Ethan Allen’s character is full of complexities, making him a fascinating Revolutionary Era figure. Today is best known as the storybook leader of the Green Mountain Boys and the conqueror of Ft. Ticonderoga in the opening moments of the Revolutionary War. However, during his lifetime, Allen’s reputation oscillated between heroic and reckless, patriotic and traitorous, a populous politician and lawless mobster, and a celebrated and graceless public figure. It’s incredible how rapidly Allen’s reputation transformed during short periods of his lifetime! Additionally, his public persona’s ups and downs are more pronounced than any other Revolutionary leader. After Allen passed in 1789, nineteenth-century biographers transformed his reputation into a fabled storybook hero, which endured among historians into the 21st century and continues among the general public today. However, recent historians have challenged this view, creating a more complex and darker interpretation of his character, which is more interesting.
For a discussion of Ethan Allen’s historiography and many biographers, click this link.
For an overview of Ethan Allen’s life and contributions, listen to this Journal of the American Revolution podcast in which Professor Brady Crytzer interviews me.
The following articles shed light on Allen’s life and character. The first article answers the question of his motivations during the War for Independence and which side of the conflict he supported. The second article describes Allen’s military leadership roles and answers about who led the Green Mountain Boys during the American War of Independence. The third scholarly work addresses Allen’s oscillating public reputation. Lastly, the final article offers a British perspective on Allen’s character and reputation. Below are synopses of four pieces, along with links to the complete article.
1. Ethan Allen: Patriot, Land Promoter, or Turncoat?
In the region we call Vermont today, settlers from New York and New Hampshire vociferously contested land claims before and during the American Revolution. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, who aggressively protected their perceived property rights, were ringleaders of the New Hampshire claimants. However, the New Yorkers were equally forceful in pursuing their property rights, offering cash rewards for the capture of Ethan Allan and other Green Mountain Boys leaders.
Initially, Allen supported the rebel cause with his daring capture of Fort Ticonderoga. But as the war dragged on with an uncertain ending and the Continental Congress refusal to recognize the Vermonters’ land claims, Allen and other political leaders of their self-proclaimed Republic of Vermont were open to negotiating a separate peace with the British Empire.
Sensing an opportunity, Frederick Haldimand, Royal Governor of Canada, offered protection and status as a separate British Colony to Vermont in exchange for terminating Vermont’s support of the 13 rebellious colonies. Haldimand opened negotiations with Allen and other influential Vermont politicians and leaders through intermediaries.
Ethan Allen asserted that he had no intention of becoming a “damned Benedict Arnold” but also said, “I shall do everything in my Power to render this State a British province.” Was Allen, the fabled conqueror of the British fortress at Ticonderoga and a children’s storybook hero, really a turncoat on the order of Benedict Arnold, Allen’s co-commander in capturing Ticonderoga?
To access a presentation of the facts as best as they can be known today and discover an informed conjecture of Allen’s true intentions, click on the link below.
2. Seth Warner or Ethan Allen: Who Led the Green Mountain Boys?
The legendary stories of Ethan Allen and Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys have long been part of American folklore. Nineteenth and twentieth-century writers described fabled exploits in many fictional accounts and children’s books. Allen’s name is synonymously linked with the Green Mountain Boys as if he was their sole leader. However, while Allen receives the fame, there is a strong case that Seth Warner, a lesser-known member of the Green Mountain Boys, was the more impactful military leader during the American Revolution.
To discover more about the contested leadership of the Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution, click on the link below.
3. The highs and lows of Ethan Allen’s reputation as Reported by Revolutionary Era newspapers
Ethan Allen’s prevailing reputation remains that of a daring hero among the general population, aided by the embellishments of nineteenth-century biographers. People remember Vermont’s Allen as the leader of the rebellious but honorable Green Mountain Boys and the conqueror of British-held Fort Ticonderoga. As a result of his widely-touted Revolutionary Era exploits, Vermonters commemorated Allen’s contributions to the State’s founding by erecting statues in the United States Capitol and the Vermont statehouse and naming national guard units, ships, highways, trains, and mountains after him. On the other hand, twenty-first-century historians are increasingly uncovering a darker side to Allen’s legacy. Recent monographs depict a thuggish brigand whose extra-legal actions thwarted legitimate New York control over the Vermont territory. Further, several historians allege that Allen committed treason by negotiating the return of Vermont to the British Empire during the dark stages of the Revolutionary War.
So, what is Allen’s legacy, and what should be his reputation? Returning to public voices expressed contemporaneously can help answer these questions. Ethan Allen’s activities were highly newsworthy, with hundreds of articles and citations in Revolutionary Era newspapers. Allen first generated a public reputation as the leader of the Green Mountains Boys opposing New York authority before the Revolution. After hostilities commenced, Allen became famous for seizing Fort Ticonderoga from the British and being captured outside Montreal. After reportedly cruel internment, Allen returned to aggressively advocate formal recognition of Vermont by the Americans or the British. After American independence, he continued to be involved in high-profile populist causes, including the Shay’s Rebellion and the Pennsylvania/Susquehanna Company dispute. In later years, Allen professed radical deist beliefs in defiance of prevailing religious orthodoxy.
For more information on how Allen’s contemporaries viewed his character and reputation, click the following link.
4. British Fascination with Ethan Allen
The American public’s interest in Ethan Allen as a “larger than life” folk hero during and since the American Revolution is well known. After leading the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga in May 1775, Allen’s notoriety as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys in the northern frontier, which subsequently became Vermont, spread throughout the thirteen colonies. The thought to be impregnable Ft. Ticonderoga the British public regarded as the “Gibraltar of North America,” and Allen’s seizure instilled the widespread impression of a vaunted military commander. However, it would be Allen’s only military victory.
Even in defeat, the popular press portrayed Allen as a hero. On September 25, 1775, British forces captured Allen while commanding a rash attempt to take Montreal far in advance of the main Patriot army. A widely popular American propagandist play entitled “The Fall of British Tyranny” chronicled Allen’s purported heroic last stand. Adding to his courageous reputation, Allen penned a narrative on his subsequent captivity, describing harsh internment conditions while persevering through immense physical discomfort. His incarceration chronicle became the second most printed book in the United States during the Revolution (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was the most published). Further, Allen’s strident advocacy of Vermont’s independence from New York and New Hampshire, including authoring numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles, generated additional publicity.
But what is lesser known is that the British populace was also fascinated with Ethan Allen. He was the first high-profile prisoner garnered by British forces after the outbreak of hostilities, and Allen was among the first and only prisoners shipped to England. His presence immediately became a domestic British political issue and a rallying symbol for the opponents of King George’s policies toward America. Given this fame, when it looked like Allen might lead Vermont back into allegiance with the Crown, he provided hope for a British turnaround and victory. The British people knew much about Ethan Allen from copious and widely disseminated newspaper articles.
For complete access to this article, click the following link.