Inventing Ethan Allen by John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2014. Hardcover: $85.00, ISBN 978-61168-553-4. Pp. XII, 285. Index, bibliography, maps and illustrations.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
“Where I’m from, we believe in all sorts of things that aren’t true… we call it history.”
-Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
The reporter’s quote from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence illustrates Professors Duffy and Muller’s first thesis in their recently published re-examination of Ethan Allen’s life and legacy. The professors discredit many of the fabled stories surrounding the most famous Vermonter, which have been uncritically recited by a series of Allen’s subsequent biographers. Maguire’s quote illustrates their second thesis in which a biographer’s contemporary environment and cultural needs impacts their interpretation of history and in this case creating Ethan Allen as a Vermont hero and founding statesman.
Professors Duffy and Muller posit that the dozen or so biographies of Ethan Allen’s life contain many inconsistencies, errors and lapses of missing important information. They commence their exposé by recounting the events around Allen’s death. The authors describe how even basic facts such as his date of death (ranging between February 12 and 17, 1789 as reported by contemporaneous sources), cause of death, burial location and family reactions are not firmly established and subject to considerable controversy.
Today, Ethan Allen is a larger than life character. He is a storybook hero to millions of children, a venerated Vermont statesman with his statue in the U.S. Capitol and a revolutionary war hero to many. His name is also a well-known consumer brand, ensconced on retail stores, inns, furniture, U.S. Navy warships and even an ice cream flavor (vanilla with chocolate covered almonds).
Allen is best known for co-leading the attack to capture Ft. Ticonderoga in the first year of the American Revolution. His audacity for capturing the “Gibraltar of North America” brought instant (for the 18th Century) fame and made him one of the most notable revolutionary war figures. Further prominence ensued from the publication of his book on his captivity by the British, which became the second largest seller in the colonies after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
While Allen was well known by his contemporaries, during his life he was not regarded in the first rank of either military leaders or founding fathers. The authors explain how Allen was exalted to hero status years after his death by burnishing biographers and historians. Duffy and Muller conclude that Allen’s stature was elevated to a pivotal war leader and leading Vermont statesman through a flawed interpretation of historical events, uncritical re-telling of folklore and incomplete research. These errors are uncovered to provide a more complex assessment of Allen. Further the authors identify several unanswered questions for future research and interpretation.
Creating a Hero
Professors Duffy and Muller describe the emergence of Ethan Allen’s legend starting with the first biography of Allen by Professor and later Harvard president Jared Sparks in 1834, 45 years after Allen’s death. Sparks venerated Allen depicting him as a “leading Revolutionary figure and committed Democrat”. Shortly after Spark’s biography, Daniel P. Thompson wrote a novel entitled Green Mountain Boys lionizing historically based exploits of Ethan Allen thereby fashioning a legendary storybook hero. This book became required reading for generations of Vermont school children.
Duffy and Muller believe that the veneration of Ethan Allen by these writers filled an unmet need by Vermonters for a heroic founding story to remind them that they came from virtuous and successful pioneers. Vermont in the mid 19th Century experienced declining economic conditions. Population growth had ceased with many families migrating west as the agricultural productivity could not keep pace with other parts of the country. In the tough times of the 1830’s, there was a need for an epic saga to instill pride in Vermonters and to recall the prosperous days of past generations.
Exposing a Hero
Professors Duffy and Muller expose much of which we read about Allen as myths and point out that there was another, more complex side to Allen. They present evidence that he may not have always acted as a loyal Green Mountain boy, was not a successful military leader, may have been a traitor to the American cause, may have had several significant character flaws and was not a virtuous founding Vermont statesman.
Protector of New Hampshire land grants Ethan Allen is widely recognized as the most prominent leader of the Green Mountain Boys. There are many stories of his leadership in fending off New York land claimants from exerting their legal rights to disputed Vermont property with New Hampshire titles. Professors Duffy and Muller assert that after the 1770 Albany Ejectment Trials which ended with a verdict for the New Yorkers, Allen appeared to have at least for some time agreed to side with New York land claimants. Further he may have taken a bribe to turn on his fellow Green Mountain Boys.
Ethan Allen as a military heroThe capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775 was an audacious action that furnished a big psychological boost to the patriots but was not a military triumph. Simply disarming a lone sentry and forcing the rest of the sleeping 35-man garrison to surrender, Allen and his 83 men seized the dilapidated fort. There was no battle and no one was killed. Allen’s leadership of this bold assault was subsequently marred when the attackers’ discipline dissolved into an embarrassing drunken affair consuming the garrison’s liquor supply.
Later that month, Allen launched an imprudent attempt to capture the British post at St. Jean, which was a near disaster. Later, Allen while leading a rash attack on Montreal in advance of the main patriot army was captured by the British. There is little evidence that Allen was an effective military leader.
Ethan Allen and the Haldimand Negotiations During the Revolution, Vermonters were in a vexing conundrum as they were wide open to attack from Canada with few military forces to resist. Further, the Continental Congress was unwilling to recognize Vermont as a separate state and New York authorities contested the inhabitants’ New Hampshire granted land titles. Given this situation, Allen and several other leaders opened negotiations for Vermont to re-join the British Empire. Some historians in an effort to rehabilitate Allen’s reputation have depicted these negotiations with British Governor General of Canada Frederick Haldimand as a ruse. Professors Duffy and Muller provide evidence to the contrary, which injects some doubt about Allen’s true intentions.
Ethan Allen’s Character The authors postulate a potential dark side to Allen’s character. They examine the possibility that he committed murder and was a slaveholder. Further, Allen’s reputation as a backwoods philosopher is also in doubt. Allen published a book entitled Reason, the only Oracle of Man, which may have been plagiarized from a manuscript written by Thomas Young.
Ethan Allen as the leading Vermont Statesman Allen is credited by many historians as the leading founding father of Vermont. Duffy and Muller point out that Allen was held in British captivity during the formative period in which Vermont declared its independence and created a new government. Further upon his return, he served briefly as a general in the militia but held no elected office. He was mainly an unofficial political advisor and propagandist who wrote several pamphlets espousing the Vermonters’ rights to clear land titles and invalidating any New Yorker land claims.
The authors’ reassessment of Ethan Allen’s legacy calls into question many of the statements, actions and accomplishments generally attributed to him. They argue that later historians had a much higher assessment of Allen than his contemporaries and the need for founding Vermont heroes contributed to the creation of several myths.
In many ways Ethan Allen was a hero, but in others a self serving character with tragic flaws. In the end, this complexity and uncertainty is why people are fascinated by his life’s story. Maybe this complexity is why Vermonters commemorated Allen by naming a remote, non-descript peak after him rather than one of the largest and most prominent of the Green Mountains. Mt. Ethan Allen is a rarely visited, hard to locate, tree-lined summit located in the Mad River Valley.
Duffy and Muller conclude with this apt assessment; “The real Ethan Allen does stand up, but few have seen him”. I recommend Inventing Ethan Allen for those who want to better understand Vermont’s most famous denizen and to better understand how contemporary society impacts historians, their writing and the need for critical historical inquiry.