates an extended historical portrait of Allen, a man for whom no painted portrait exists from his lifetime although the book’s cover shows details of a statue carved in accordance with his friends’ and relatives’ memories. It certainly looks heroic, but the statue gives no hint of the man who was roundly cursed on his death as a deist for not taking a more conformist stance on religion, who wrote philosophy books, promoted then-illegal smallpox vaccinations, was charged with blasphemy—and hunted, trapped, farmed and became known as the epitome of the Vermonter.