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“in The Name Of The Great Jehovah And The Continental Congress!”
So bellowed Ethan Allen as he took Fort Ticonderoga without a shot. Once again the brawling giant of the Green Mountains had lived up to a myth that was indeed mighty—but no greater, perhaps, than the actual man
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
Upon his release in an exchange in May of 1778, he visited General Washington at Valley Forge. The latter immediately wrote to the President of the Congress about him, praising his “fortitude and firmness” which seemed “to have placed him out of the reach of misfortune.” Washington went on: “There is an original something in him that commands admiration; and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase if possible, his enthusiastic zeal. He appears very desirous of rendering his services to the States, and of being employed; and at the same time he does not discover any ambition for high rank. Congress will herewith receive a letter from him; and I doubt not they will make such provision for him, as they may think proper and suitable.”
But Ethan never actively served under the commission which the Congress gave him. His personal fame was augmented and the national interest served by his publication, in the spring of ’79, of a personal narrative wherein he told of taking Ticonderoga and of his “Captivity and Treatment by the British.” It was an exciting adventure story which went through eight editions in two years, and its account of his mistreatment by his captors (he had indeed been cruelly handled) was effective in fanning popular hatred of the enemy. His subsequent career, however, was identified not with the emergent United States but with the emergent state of Vermont, to whose interests, as a matter of fact, he soon sacrificed much of his reputation as national patriot.
As early as March i, 1775, Ethan in a letter to Oliver Wolcott had boldly proposed that the Grants be transformed into a distinct and independent state—a state free alike of New York and New Hampshire. When he returned as a hero from his long captivity he found his dream becoming a reality. Shortly after Ethan’s capture, General Montgomery had been killed, and the Canadian expedition had been abandoned, leaving the Grants’ frontier to the north and northwest unprotected against the enemy. Rather than call for protection from the New York militia, thus tacitly admitting Yorker sovereignty over them and endangering their land titles, the men of the Grants determined to defend themselves. Early in 1777, in a convention assembled at Westminster, they declared the Grants to be a free and independent state—at first called New Connecticut—petitioning the Congress for admission to what was then known as the Association of States. (It was Ethan’s old friend and mentor of Salisbury, Dr. Thomas Young, who first suggested the name Vermont—French for Green Mountain—a suggestion that had happily been accepted.) Since the Congress had thus far refused to recognize the new state’s existence, even though it had established a constitution (the first in America specifically to prohibit slavery) and had elected a governor, a legislature, and other officers, Vermont considered itself to be, and Ethan certainly considered it to be, an independent republic. To it he now gave his whole allegiance; of it he promptly became, as he had been on the Grants of old, the leading man.
It was in this role that he entered upon the most dubious phase of his career. During the closing years of the Revolutionary War he secretly intrigued with the British in Canada in order to prevent an invasion of his republic from the north, at the same time roaring his defiance of every order of the Congress which did not recognize Vermont’s independence or which seemed to threaten the legal title of Vermonters to the land they occupied. Such military activity as he engaged in during this period was aimed not at the British but at the suppression of “treason” within his republic and at Yorker (and congressional) threats from without. When the actual fighting of the Revolution had ended, Vermont was still an independent republic. She remained so until March 4, 1791, when, in the third session of the Congress, under the Constitution of the United States, she was admitted to the Union as the fourteenth state—an event for which Ethan Allen was more responsible than any other man.
But by the time it occurred he had been dead more than two years, and even in the state he had done so much to create, his name was under something of a cloud.
In part this was due to his British intrigues: there were many even in Vermont who looked upon these mysterious activities as treasonable. But mostly it was due to his publication in 1784 of the philosophical and religious work which he and Dr. Thomas Young, who died in 1777, had projected when they were young men together in Salisbury long before. The work’s full title indicates its scope and nature: Reason, The Only Oracle of Man; Or, A Compenduous System of Natural Religion, to which is Added Critical Remarks on the Truth and Harmony of the Four Gospels with Observations on the Instructions Given by Jesus Christ and on the Doctrines of Christianity.
It is a work of some importance in American intellectual history, though now almost forgotten, for it helped to relax the strong hold of orthodox Calvinism on the New England mind and conscience. “As far as we understand nature, we are become acquainted with the character of God,” wrote Ethan, “for the knowledge of nature is the revelation of God.” He attacked the central dogma of Calvinism by arguing that “Human liberty, agency and accountability, cannot be attended with eternal consequences, either good or evil.” The book was denounced and its author abused in print and from a hundred pulpits; even to own a copy was to be suspected, by the pious, of infidelism.