- Historic Sites
Ethan Allen’s Ill-Fated March on Canada
A new look at a famous Revolutionary figure questions whether history’s long-standing judgment is accurate
Fall 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 2
At a secret meeting, the merchants balked when Brown told them they would have to join the Congress’s trade embargo of English goods. Some also feared that Massachusetts would invade Canada, as it had done in past intercolonial wars. The merchants did agree to form a committee of correspondence with John Walker, Quebec Province’s wealthiest merchant, as chairman. Walker told Brown to assure Adams that many Canadians were eager to make common cause—if only to alleviate a far greater threat. A lightning military thrust into Quebec Province would thwart enforcement of the Quebec Act, passed by Parliament after the Boston Tea Party.
ONLY DAYS AFTER Allen and his Boys stormed Fort Ticonderoga, Brown, returning from Montreal, agreed to carry Allen’s dispatches to Philadelphia, where Secretary Charles Thomson read them aloud to a stunned Congress. Not reacting for another week, the delegates passed a resolution to put the colonies “into a state of defense.” Reversing itself on June 1, the divided delegates voted against supporting any “expedition or excursion” into Canada.
Allen’s first communication from the Continental Congress, far from congratulatory, ordered him to haul the captured cannon to the southern tip of
Lake George and there prepare to make a stand if the British counterattacked. Slapping Allen’s wrist hard, the Congress insisted he not seize any more of the king’s forts.
Baffled and infuriated, Allen wrote back that to follow the Congress’s instructions would endanger nearly 9,000 settlers who lived along a 100-mile corridor west of the Green Mountains and north of the Congress’s arbitrary defensive line. “If the King’s troops should be again in possession of Ticonderoga and Crown Point and command the lake,” Allen warned, “the Indians and Canadians will be much more inclined to join with them and
make incursions into the heart of our country.” A vigorous advance into Canada and an attack on Montreal with “an army of two or three thousand men” would “easily make a conquest of that place.”
Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold agreed that it would be insane to abandon the forts and retreat to Lake George. Together, Arnold wrote the Congress,
he and Allen had decided to advance to the Canadian border to “make a stand,” hastening to add that they would only “act on the defensive.” In Arnold’s absence, Allen convened a council of war at Crown Point. Rejecting the Congress’s instructions to pull back, Allen outlined an invasion plan. The officers unanimously voted to send Allen and his cousin, Capt. Seth Warner, as delegates to seek the Congress’s endorsement.
TO STAND BEFORE the 60 members of the Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House on June 25, 1775, was exhilarating for the 37-year-old Allen. Brought up in a genteel Congregational family, one of eight children of a frontier town founder, Allen was largely self-educated. His only formal schooling had consisted of eight months of classics and mathematics to prepare him for entry to Yale College, a plan that ended with his father’s death.
He cut an impressive figure nevertheless. Well over six feet tall, dark-miened, and rugged from years of grueling work as a farmer supporting
his mother and younger brothers and sisters, Allen had become wealthy in his 20s as a working partner in Connecticut’s first successful iron foundry (before losing his money in his 30s in a mining speculation). Outspoken in the face of New England’s rigid Puritan culture, he had been “read out” of towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut. His use of profanity in the workplace made laborers love him, clergy and magistrates prosecute him. Refusing to tolerate corrupt business practices, he used a bullwhip and bare knuckles when he felt exploited. To support his large family, he hunted
alone during winters in the Green Mountains, exploring the land evacuated by the French. Forming a land company, he purchased large tracts on
credit and sold small parcels for modest sums to hundreds of impecunious families, who became his loyal followers and willing recruits for the Green Mountain Boys.
Speaking in his slow, confident, country-preacher voice, Allen told the Congress that, unless itmoved quickly, it could expect massive retaliation from the British in Canada. Carleton was raising militia, had reinforced Fort St. John, and was building assault craft to retake Lake Champlain. Congress had to invade Quebec Province before the British sent reinforcements from England.
As Allen pressed for an immediate advance, his listeners included the patriots who had authorized the Champlain campaign. But his audience also
included James Duane of New York, the king’s counsel at the 1770 eviction trials, who sat with Hudson River land baron Philip Livingston. Allen, who