Willard Sterne Randall's Ethan Allen:How much did land greed shape the American Revolution?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 15 2011 6:45 AM

Real Estate and the American Revolution

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

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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.

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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.