“in The Name Of The Great Jehovah And The Continental Congress!”


Books were not easily come by in Cornwall. The Bible was the only one readily available, and he learned it well—especially the Old Testament, whose people and stories harmonized better with his immediate environment than did those of the New. He read everything else he could get his hands on, too, and asked eager questions of the best educated and most mentally alert of all those he met. Further, as he later said, he formed the habit of committing “to manuscript such sentiments or arguments as appeared most consonant to reason, lest through the debility of memory, my improvement should have been less gradual.” He practiced this “method of scribbling … for many years, from which I experienced great advantages in the progression of learning and knowledge.”

Two men chiefly stimulated and guided the growth of his mind and character. One was Joseph Allen, his father, an honorable and hardworking man who thought for himself in religious and political matters and loved to argue; despite his espousal of religious views that in the opinion of most of his neighbors were dangerously heretical, he was elected a selectman and moderator of the town meeting. Joseph Allen instilled into his eldest son’s character, by precept and example, the strength of his own moral principle, but at the same time he kept the boy’s mind open and flexible. He obviously recognized, too, Ethan’s intellectual superiority, for he sent him to study, in preparation for entrance into Yale, under the Reverend Jonathan Lee in nearby Salisbury.

Unfortunately, the arrangement had barely begun to work when Joseph Allen suddenly died, and Ethan found himself the responsible head of a large and far from affluent family. Yale was, thereafter, an impossibility for him.

He farmed for a time. In the summer of 1757 he enlisted with other men from Cornwall in a company that marched north to Lake George, intending to help defend Fort William Henry, at the head of the Hudson River valley, from the French and their Indian allies; but the fort had been taken before the lake was reached and so the men marched back home again. These two bloodless weeks were Ethan’s sole service in the French and Indian War.

During the next four years, in ways doubtless honorable but unrecorded in history, he managed to accumulate a little capital with which he and one of his cousins purchased the fifty-acre Cream Hill farm in Cornwall. He also invested in a low-grade iron ore operation near Salisbury and in a blast furnace for smelting, enterprises in which he himself both labored and supervised the labor of others. In June of 1762 he married Mary Bronson, daughter of a miller who had ground his grain from the Cornwall farm. She is a woman of whom almost nothing is now known save that she was sickly and pious and illiterate; that she was shamefully neglected by her husband though she bore him several children, three of whom (all daughters) survived him; that she nagged him unmercifully when he was at home (he seldom was); and that she died of consumption before she was fifty.

Ethan brought his bride to Salisbury, to live near his smelting enterprise. And it was in that village and at about this time that he became intimately acquainted with the second of the two men who chiefly influenced him—Dr. Thomas Young, only five years older than he, a graduate of Yale who practiced medicine in and around Salisbury. Doctor Young was a man of advanced ideas on all matters, including medicine. He once “ingrafted” (inoculated) Ethan with smallpox pus, at Ethan’s request but in violation of a local ordinance against such interference with the ways of a wrathful God. Though Ethan escaped smallpox, he was threatened with prosecution; he promptly flew into so profane a rage against the two selectmen who accused him (one was his former tutor, Jonathan Lee) that he was brought into court on a charge of blasphemy and disturbance of the peace. Smallpox virus was, however, the least important of the doctor’s inoculations of the young giant who became, very soon, his disciple as well as his friend.

For Doctor Young was a deist in religion, a skeptical materialist in philosophy, and a champion of the most extreme forms of natural-rights doctrine in political theory. He loaned Ethan his books and his notes on books he had read, and he explored with the younger man the evident absurdities and self-contradictions of the orthodox Calvinist religion. One result was a release from all inhibitions of Ethan’s natural propensity and talent for violent, picturesque profanity. Another was his ambition to write a philosophical work that would free the world of the stultifying myths of Christianity and substitute for them a “System of Natural Religion” based on scientific observation and the strictest logical reasoning. As a matter of fact, he and Young arranged to collaborate on this project, the survivor to publish it if the other died before the treatise was completed; both of them would work at it off and on for years.

Yet another effect of Young on Ethan was to introduce the latter to the legalistic and intellectual aspects of the then-rising conflict between New York and New Hampshire—a controversy of vital concern to the people of Salisbury, many of whom held New Hampshire land titles. Young wrote a pamphlet on the subject wherein, to Ethan’s great edification, “Liberty and Property” were deemed the twin “household gods of Englishmen,” so closely joined as to be inseparable.