Real Estate and the American Revolution

A biography of Ethan Allen puts the spotlight on land greed.

Ethan Allen was at various times: reckless speculator, captain of the continent’s largest paramilitary force, outlaw with a £100 bounty on his head, American Revolutionary commander, prisoner of war, best-selling author, radical Deist philosopher, and founding father of Vermont. Despite this remarkable life, and despite a time when biographies of America’s Founding Fathers fall from the presses like rotten apples from a tree, in the last half-century only one full-length biography had been written about Ethan Allen. How could this be?

As Ethan Allen: His Life and Times,a new and frustrating biography by Willard Sterne Randall, shows, Allen is hard to write about. He poses a challenge not so much because he is different from more famous Founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin but because he resembles them perhaps a bit too much—in ways most Americans prefer not to think about.

Like Washington, Allen was self-taught. Like Jefferson, he descended from a family of land speculators. Like Franklin, he was of Puritan stock but turned away from the Calvinism of his forebears. Born in the Berkshire Mountains in 1738, Allen grew up amid religious ferment that little affected him. Pugnacious by intellect and temperament, he cussed and fought until his neighbors could stand it no longer; he got “read out” of not one but two New England towns. His early years were also marked by heedless ambition, which landed him in lawsuits with brothers-in-law, fistfights with business associates, and countless failed enterprises. In 1767, on the heels of another professional and personal humiliation, Allen’s restless scheming took a new turn: Looking north, he began eying Vermont land.

The early history of Vermont real estate will resonate with 21st-century Americans. It was a tale of greed, legal chaos, and corrupt business practices. In 1749, New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth began granting titles to land between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River—land that almost certainly belonged to New York. New York officials repudiated these grants, but Wentworth continued, pocketing prodigious fees on nearly 3 million acres of grants and keeping a cool 70,000 acres for himself. In the early 1760s, when the expulsion of French forces from North America made the area attractive to British settlement, New York took a renewed interest. State officials contested the New Hampshire claims all the way to King George III, who, by an edict of 1764, declared the New Hampshire titles void. Vermont was officially part of New York.

It was after this decision—which predictably caused the value of New Hampshire-granted land titles to fall precipitously—that Allen began to speculate, acquiring vast quantities of land from former investors who realized their titles were almost certainly null. (How much would you pay for the Brooklyn Bridge? What if it cost five cents and there was some chance, however remote, you might one day get the title legalized?) Eventually, Ethan and his family acquired 200,000 acres of land.

New York, meanwhile, was busy issuing titles to the lands, which clashed with the New Hampshire deeds. When the conflicting claims landed in court, New York officials, many of them great landholders, ruled for the New York owners, empowering sheriffs to evict the New Hampshire grantees. In response, Allen formed the Green Mountain Boys, a militia defending New Hampshire grants from seizure and terrorizing settlers who held or even recognized New York land titles, burning their cabins, destroying their crops, and sometimes physically assaulting them.

Randall works hard to make this a story about salt-of-the-earth, democratic New England settlers fighting off New York’s aristocratic land barons—so hard, in fact, that you have to admire the effort. Alas, the evidence won’t conform. The Green Mountain Boys were driven less by ideology than by a desire to keep their land and, at least in Allen’s case, to legalize deeds bought on the cheap to sell for a hefty profit. Both sides were gambling wildly, and as the imperial conflict heated up, the stakes rose.

Back in London, groups of well-connected investors were eying quantities of land so vast as to make the Vermont speculation seem like child’s play. The greatest of these ventures was the proposed colony of Vandalia, covering 20 million acres in what now comprises West Virginia and Kentucky. Parties to the enterprise at various times included Benjamin Franklin and two of George Washington’s brothers. Unfortunately, Virginia claimed the land in question, as did Connecticut and Pennsylvania—each state having sold the land to settlers and investors—although by 1774 it was all, according to the British government, under the jurisdiction of Québec. Vermont, in short, was a very big story writ small.

Indeed, who wasn’t a land speculator in this freewheeling age? George Washington, a former surveyor, had amassed thousands of acres in the Ohio valley and spent 10 years lobbying the governor of Virginia to legalize his titles. Gen. Thomas Gage, who would lead British forces against Washington, held 18,000 acres, and had married into one of the greatest landowning families on the continent. When fighting broke out in 1775, these contested speculations loomed in the background.

Just how these contests over land play into the Revolution is one of the most debated questions in American history. In 1909, historian Carl Becker argued that the American Revolution was not so much about home rule as “who should rule at home.” The struggle for independence, in other words, centered less on exalted principles than on the quest for political and economic power by provincial elites. Popular among muckraking classes during the age of Robber Barons, this interpretation was hard to reconcile with a patriotic account of the nation’s founding and eventually fell out of favor.

So Randall is stuck between a rock and a hard place, interpretatively speaking. He wants to connect the Vermont insurrection to “a greater cause,” to make it the first battle of the American Revolution. And perhaps it was. But if so, does it turn Allen and his Green Mountain Boys into patriots, as Randall would have it? Or does it turn the leaders of the Revolution into bandits, seizing an entire continent for personal gain and dressing the crime up with pretty words?

If Allen had one thing in greater quantities than courage and verve, it was good timing. In the spring of 1775, just as officials were planning to arrest Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, a far greater insurrection broke out in Boston. Had the imperial crisis not come to a head just then, Allen would surely have been captured and executed.

When fighting broke out in Massachusetts, Allen seized the moment, leading a pre-dawn attack on Fort Ticonderoga, a key outpost on the all-important corridor between New York and Montreal. With only 83 men he took the fort without firing a single shot. It was the Revolution’s first great victory, providing the Patriot army with a huge store of munitions, including the cannon that would force the British to evacuate Boston.

In one swift move Allen turned himself from outlaw into hero, gaining a prized commission with the Continental army—and with it immunity from prosecution by New York. But his recklessness soon backfired. A few months later, without orders, Allen led an even bolder attack on Montreal with 30 New England soldiers and 80 Canadian habitants hired at 15 pence a day. The attack was quixotic if not downright insane, and when it was clear it would fail he hunkered down outside the city walls to await his inevitable capture.

Though Allen did not die on a scaffold, drawn and quartered as traitors normally were—Washington’s army held thousands of British soldiers captive to ensure he remained in one piece—he suffered atrociously for 952 long days, held in appalling conditions like so many other prisoners. He later wrote a gripping account of his captivity that became, after Tom Paine’s Common Sense, the second-greatest best-seller of the Revolutionary Era.

On his release in 1778, Allen returned to Vermont, which had by then declared its independence from New York, though it remained unrecognized by the other states, which were unwilling to alienate New York during the war. Allen led the confiscation of Vermont Loyalist lands and property, the proceeds being used to pay for the war effort and Allen pocketing a commission from each sale. Some of the victims of these seizures were not Loyalists but New Yorkers whom Allen had by then been terrorizing for nearly a decade.

Despite it all, Randall wants to cast Allen as “a leader and moral figure to be trusted.” But that rings hollow. With New York still blocking Vermont’s independence, Allen began secret negotiations with the British, offering to return the colony to the Empire in exchange for confirmation of the New Hampshire-granted land titles. “I shall do Every thing in my Power to render this state a British province,” Allen wrote the British commander in Canada in 1782. Although the Anglo-American peace treaty ended these negotiations, Allen continued his guerrilla warfare against the New York-titled settlers. By then his long-suffering wife had died and Allen had remarried a beautiful younger woman, heiress to 20,000 acres of Vermont lands. Allen spent these latter years penning Deist attacks on Christianity that may have influenced Tom Paine’s Age of Reason.

In 1786, with Vermont still in legal limbo and dissention growing among the states, the backcountry again rose up in rebellion. Indebted farmers shut down courts enforcing foreclosure orders, harassing sheriffs and judges. Those who had once protested British taxes turned their ire on seaboard governments. When former Revolutionary officer Daniel Shays led a Massachusetts rebellion of insurgent farmers, he turned to Ethan Allen. Hero of backcountry rebels, Allen was just the person to lead the thousands of discontented settlers up and down the Appalachian frontier. Fearing for “the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expence [sic] of so much blood and treasure,” Washington exclaimed to James Madison on hearing news of the rebellion: “We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!”

But Allen refused. By rejecting the Shaysites, he proved himself and his state trustworthy to men like Washington and Madison, respectful enough toward the rights of property, and he secured New York’s recognition of Vermont. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified a year later, Vermont became the nation’s 14th state, at last giving Allen and the other New Hampshire grantees legal title to their lands. The gamble had paid off—as it had for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the many others who pledged their lives, honor, and sacred fortunes.