Allan Powell: Ethan Allen, a larger view

August 09, 2013

For those who have been inspired by the scanty (but thrilling) facts and legends about the woodland exploits of Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, the more complete coverage written by Willard Sterne Randall will be a joy to read. It quickly became clear that Randall’s extensive account (more than 500 pages) was the story of a more sophisticated and complex person than is portrayed in our history texts.

For most readers, Allen’s life is defined by the daring, predawn conquest of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. In this raid, he and his Green Mountain Boys took possession of many much-needed cannons and supplies to carry on a successful rebellion against England. But there is more to this largely self-taught “backwoods philosopher” than meets the eye. He referred to himself as a “clodhopper philosopher.”

Perhaps the one most significant influence in Allen’s life was the sudden death of his father at the age of 46. He was forced to discontinue his formal education (after only one year) to play the role of “man of the house” in the management of the family farm. As a youth of only 17 years, Allen was a model of maturity in completing the many tasks thrust upon one who had planned for a totally different career.

His first order of business was to pay off all of his father’s debts. This did not stifle his interest in the purchase of land for future resale. In addition, he became interested in the production of iron. The hills of Connecticut provided the ore. The abundance of hardwood in the untouched forests provided the source for potash, also needed for soap and gunpowder. When he reached the age of 26, Allen was well on his way to being an ironmaster.

It is important, if we are to grasp how one could aspire to be a “backwoods philosopher,” to discover the source of his inspiration. For Ethan, it was a local physician who was knowledgeable in theology, philosophy and politics. They spent many hours reading and discussing Enlightenment literature popular at the time. Many of these writers were partial to the idea of deism and became impressed.

Aside from the familiar ideas of a profound respect for reason, the emerging scientific method, a guarded skepticism and a fascination with biblical criticism, these thinkers took a liking to one of the core ideas of deists. Their deity was quite distinctive in that it was the creator of the universe and all of its laws of operation, who then receded from any further activity. Their deity was, in effect, an absentee landlord. I have always been puzzled as to why so many Enlightenment intellectuals were attracted to such a limited deity.

We get an idea of Allen’s character and intellectual strength in his reaction to a new cure for the dreaded ravager of the frontier: smallpox. He defied law, custom and religious authority to accept inoculation in front of the Salisbury meeting house. This was a courageous refusal to accept Puritan orthodoxy, which compelled all to accept the doctrine that it was a sin to interfere with God’s will by trying to prevent death.

It must be noted that Allen had several undesirable traits. He was too ready to “blaspheme,” emit profanity and physically assault when pressed. For this, he was banished from two towns. He was fortunate to be rescued by a brother who accepted him and his wife and children into his home. He survived by hunting and trapping in the wilds surrounding Lake Champlain and what was to become the state of Vermont. This three-year period of suffering while fighting the elements of nature reads like fiction. This experience served him well when he led the Green Mountain Boys against the British.

It was in the summer of 1771 (a mere five years before the Declaration of Independence) that Allen engaged in armed conflict, which earned him the mythic stature as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys. To stop New York posses sent to dispossess their farms, Allen, and local militias he organized, threatened certain death and sent them home empty-handed. This training prepared these untutored farmers to take on the British Empire.

Allen suffered grievously for three years as a prisoner in unspeakable filthy ships and makeshift prisons before being exchanged. He then labored valiantly to get Vermont into the new United States. Allen truly deserved this simple complement from George Washington: “There is an original something in him that demands admiration.”

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

The Herald-Mail Articles