Allan Powell: Greed is as old as the Vermont hills

August 16, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

In his very fine book, “Ethan Allen,” author Willard Sterne Randall includes a story of ancient symbolism used by Ethan to describe events in New Hampshire and what became Vermont.

New York was deeply involved in the repossession of land in the two locations, which had been legally purchased and titled by hard working farmers who had invested money in development. The “Yorkers” were aided and abetted by greedy land jobbers, officers and courts.

When lawyers from New York offered gifts to Ethan if he should stop his opposition to their quest for more land, he replied with a little known biblical verse which probably baffled them: “The gods of the valley are not gods of the hills” (I Kings 20:28).

Set in historical context, the gods of the valley were worshiped in the lowlands where there were towns, cities and merchants. They were seen as an abomination by the inhabitants of the hills who were farmers and shepherds. Ethan was, therefore, comparing the honest laborers in the Green Mountains to the shifty land jobbers (the “Yorkers”) who would swallow up their farms. The symbolism used in 1770 is not off the mark today.

The valley gods are still popular today. Those who make the most fantastic incomes still have no problem spending huge sums to keep laborers who are unemployed from getting unemployment insurance, minimum wages and Social Security.

Meanwhile, many of the recipients of government handouts were saved because they were too big to fail. Indeed some of the wealthiest are protected from failure. They still claim to be the most firm believers in a “free” market.

Reduced to its most simple form, Ethan is saying that what is supremely important to one population is not admired by another population. The derivatives and credit default swaps of Wall Street may be poison to those who work honestly and fruitfully to provide for their families. They indeed may need protection from the “Yorkers” who can purchase power unavailable to laborers.

A sample of the land grants given by royal governors to their friends and supporters will give a clue as to the magnitude of the favors.

By 1764, in 15 years the Royal Governor of New York had granted land and pocketed the fees from nearly 3 million acres in what is present day Vermont. He had also arranged for his father-in-law (secretary of New Hampshire) to receive more than 300 acres in 51 townships (15,000 acres). This is but the tip on the iceberg. These were the same people who were using money, influence and power to force honest laborers to pay a second fee if they were to maintain possession of their homes.

It is no exaggeration for Ethan to plea in one of his articles, “Can any man, in the exercise of reason, make himself believe that a number of attorneys and other gentlemen with all tackle of ornaments and complements and French finesse, together with their boasted legality of law…have just rights to the lands, laborers and fortunes of the New Hampshire Settlers?”

It was sheer folly for Ethan to suppose that the people from the valley could comprehend the mind of the people from the hills. Today, the same inability to have a meeting of the minds is evident in finding solutions to our financial and social woes.

For years I had held a great sympathy for the Loyalists who lost their homes and property to live in exile in Canada, England and other lands when they were forcibly ejected by the patriots. However, reflection has reminded me that these Loyalist “valley people” were the very ones who joined together to dispossess the homes and property of the hard working settlers in the Green Mountains. They were now reaping what they had sown.

What we learn from this symbolism of the ancient world is that people of the lowlands worship different values than those from the hills and that this has not changed. We might call this the “Judge Judy factor.” Every session of her court is a contest between “givers” and “takers.” It is quite predictable that takers seldom, if ever, recognize that they are takers.

Whether we are talking about the lower Mediterranean (over 3,000 years ago), the Green Mountains of the 1750s or present day Wall Street, “takers” are governed by an expanded sense of self interest. History repeats itself to the extent that we repeat ourselves.

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

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