Wednesday, July 3, 2013
July 3, 2013: Revolutionary Realities: Ethan Allen
[To celebrate the Fourth, a series on some of the realities behind our Revolutionary myths. Add your takes and Revolutionary ideas and interests for a weekend post that’s sure to set off fireworks!]
On the less than noble side to one of the Revolution’s folk heroes.
This is a tough post for me to write: Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys might not have the national reputation of the Concord Minutemen, but in their native Vermont and throughout New England they’re definitely folk heroes; and I know that my Mom grew up (just outside of Boston) as a big fan. And there’s no question that their May 1775 surprise capture of Fort Ticonderoga represented one of the Revolution’s most significant victories, not only tactically but also symbolically (only a month after Lexington and Concord, with the very status of the Revolution still up in the air, the victory made clear that America’s war effort was to be a serious and ongoing one).
I’m not here to challenge those histories (as far as I know Ticonderoga was all that and more)—but the Green Mountain Boys didn’t come into existence in 1775, and the details of their founding and virtually all of their other actions are far less admirable. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Boys were a local goon squad, organized by Allen and compatriots in 1770 to intimidate New York landowners into leaving the area (then part of New Hampshire) and ceding the so-called “Wentworth” land grants to locals. As far as I can tell the Boys didn’t generally take violent action, preferring threats and intimidation, but at least one violent event (the 1775 “Westminster massacre,” in which apparently only one or two landowners died but many more were affected) resulted from these conflicts. Moreover, the Boys didn’t graduate from these local acts to Revolutionary ones so much as temporarily pause for the latter—as early as 1778 Allen and company were back in Vermont and focused once again on the land grant battles (as well as the possibility of becoming a separate British province!).
So what would it mean if we remembered these different sides to Allen? Those who critique “revisionist history” would argue that I’m seeking to undermine his heroism, to tear down an American icon, and so on. Part of my response would be that both elements must be included in any accurate history of the man, his military importance to the Revolution as well as his more shady local endeavors. But another and more significant part would be that Allen offers a far more historically meaningful portrait of the Revolutionary era, a moment in which hugely defining and world-altering events existed side by side with the most petty and minor (and at times, indeed, ugly and divisive) conflicts. If anything, an awareness of that history makes the defining events that much more impressive still—in 1775, the 18th century equivalent of the Sons of Anarchy biker gang played an instrumental role in a victory without which there might not be a United States.
Next Revolutionary reality tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary histories or stories you’d highlight?