Ethan Allen’s prevailing reputation among the general population remains that of a daring hero, but has suffered in the eyes of recent historians. Casual readers, aided by the embellishments of nineteenth-century biographers, remember Vermont’s Allen as the leader of the rebellious but honorable Green Mountain Boys and the conqueror of British-held Fort Ticonderoga. As a result of his widely-touted Revolutionary Era exploits, people commemorated Allen’s contributions to Vermont’s founding by erecting statues in the United States Capitol and the Vermont statehouse and naming national guard units, ships, highways, trains, and mountains after him. On the other hand, twenty-first-century historians are increasingly uncovering a darker side to Allen’s legacy. Recent monographs depict a thuggish brigand whose extra-legal actions thwarted legitimate New York control over the Vermont territory. Further, several historians allege that Allen committed treason by negotiating the return of Vermont to the British Empire during the dark stages of the Revolutionary War.
So, what is Allen’s legacy, and what should be his reputation? Returning to public voices expressed contemporaneously can help answer these questions. Ethan Allen’s activities were highly newsworthy, with hundreds of articles and citations in Revolutionary Era newspapers. Allen first generated a public reputation as the leader of the Green Mountains Boys opposing New York authority before the Revolution. After hostilities commenced, Allen became famous for seizing Fort Ticonderoga from the British and then being captured outside Montreal. After reportedly cruel internment, Allen returned to aggressively advocate formal recognition of Vermont by the Americans or the British. After American independence, he continued to be involved in high-profile populist causes, including the Shays’ Rebellion and the Pennsylvania/Susquehanna Company dispute. In later years, Allen professed radical deist beliefs in defiance of prevailing religious orthodoxy. During his life, Allen’s reputation oscillated between heroic and reckless, patriotic and traitorous, a populist politician and member of a lawless mob, and a celebrated and graceless public figure.
Ethan Allen’s first newspaper appearance in 1772 depicted his active participation in a land title clash between the New Hampshire land grant settlers and the state of New York. On behalf of Seth Warner, Remember Baker, and Robert Cochran, Allen asked the Connecticut Courant’s publisher to insert a letter from New York Gov. William Tryon and a response from those disputing New Hampshire grant holders. As the dispute deepened and turned violent, New York and Connecticut newspapers unflatteringly identified Allen and others as wanted criminals. As might be expected by a 1774 New York paper, Allen was named a “member of the Bennington mob” disputing New York’s land titles. However, the article did not label the mob as the Green Mountain boys or cite Allen as its leader. A few months later, papers elevated Allen’s role by publicizing a fifty-pound reward for his capture.
Within a year, newspapers transformed Allen’s reputation from outlaw to hero. The same Connecticut Courant propagating the fifty-pound reward cited “the intrepid Col. Ethan Allen” and the “valiant Green Mountain Boys” after the capture of Fort Ticonderoga’s British garrison. The initial report of the Ticonderoga seizure named Ethan Allen as the assault force commander and highlighted the participation of colonels James Easton and John Brown and two local captains, Edward Mott and Noah Phelps. There was no mention of Benedict Arnold, whom later historians credit as co-commander of the hastily-formed militia forces.
A few days later, the New-Hampshire Gazette published a second account of the Ticonderoga capture written by Colonel Easton, professing joint command with Ethan Allen. Easton claimed to have “clapped the [fort’s] commanding officer’s shoulder and demanded, in the name of America, an instant surrender of the fort.” Easton’s letter noted that Allen remained in the fort as the senior officer, again with no mention of Benedict Arnold. Historians discount Easton’s account as inaccurate and self-serving.
It would take several months for Arnold’s story to emerge. Then, finally, an article published under the pseudonym Veritas appeared in the New-York Journal, which named Allen and Arnold as co-commanders and diminished Easton’s role in the Ticonderoga capture. Written by Arnold or one of his supporters, the article ended by describing a testy conflict between Arnold and Easton, concluding that Easton acted as a “doughy hero.”
Within a few days, Allen’s reputation took a nose dive. First, Allen proceeded down Lake Champlain to Quebec against Arnold’s advice. Then, recklessly endangering his command, “he was attacked by two hundred regulars and obliged to decamp and retreat” with the loss of three men.A few weeks later, Allen again ventured into Quebec and attempted an ill-fated attack on Montreal in which a cobbled-together British force captured him and most of his command. A newspaper report indicated that Allen proceeded “without orders from the general and from whom (as well as others) he received much censure.” The article described Allen as a “high flying genius” who “pursues every scheme on its first impression without consideration, but less judgment.”
Over the next three years, harsh British treatment resurrected Allen’s reputation, as described in the newspapers. A succession of new articles labeled Allen as “intrepid and deservedly famous” who “suffered much in the cause of his county” with the hope that “he may again return to the bosom of his grateful country.” Newspapers throughout the continent prominently reported Allen’s May 6, 1778, release from British captivity. Several editors included Allen’s exchange with the coverage of the sensational exchange of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, while the New-Jersey Gazette praised “the much-abused Colonel Ethan Allen” for enduring harsh treatment.
In the spring of 1779, Allen published an account of his travails while a British prisoner, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, the first prisoner of war account by an American. Allen’s Narrative became an instant hit, reprinted eight times within a year. Historians estimate that readers purchased over twenty thousand copies. If true, only Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold more copies during the Revolutionary War years. Overall, Allen’s Narrative created the image of a notable patriot throughout the rebelling colonies.
Allen’s reputation soared after his release, and he became a feted celebrity. In particular, the Boston papers most favorably reported on a fall 1779 visit to the city. The Boston Gazette characterized Allen as “a gallant and meritorious Officer, and distinguished for his sufferings and exemplary resignation and spirit while in Captivity.” Later, papers as far as Virginia reprinted the Boston articles describing the Vermont rebel leader as “an officer of exemplary fortitude and distinguished merit.”
While the Rebel press gushed praise for Allen, the Loyalist newspapers raised the specter of an armed conflict between Vermont and New York. Coincident with the favorable Boston reporting, the Royal Gazette in New York alleged that Allen raised fifteen hundred soldiers to repel a New York attack led by Gov. George Clinton. As opposed to fighting the New Yorkers, The Providence Gazette reported that Allen attacked a combined force of British regulars, Loyalist fighters, and Native Americans in late 1780. “General Ethan Allen, with thirteen hundred brave Green Mountain Boys under his command, having pursued fourteen-hundred of the enemy . . . and that Gen. Allen had killed and taken six hundred of them.” This wild claim proved false but demonstrated the increasingly uncertain political environment in the Champlain Valley.
In late 1780 and January 1781, rather than fighting the New Yorkers or the British, Loyalist newspapers reported that Ethan Allen had deserted the Rebel cause and now militarily supported the British. Historians now know that there was some truth that Allen and other Vermont leaders flirted with the British governor of Quebec, Frederick Haldimand, with the idea of re-joining the British empire. The Royal Georgia Gazette reported that Ethan Allen and Seth Warner “revolted from the Rebel cause.” A Loyalist New York newspaper related that Allen gathered five to six hundred men to work in concert with the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga. Countering the Royal press, a Rebel newspaper scorned the reports of Allen’s “duplicity and treacherous intentions” by characterizing the source as “the lying Royal Gazette” published by James Rivington. Another Rebel paper disputed Rivington’s assertion that Allen deserted to the British, decrying “Jemmy’s arrogance.” A French-language newspaper published in Newport, Rhode Island, further stated that the British feared “this brave soldier every day.”
While rumors of Allen’s treasonous behaviors may have negatively impacted his reputation in some quarters, his name largely disappeared from newspapers, especially those outside Vermont. The situation dramatically changed after Allen published his second book, Reason, the Only Oracle of Man; or a Compendious System of Natural Religion, in 1785. Allen’s deist monograph challenging Christian orthodoxy generated a flurry of negative press, greatly diminishing his reputation far more than the Haldimand negotiations. A Connecticut writer described the Vermonter as “prayerless and graceless.” Another paper referred to Allen as “incendiary” and “his atheistical highness.” Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, one of the notable Hartford Wits, penned a derogatory poem that was reprinted in papers throughout the new nation. Hopkins concluded the twenty-four-line sarcastic poem with
The mocking newspaper articles accelerated with the publication of a purported letter from Lord George Gordon declining to have Reason dedicated to him. Most known for inciting the deadly 1780 anti-Catholic riots in London, Gordon later converted to the Jewish faith and ran afoul of British laws. Allegedly, Allen sent four copies of his deist philosophy to Lord Gordon, who replied in the published letter that he forwarded a copy to the Grand Vizier in Constantinople. Newspapers throughout the country reprinted these outrageous and sardonic reports of the impact of Allen’s Reason monograph. The Columbian Herald in Charleston, South Carolina, conveyed that Allen had “undergone a certain Jewish and Mahometan ceremony, in order to qualify him for the office to which he has been lately appointed by the venerable Mufti.” Lastly, a report referred to “St. Ethan” who received a gift from the Grand Signior of four concubines for changing Constantinople’s religion from Mahometanism to ALLENISM.” Likely, a reader inserted this item to make clear that Lord Gordon’s letter was a fraud. Only the most gullible readers would believe these Lord Gordon articles, but many enjoyed the ridicule and disrespect for Allen’s philosophy.
While controversy swirled around theReason monograph, Allen’s participation in the Wyoming Valley dispute in northeastern Pennsylvania tarnished his reputation further. Similar to the New Hampshire Grants/New York land title disputes, the Pennsylvania authorities disputed the land titles of Susquehanna Company settlers which Connecticut issued. The Allen family had a history of owning rights granted by the Susquehanna Company. Additionally, the company directors enticed Allen with twelve land shares to visit the valley to help prosecute their land claims.
Dripping with sarcasm, a New York newspaper article related that “Ethan Allen, seized with the devine flame of propagating his gospel, has lately paid a visit to the Wioming settlers, to whom he preached some of his pious lectures, to their wonderful edification. The disinterestedness of this holy man, cannot be too highly celebrated as, for the very trifling recompence of two townships.” Pennsylvania papers derided Allen as an “atheistical highness” and “Vermont apostle” who instilled in the mind of the Wyoming residents a “wild and fanciful scheme of Independence.” Allen’s participation became moot as the Pennsylvania government, with the assistance of Timothy Pickering, settled the dispute amicably. However, the scathing attacks from the anti-Allen New York and Pennsylvania press further blemished Allen’s reputation.
Over the next two years, Allen’s Reason remained in the news. Papers advertised Josiah Sherman’s monograph refuting Allen’s Reason, printed allegations that Allen plagiarized Charles Blount’s 1693 Oracles of Reason, and widely reported the prospect of Allen publishing an Appendix.. However, the polemic intensity in the nation’s newspapers decreased.
Ethan Allen died before the Reason appendix could be published. A widely republished Vermont obituary touted the patriotism of a “great man,” noted his “exalted character,” and lamented the “loss of a man who has rendered them great service, both in council and in arms; and his family, an indulgent friend, and tender parent.” Other death notices recalled Allen as honorable, respectable, and “celebrated and truly eccentric.” Most obituaries noted Allen’s military services and called his philosophy volume “Allen’s Bible.” Omitted from the death notices were Allen’s leadership of the “Bennington Mob,” his 1780-81 flirtations with re-joining the British, and the bitterness surrounding his deist views. Presaging Allen’s nineteenth-century transformation into a folklore hero, several papers printed an apocryphal story of Allen’s passing:
The manner of death of Ethan Allen, Esq. was nearly as he had frequently wished it to be. – He was in his barnyard, and feeling his dissolution rapidly approaching, said to a boy with him, “Take good care of the Creatures,” and fell dead on the ground.
Over Allen’s fifty-one years, he garnered well over five hundred positive and negative newspaper mentions. While modern-day readers recall Allen as the Green Mountain Boys leader, Fort Ticonderoga’s conqueror, and the Vermont politician who toyed with the British, his contemporaries remember him for his Narrative and Reason monographs. These two publications created blockbuster news, which the period press reported widely. While other primary sources besides newspapers are required to understand a person’s reputation fully, newspaper accounts are vital in assessing Allen’s public persona and augmenting the historical record. Additionally, the public reception of his two books significantly contributes to understanding Allen’s reputation among his contemporaries.
“Friday, April 6, 1787,” Pennsylvania Mercury, and Universal Advertiser, April 6, 1787, 3. For an analysis of the potential plagiarism, see Benjamin Kolenda, “Re-Discovering Ethan Allen and Thomas Young’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man: The Rise of Deism in Pre-Revolutionary America.,” in English Thesis, 2013.