Brian and Ed sit down with a special guest – 18th Century Guy Peter Onuf – to talk Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this episode. There may be changes.**
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re marking St. Patrick’s Day with an entire episode devoted to the color green. Now so far we’ve been hearing about things that happened in the 20th century and the 19th century. But our 18th century guy, Peter Onuf, has been chomping at the bit here.
ED: I think they had bits in the 18th century. He says this is the perfect opportunity to revive a story that is key to understanding the founding of our nation, even though it’s a story that’s been all but forgotten. And it’s all tied, very conveniently, to the color green.
BRIAN: All right. So what is that green thing that Peter’s so worked up about? It’s the Green Mountain Boys.
ED: I love their bluegrass album. [LAUGHS]
BRIAN: So Peter–
BRIAN: –our producers, probably very unwisely, have agreed to give you the floor.
BRIAN: You’re going to make your case. We’re going to stay out of the way.
PETER: All right.
BRIAN: OK? But first, you’ve got to let Ed and I sketch the story, as we kind of know it, right, Ed?
BRIAN: OK. It takes place in the green mountains in a place that’s going to be called Vermont.
PETER: Green, green mountains, yeah.
BRIAN: The story starts in 1749, and there is no Vermont. But there’s a New Hampshire.
BRIAN: And the governor of New Hampshire’s doing what governors in those days did. He’s handing out land. He’s basically selling land. That’s how states got revenues. No problem, right?
BRIAN: Well, there is a problem, because New York is selling the same land.
PETER: What is that?
BRIAN: Yeah. That’s a real problem. And New York gets in this huge fight and says, New Hampshire, you can’t be selling this land. We’re selling this land.
ED: And so it gets such a huge fight, it has to go back to daddy, back over in London in 1764. And they say, New York, you’re right. You had this land before. And suddenly, all those New Hampshire claims are pretty worthless.
And this is where our main character enters the scene, Ethan Allen. He’s a small-time farmer from Connecticut. He starts buying up a bunch of these worthless New Hampshire claims on the cheap.
BRIAN: And he knew what he was doing, right, Ed? He knew he was getting a deal.
ED: Oh, yeah. Because you’re paying so little, it had to be a deal, right?
ED: So he heads back up to the land in question, there on the western side of the Connecticut River. And with some relatives, he puts together a militia. They call themselves– you guessed it– the Green Mountain Boys. And for the next several years, they terrorize the settlers from New York.
They burn their cabins. They destroy their crops. They basically dare them to stick around.
BRIAN: Yeah. Well, this goes on for several years. And everybody knows New York’s a much bigger powerful state. They are about ready to squash this pain in the neck militia when guess what happens? The American Revolution breaks out.
ED: Didn’t see that coming.
BRIAN: At this point, Allen, always the opportunist, takes his so-called militia, this rag-tag team, and he storms the British fort, Fort Ticonderoga, capturing it, seizing all the–
ED: That’s where they kept all the pencils, right?
BRIAN: All right. So this guy who’s a speculator and kind of a vigilante, all of a sudden he’s a war hero in our fight with the British.
ED: So it wasn’t a long before Allen was captured by the British in a different battle somewhere else. And while he’s in prison, his compatriots make a play for statehood. They call themselves Vermont, a kind of imagined French-ified version of green mountains. But the new American government says, no, despite your cool name you’re still in New York.
And this goes on for 14 years. Allen gets out of prison. He’s once more at the helm of the statehood movement. And finally, in 1791 the new American government says, fine. We need some ice cream. Vermont can join our union. Vermont becomes the 14th state, but by that point Ethan Allen’s already dead.
ED: So Peter, two questions for you. One, did Brian and I get the story right?
ED: And two, why do you think this opportunistic thug is so key to our understanding–
PETER: Ooh. That hurt. That hurt.
ED: –the story of America’s founding and the story of green?
PETER: Yeah. Yeah. What I want to focus on is Ethan Allen, how he represents what, I think, is really the spirit for better and for worse of the American Revolution. And the big picture for me, of course it’s property. We’ve talked about he’s a greedy speculator and he’s an opportunist. Well, who isn’t? George Washington, even the sainted Thomas Jefferson, everybody’s in it for the land.
Because, after all, you think about it. You don’t need land to guarantee your civic existence, that is your citizenship is not contingent on your owning that farm out there. No, land is not important in that way anymore. But it is everything in Ethan Allen’s day. And what the settlers of Vermont want, the founders of Vermont want, they want secure title in their land so they can live decent lives.
BRIAN: Hey, if he wanted a secure title, he should have gone to a state that could provide it–
BRIAN: –not to some cockamamie land speculation deal, Peter.
PETER: Now hold it. I want you to know about New York. Under New York, we have these enormous manors with tenants who don’t own their own land.
PETER: And the big land claimants in the green mountains, in what were called the New Hampshire Grants, they want to monopolize the land. The people who were coming up from Connecticut, like Ethan Allen, are trying to take advantage–
BRIAN: They’re salt of the earth.
PETER: Well, they’re just Yankee settlers, OK? And they want to establish farms, They want to establish towns, and that’s where we get to the new state movement. Vermont had a constitution in 1777. It was functioning as a state, and it was looking around for opportunities. If you don’t want us, they say to Congress, you don’t want Vermont to be the 14th state in your mighty Union, we will take our marbles, and we’ll see maybe we can play ball. I mixing metaphors. Maybe we can play marbles with the British Empire in Canada.
BRIAN: Sounds more like Benedict Arnold than Ethan Allen to me, Peter.
PETER: What Ethan Allen and his allies want is recognition. That’s what it’s all about.
BRIAN: So he wanted a network. He wanted an empire to tie into, basically.
PETER: Absolutely. Because if you don’t get recognized, even that sovereign claiming, hey, this is my property, well, who says it’s your property?
BRIAN: I get it. Land defines the patriotic. Land defines the citizen.
PETER: Yeah. But then you have to justify it, Brian. That’s the big challenge. The ultimate justification used to be that it came from a grant from the king. But now we’re not saying that anymore. If it’s not the king, who is it?
I’ll tell you who it is. It’s God. What kind of God? What’s the God who gives good title? It’s nature’s God, as Jefferson calls him. It’s the God who has organized this marvelous universe. It’s the God who has made this green Earth, who has given us this mountain home. And this is the first American colony or state that calls itself after the land itself. It’s not New Hampshire. It’s not named after some kind of Indian name. It’s not Massachusetts. It is the land itself speaking through Ethan Allen, who’s channelling nature’s God.
We don’t need a king to be the agent of God, some pseudo divine right king to say, oh, all the land was mine. I grant this to you. No. We are taking title from God directly, as he meant to us to take it. Because we are improving the land. We are supporting our families.
BRIAN: So Peter, I’m pretty much sold. But tell me why the next Joe Schmo, regular salt of the earth guy can’t come along and take away Ethan Allen’s land. This interpreting God’s will thing sounds pretty dangerous to me.
PETER: Well, you’re exactly right. The central problem of the Revolution is everybody could start a country. In fact, that’s what’s happening in the Connecticut River Valley. Towns in New Hampshire, in Vermont are voting. Which state will they be a part of? Brattleboro, well, they vote to be part of New York. This is town sovereignty.
Well, think. You could break up towns. You could have precinct sovereignty. We could have true anarchy, which is the thing that everybody fears. And then you won’t have property.
BRIAN: OK. So maybe the answer to my other question will answer everything. Because earlier in what I thought was going to be a short platform for you, you said that Ethan Allen had gone in search of a network of an empire, something larger that would recognize him.
PETER: That’s right.
BRIAN: So you’ve got to give up a little bit if your direct line to God, really.
PETER: Right. But what he’s saying is that all Americans have an interest in supporting this idea of the sovereignty of the people, of their natural right to their own land. Now no American’s going to argue with that. They just argue with the implications of that.
And so what I’m saying is that Ethan Allen represents, I think, the three important dimensions of the American Revolution. First, that need to establish effective control over land, secure property rights against taxation, against other property claimants to get clear title. Second, to get that title secured in a collective security arrangement of a Union that will then guarantee state jurisdictions–
BRIAN: Although that happens after he dies.
PETER: Right. And then the third thing is to affirm the fundamental principle of the Revolution, and that is the right of the people by nature, by nature’s God, to govern themselves on their own land. That is the justification. That’s the ultimate principle.
And that’s what Ethan Allen really cares about. He doesn’t care about the vast acres he accumulates. He doesn’t accumulate vast acres. He doesn’t own slaves. He doesn’t have a vast plantation, like Thomas Jefferson. But what he has achieved is independence as a farmer. His neighbors have independence, and they have clubbed together to secure their rights and then to vindicate those rights through the recognition of the other states in the Union.
New York comes to terms. They know they’re not going to get the New Hampshire Grants back, and New York capitulates. And it’s just a matter of time before they cut the deal. They make the treaty. Vermont becomes part of the Union.
BRIAN: Go green.