The Story of Ethan Allen (1738-1789)
In the backwoods of the colonies, it was difficult to acquire a decent education. What education usually meant was reading books, pamphlets, and newspapers if there were any. This, of course, was possible only if the settler knew how to read. Allen not only learned how to read but also get into trouble.
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Ethan Allen was born on January 21, 1738 in the town of Litchfield, Connecticut, to Joseph and Mary Allen.(11) Ethan was the oldest of the eight children. He was the only one to be born in Litchfield, since the family moved to Cornwall shortly after his birth. (12) After realizing Ethan's desire to read, his father sent him to Reverend Jonathan Lee of Salisbury, Connecticut, to help him prepare for Yale.(13) Shortly afterwards, in April of 1755, Joseph Allen died, leaving Ethan to take care of the family farm.(14) In 1757, Ethan enlisted in the militia to fight in the French and Indian War, but he did not see any action. (15) When he returned home, he went to Salisbury, Connecticut, and built the blast furnace that still stands there today.(16) When he was twenty-four years old, Allen married thirty year old Mary Brownson, who was the daughter of a miller in Woodbury that Ethan moved grain for.(17)
It was in the town of Salisbury where Ethan Allen learned of one of the hottest political ideologies of the colonies: republicanism. (18) Republicanism was the belief that man was entitled to life, liberty, and property. Today, these three rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is the responsibility of the United States government to provide us with those three rights. Revolutionary Republicanism, as it pertained to the American Colonies, originated in England. Before 1763, the "Country" party in England was represented by Whig writers.(19) They believed themselves to be the guardians of the true principles of the English constitution.(20) They also opposed the "Court" party which was the King and his appointees.(21)
In 1763, the King's ministers began a new program of discipline. The Country party saw it attacking "traditional English liberties": balanced government, representative rights, and disestablishment of standing armies in peacetime. The Stamp act was the beginning of these attacks. The Americans believed their resistance to these attacks was justified.(22)
John Adams believed Revolutionary Republicanism to be a resistance to authority that did not allow equal representation in government. It was also the ideology that demanded life, liberty, and property. Adams wrote of the "conspiracy against the public liberty [that] was first regularly formed and begun to be executed in 1763 and 1764".(23) New trade policies threatened the property of merchants. These were threats against "lives, liberties, and property."(24) Since the amount of property one owned determined political influence and even citizenship, a threat against the former was a threat against the latter. It was for this reason that residents of Connecticut and Massachusettes migrated to the New Hampshire Grants where land was abundant and cheap. Not only could the existing generations have land, but generations to come would have land to inherit.
John Adams furthered his definition of Revolutionary Republicanism by describing how it is more important to those living in rural areas. In agrarian society, a more equitable distribution of ownership is the prerequisite to economic growth. It is precisely for this reason that the tensions of the countryside are potentially so much more revolutionary than those of the city. The industrial worker cannot secure personal ownership or control the means of production; this, however, is precisely the goal of the peasant. The basic factor of production is land; the supply of land is limited if not fixed; the landlord loses what the peasant acquires. Thus the peasant...has no alternative but to attack the existing system of ownership and control."(25) Those settlers living in the Grants sought not to "attack" their "existing system of ownership and control". They simply wanted to have their own state to preserve their right to land.
Thomas Paine wrote of republican ideas in a very radical way and in a style understood by the common man. He called for the ending of hereditary privilege and concentrated power in colonial social structure. The thousands who read his pamphlet Common Sense (1776) came to believe that not only could power be taken from England but they could also form a "new social and political order" in North America. This new social and political order means redistribution of wealth and political power from the "haves" to the "have nots". (26)
Salisbury was a very small town during the time Ethan Allen lived there Thomas Young M.D., was a formally educated resident of Salisbury.(27) This was the same Thomas Young that would later play an influential role in the American Revolution in Philadelphia He owned books by the theologians Thomas Hobbes and John Locke which he shared and discussed with Ethan.(28) Thomas Hobbes believed that humans were not worthy to govern themselves. A ruler should have all powers of government invested in him in exchange for keeping the peace amongst the people. John Locke, on the other hand, believed in the people's ability to govern. In addition, people had certain unalienable rights: life, liberty, and property. These three unalienable rights were the core of Revolutionary Republicanism. As mentioned before, liberty in the colonies depended on the owning of property. This property came in the form of land in the country. Locke continued that if the government provided individual protection of these rights from the whole, the people would act reasonably toward the government. If the government breaks the contract to protect those three rights, the people can revolt and form a new government. It was this kind of enlightened republican thinking that Hobbes and Locke put into not only Ethan Allen's head, but many middle class revolutionaries around the world.
It was not just republican ideology that Ethan discussed with Thomas Young. In 1764 ingrafting, or transporting tissue infected with the smallpox virus to a body not infected, was a new way of curing the disease. Ingrafting was considered a heresy by New England clergy and punishable by law, if not conducted with the consent of the town selectman. Allen insisted that Dr. Young inject him with the virus on the Salisbury meeting house steps to prove whether or not ingrafting worked. They did this on a Sunday. Allen did not suffer from the virus, but the news of what they did spread quickly in Salisbury. after being hauled into court, Ethan was threatened to be prosecuted by Rev. Johnathan Lee and one Stoddard. Allen made his own defense stating "By Jesus Christ, I wish I may be Bound Down in Hell with old Belzabub a Thousand years in the Lowest Pitt in Hell and that Every Little Insippid Devil should come along by and ask the Reason of Allens Lying there, (if) it Should be said (that) he made a promise...that he would have satisfaction of Lee and Stoddard and Did Not fulfill it." Since spoken by a deist in a court of law surrounded by Calvinists, this outrageous passage probably left the court in awe.(29)
Ethan would find himself in more trouble in October of 1765. Ethan and his brother Heman sold their interest in the Salisbury blast furnace, which they built, and then sold their interest in it to George Caldwell. Ethan expected more cash up front from Caldwell and there was a disagreement over the terms of the sale. The court records state that "Ethan Allen did, in a tumultuous and offensive manner, with threatening words and angry looks, strip himself even to his naked body, and with force and arms, without law or right, did assail and actually strike the person of George Caldwell of Salisbury, aforesaid, in the presence and to the disturbance of His Majesty's good subjects." (*) Allen was fined ten shillings.(31)
At the end of 1769, Ethan's sister Lydia became ill. The entire Allen family went to her home in Goshen, Connecticut, with doctors and medicine. To no avail, she died in 1770. Ethan's mother then had a stroke and Ethan literally carried her back to Salisbury. Ethan's previous dealings in a lead mine in Northhampton after leaving Salisbury were a failure. He was kicked out of the town. Still without any kind of steady income or even a job, and family members becoming ill, the world seemed to be collapsing around him.(32)