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Green guerilla

Ethan Allen: Founding Father or rebel and hustler?

By James Zug
August 21, 2011

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Part of the historian’s gambit with figures from the distant past involves making them relatable. Nothing gets you past the scrim of centuries and into the three-dimensional better than details. In Harper’s magazine nearly 40 years ago, Barbara Tuchman dubbed it “history by the ounce.’’ Instead of history by the gallon jug, she went for the little fact that bred that elusive sense of familiarity. “History is human behavior, not arithmetic,’’ Tuchman wrote.

It is the little ounces of detail embedded in William Sterne Randall’s new account of the life of Ethan Allen that makes him appear so approachable. When he captured Fort Ticonderoga, he called the commandant a “goddamn old rat.’’ While waiting at the grist mill, he courted his first wife, the miller’s daughter. As a prisoner of war in England, Allen was visited by an acquaintance who whispered that bets were being laid in London on whether Allen would be executed. Then he slipped Allen a gold coin. You can almost see Allen fingering the coin as he awaited his fate.

Randall is used to wrestling with the capitalized, marbleized Founding Fathers: He’s done biographies of Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and Hamilton, as well as Benedict Arnold. Americans generally know much less about Allen than those others, beyond a few touchstones like Fort Ticonderoga, the Green Mountain Boys, and the furniture store (founded by unrelated New Yorkers in the 1930s). Allen was America’s first famous frontiersman.

Today, we’d more likely characterize him as a terrorist or real estate swindler. Or both.

Like Che Guevara, Allen was not from the place for which he became synonymous with liberating. He was a Connecticut man, born in Litchfield and raised in Cornwall (his parents were among the first to move to that remote corner of the colony). In fact, Allen was 19 before he ever left Connecticut.

With just a year of formal schooling, Allen was a classic streetwise American entrepreneur, always on the lookout for a deal. He farmed. He bought mills, mines, and forges to run an iron furnace. He invested in a silver mine, which turned out to be full of useless lead. He hunted deer to sell hides and trapped beaver to sell furs. He speculated in land. He was constantly on the move, whether from an unhappy marriage (he wrote hundreds of thousands of words but never once mentioned his wife) or from legal problems. He was sued. He got into fistfights and clubbed enemies on the head. Both Salisbury, Conn., and Northampton kicked him out of town.

Until 30 he remained fairly unsuccessful; then he found his calling. It was in the New Hampshire Grants. This frontier, recently ceded from the French, was the last unsettled New England backcountry. It was unclear who owned the area between New York and New Hampshire, and both claimed it. The royal governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, had long been selling land grants in the territory. After King George III declared in 1764 that New York had rightful claim to the land, New York insisted that holders of Wentworth grants pay them high fees to have their titles validated.

Allen, who began in 1767 to hunt and buy and sell land in the territory, emerged as the leader of the Wentworth grantees resisting the New Yorkers. They became the legendary Green Mountain Boys, with their fir twigs in their hats and Allen riding in front in his forest-green militia uniform. The Boys ran a guerrilla war. They burned fences, haystacks, and cabins of New Yorker settlers. They harassed New York surveyors. They gave an informer a sentence of 200 lashes. And at least two settlers were killed in skirmishes.

The American Revolution provided a much-needed break for Allen, who by then was being sought by New York authorities for arrest on charges of treason. Just weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Allen led the surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga. (Also with him were Benedict Arnold and - a lovely ounce of history - Matthew Lyon, who became a congressman for both Vermont and Kentucky, was imprisoned in 1798 under the Alien and Sedition Act, and wielded fire tongs in a brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives.) Four months later Allen was captured in a battle near Montreal and spent the next three years as a prisoner, much of it in the fetid holds of ships.

Released in 1778, he spent the last 11 years of his life writing books - “a philosopher on horseback’’ Randall calls him - and maneuvering Vermont into statehood. He fathered eight children (one died while he was a prisoner of war; a grandson became a Union general in the Civil War). When Allen died at age 51 in 1789, nearly a sixth of Vermont’s 80,000 citizens came to his funeral.

While there is much to admire here I do have some quibbles. Randall gets a few things wrong: Tar and feathering was not “invariably fatal’’; the Connecticut River does not flow through Worcester; and once Randall has Allen’s ancestors simultaneously sailing up the Charles River to Cambridge and taking “a terrible road through wolf-infested forests’’ (Cambridge, our fair city?).

Randall’s biography of Thomas Jefferson came out in 1993, and he gave just four pages out of 700 to the Sally Hemings affair, dismissing it as preposterous. Five years later DNA confirmed that Jefferson had fathered children with Hemings. Here his timing is better. As our country struggles with terrorism today, it is instructive to return to the origins of our 14th state in a bloody frontier war and the complicated man who led the fight.

James Zug’s most recent book, “Run to the Roar,’’ came out last winter. He can be reached at jzug@ earthlink.net.

ETHAN ALLEN: His Life and Times By Willard Sterne Randall

Norton, 617 pp., illustrated, $35