Family  /  Biography

Family, Liberty, and Vermont: The Allegiance of Ethan Allen in the Revolutionary Era

He held multiple allegiances during the Revolution, all of which were connected or stemmed from the importance he placed on familial self-preservation.

It was during the Vermont Revolution that Ethan most demonstrated the close relationship between his belief in Locke and liberty and his inherent mission to protect his immediate family. In 1773 he created the Onion River Land Company with his brothers and cousin, while their wives and sisters remained at home to look after the families and oversee the farms with their children. By the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775, they had accumulated a land empire, namely in the west Grants, that amounted to some 70,000 acres worth more than $100,000. Such figures would ensure Allen’s immediate and wider family would be sustained for many generations to come. If New York, however, successfully brought the settlers to heel, then his empire, and, in turn, the future of the Allen family was in serious jeopardy.

As he led the Green Mountain Boys in a campaign of terrorizing the Yorker settlers and authorities on the ground, in the press and publications he expressed what J. Kevin Graffagnino calls a “backwoods reflection” of Lockeanism in property and liberty that was used to rally the settlers to protect his land empire. Self-preservation, he declared in his pamphlet A Brief Narrative of the Proceedings of the Government of New-York (1774), was “[t]he spring and moving Cause of [his] Opposition . . . to New York.” Although New York could claim jurisdiction over the Grants, he argued, their attempts to take the settlers’ land by “force without color or pretence of law,” consequently declaring war on the “numerous families settled upon the land,” meant that they forfeited their right to govern the settlers. Borrowing Locke’s social contract theory, Allen highlighted the binding natural agreement between the governed and governors that stipulated the subject’s right to rebel against the ruler if the latter clearly endangered the former’s natural rights of liberty, life, and property. To preserve these rights, Allen insisted, the settlers had to be attentive to New York’s Machiavellian designs, for to allow tyranny to go unchallenged “would [leave one] by law . . . bound to be an accessory to his own Ruin and Destruction, which is inconsistent with the law of Self-Preservation.” This stress upon self-preservation highlights the influence of the Allen psyche on his participation in the Vermont Revolution. He used it to portray himself as a populist leader, which would earn him support of the Grantees because he knew that he could not fight New York alone. The settlers’ land and liberty, therefore, supplemented his mission to secure his immediate family’s land and liberty. Nevertheless, in later years he evidently cared for the settlers and was sincere in his fight to defend them from New York, then Britain, and then the Continental Congress.