Friday, 8 July 2016

An Animadversory Address to the Inhabitants of the State of Vermont, Part II: Chasing the Narrative

            If the biography which was presented in the previous entry in this series managed to make anything clear at all, hopefully it was that the life and experiences of Ethan Allen were not usual by the standards of the Founding Generation. He was not a self-made polymath and natural scientist like Benjamin Franklin, an ambitious and indefatigable administrator like Alexander Hamilton, or a steadfast and unimpeachable statesman like John Adams. These men were some of the brightest minds of their generation, and they came to support the cause of the united colonies (later the United States) by engaging, publically and privately, with the intellectual and philosophical issues of the day. What was the nature of the relationship between Great Britain and its American dependencies? What rights were the colonists entitled to? Did people owe their loyalty to a sovereign who treated them cruelly and refused to consider their petitions? Questions like these were at the centre of the debate that gave birth to and sustained the American Revolution. The manner in which men like Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams encountered and attempted to answer them forms a central part of their personal legacies and the legacy of the American Founding as a whole.  The pamphlets, polemics, treatises, and satires they drafted helped form the vocabulary of the Revolution, and continue to shape and inform how the events of that era are understood.

            Ethan Allen was not like men cited above. He was not a statesman, a philosopher, or an administrator, though he dabbled in all three of these vocations. Rather, he might best be described as a kind of professional incendiary. Whereas Thomas Jefferson seemed ever to be motivated by philosophical conviction – however misplaced at times – and George Washington by a deep-rooted sense of moral imperative, there seemed to be something core to Allen’s character that inclined him to buck authority wherever he found it. He was, in many ways, an egotistical, overconfident, glory-seeking man. Much the same could be said of many other Founders – those already named perhaps chief among them – yet few among that cohort seemed quite as incapable of moderating their impulses as Allen, and as a consequence few of them were as often at their mercy. In his native Connecticut, in Massachusetts, in New York, and in Quebec, Allen’s headstrong nature paid him back time and again with prosecution, exile, outlawry, and imprisonment. When the delegates to the Continental Congress signed their names to the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776, they knew they were exposing themselves to potential capture and prosecution by British authorities. It is terribly significant that Ethan Allen, at that same moment, was already being held prisoner and had been branded a criminal for over five years. Accordingly, though Ethan Allen should most certainly be recognized as an American Founder, it must also be made clear that his path through life and through the Revolution was very much his own.  With this in mind, it should also be acknowledged that Allen’s Animadversory Address was similarly unusual among the political pamphlets one usually associates with the American Revolution.

            In general, Allen’s pamphlet seemed to take its rhetorical cues more from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense than Thomas Jefferson’s Summary View. Excusing the occasional linguistic flourish – notably including the term “animadversory,” derived from the Latin phrase animum advertere, to turn the mind to – An Animadversory Address is not overly verbose, delivers its arguments succinctly, and leans on logic more than language as its chief mechanism of persuasion. Allen seemed less given to self-conscious vulgarity or appeals to religiosity than Paine, but it is plain enough that his writing was intended to speak to and for a relatively unpretentious audience. That being said, the pamphlet’s author was certainly not above the occasional bout of hyperbole or self-promotion. In particular, Allen’s portrayal of the contributions of Vermont towards the larger Revolutionary struggle appears especially strident. The Battle of Bennington, a relatively small engagement in the summer of 1777 that helped blunt the force of the British invasion of upstate New York, was described in the second paragraph as an, “Ever-memorable battle and victory,” and, “The Forerunner and grand typical figure of the destruction of the northern army [.]” Much the same sentiment was expressed in the seventh paragraph – “The memorable and twice glorious battles and victories of Bennington” – and Allen seemed particularly intent on making his audience aware of the importance of the encounter and the role his Green Mountain Boys played in it.

            In point of fact, however, the regiment that Allen had founded in 1770 accounted for only three hundred fifty men to the Continental Army’s two thousand. Though his former subordinate and collaborator Seth Warner was present at the battle, and by all accounts acquitted himself admirably, it was New Hampshire General John Stark’s successful attempt to raise fifteen hundred militiamen in six days and march them across the state to meet the British advance that almost certainly determined the outcome. In addition, though the engagement was known, then as now, as the Battle of Bennington, the action actually took place ten miles distant in Walloomsac, New York. By reinforcing the association between the battle that helped make possible the surrender of British General John Burgoyne (1722-1792) after his defeat at Saratoga (1777), the town in Vermont that gave birth to the Green Mountain Boys, and the Boys themselves, however, Allen no doubt hoped his audience would come away with a suitable appreciation for what Vermont had contributed to the American cause. Duly impressed, former critics of the Green Mountain Boys might have seen their way clear to granting their case a fairer hearing once the outcome of the Revolution had been decided. Similar attempts to promote a sense of gratitude for his own efforts towards and importance to Vermont’s struggle for independence can also be found in An Animadversory Address.

            In the first and second paragraphs of his 1778 pamphlet, Ethan Allen made a point drawing the attention of his audience to the sacrifices he had made for the cause of Vermont. “Many times have I hazarded my life for you, as well as for my own property [,]” he declared, “and if occasion shall in future require, I will freely do it again.” The sentence that immediately followed reiterated this idea, in the apparent guise of accounting for Allen’s recent whereabouts. His imprisonment at British hands was described as, “A barbarous captivity,” to which he added parenthetically, “part of which extraordinary sufferings was for your sakes [.]” Doubtless these assertions were intended to garner the favor of readers in Vermont, some of whom may have forgotten Allen during his three year absence, at the same time that it asserted his legitimacy as the mouthpiece of Vermont’s ongoing struggle for independence. No errant rabble-rouser was he, but a man who had suffered for his cause and would do so again. This too, as it turns out, was something of an overstatement. The conflict that had persisted between the Green Mountain Boys and the government of colonial New York, though lengthy, had not been particularly violent. Granted, Allen had been branded an outlaw as a result, and a cash reward was offered for his capture, but it would have been an exaggeration to say that his life was ever really in danger as a result. His participation in the Battle of Ticonderoga also transpired without bloodshed, and the two occasions during which he was exposed to enemy fire – his failed attempts to capture Fort Saint John and Montreal – were both the product of his own desire for personal glory. His resulting captivity between 1775 and 1778, if his own written accounts are any indication, was indeed often unpleasant and painful. But it was the result of his own attempt at self-aggrandizement rather than any efforts he might have made on behalf of Vermont and its residents.
            In spite of this evident impulse to talk up his own achievements, Allen also demonstrated a degree of self-awareness in certain sections of An Animadversory Address. In the fourth paragraph, for instance, he seemed to adopt a somewhat measured perspective of the role he and his followers played in Vermont’s early history. “In those days,” he wrote,

A sort of mob government, in the now county of Bennington took place, which, however deficient in most respects, was nevertheless the terror of the government of New-York, and the only means by which we could possibly maintain the possession of our lands.

In spite of the power and importance Allen herein attributed to the regime his Green Mountain Boys inaugurated in the New Hampshire Grants, his language was otherwise remarkably self-effacing. Even during an era of revolution and the widespread overthrow of the established order, “mob” wasn’t really a word with positive connotations. Allen’s use of it to describe the insurgency he initiated would seem to denote a slightly more reflective and more humble outlook than was normally his wont. Indeed, by referring to his rebel militia as a “mob government,” he appeared to echo the complaints of New York’s last colonial government, which referred to the Green Mountain Boys as the “Bennington Mob” in a 1774 law that targeted their members. Having had three years to consider, among other things, the value of his efforts in the Grants and the fortunes of the community he had been forced to leave behind, perhaps Allen had come to a more acute understanding of his own shortcomings than his younger self would have been capable. His admission that the administration of the Green Mountain Boys was “deficient in most respects” would seem to square with this conclusion. However crucial he still felt that the insurgency he had founded was to the success of Vermont’s eventual independence, time had evidently allowed him to see that his role in the state’s formation was not beyond reproach.   

            Whatever newfound sense of perspective he may have acquired, however, didn’t necessarily stop Allen from attempting reassert his own importance to Vermont’s struggle for self-determination. The second paragraph of An Animadversory Address furnishes a particularly subtle example of this. In it, Allen took account of and analysed the prospects of Vermont’s newly-formed government in a way that suggested his opinion on the matter was particularly weighty or sought-after. “I have,” he wrote,

On mature deliberation, expatiated on the goods effects which cannot fail of redounding to the inhabitants, in so extensive a frontier country, from the blessings of a well established civil government; and think it worth my trouble to communicate my sentiments and reflections to the public, with a view of encouraging the good and virtuous inhabitants of this State, to persevere and be happy in the further confirming and establishing the same.

            Though there is no reason to doubt that Allen was sincere in his desire to promote self-government in the State of Vermont, in which he owned property and of which he remained a resident, his manner of expression and his timing suggest a possible ulterior motive. Allen’s captivity came to an end at some point shortly before May 14th, 1778, and An Animadversory Address was published in August of the same year. Vermont, meanwhile, had declared its independence in January, 1777 and adopted a constitution in August, 1777. Therefore, by the time Allen saw fit to address the utility of self-government in Vermont, the territory in question had been governing itself for at least a year. With this fact in mind, several questions arise. Why did Allen feel the need to weigh in on and pronounce his approval of something which was already fairly well-established? Furthermore, would anyone living under the government of Vermont in the summer of 1778 have cared much for his opinion one way or the other? The people of Vermont had a government as of August 1777, created of their own efforts, and which would sustain them for the better part of the next fifteen years. Did they really require the encouragement of a man who had just spent three years in captivity, the victim of his own stubborn pride? In attempting to answer these questions, it appears that An Animadversory Address may have been intended to serve a dual purpose.

    While on the surface seeking to counter the pronouncements of a New York government still intent on exerting its authority over the territory claimed by Vermont, the pamphlet may have also been calculated to help resurrect Allen’s public career. He had missed a great deal during his three year absence. The movement that he had helped instigate, intended to protect and promote the claims of people living in the disputed New Hampshire Grants, had taken on a life of its own, and the militia he had founded was flourishing under the leadership of another man. It would thus have been entirely natural, upon learning of all that had transpired in the fateful years between 1775 and 1778, for Allen to have felt a mix of elation and disconnection. The campaign he instigated against the government of New York in 1770 had achieved rare and unprecedented success, yet it had done so wholly absent of his input.  Having no doubt become accustomed to notoriety, he would have been forced to confront his own apparent irrelevance to the fortunes of Vermont and its residents. Without him, they had created a state for themselves, were governing themselves, and had helped achieve a significant military victory for the cause of American independence. Surely a man like Allen, who seemed so often to glory in the role of attention-grabbing non-conformist, would have felt stung by the implication that he was no longer necessary. A document like An Animadversory Address may well have been his answer. By confronting, as he had been doing since 1770, the belligerence of Vermont’s more powerful neighbor, he could reinsert himself into the narrative of his adopted community. Those who had forgotten him would thus to be reminded of his sacrifices. Those who had learned to get along without him would be the beneficiaries of his unsolicited counsel. And the state that had come into being without his input would be the beneficiary of his protection all the same.

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