Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)
“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”
As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.
If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.
On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.
Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.
The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.
The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.
When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.
Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.
Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.
I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.