Christopher Wren, upon retiring from a career as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, picked up a backpack and walked from Times Square to his second home in Fairlee. His tale of that adventure, "Walking to Vermont," put the Green Mountain State in the center of a fascinating tale, and now he's done that again in "Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution" (Simon and Schuster, 2018).
While most students of American history are familiar with the "shots fired at the rude bridge" in Concord, Massachusetts, and the long winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the events and leading characters of the northern frontier of the Revolution have often been overlooked. Wren addresses that as he weaves stories of heroes, battles, and political intrigue to illuminate how the American Revolution was saved at Bennington, Vermont in August 1777, and how Vermont became the 14th state of the Union sixteen years later.
In order to do that, Wren focuses on three main characters: Ethan Allen, his cousin Seth Warner, and his friend Justus Sherwood. Allen, the best known today, was actually never a member of the Continental Army and spent much of the Revolution in an English prison or on parole in New York City. Warner emerges as the key figure in battles from Fort Ticonderoga to Bennington, while Sherwood was a Loyalist who fought the rebellious colonists in Vermont and New York until the war ended.
The book begins with the story of the battles and shifting advantages of the war that raged around Lake Champlain. Less than a month after hostilities began in earnest in Massachusetts, Allen was hired by the Connecticut colony to capture Fort Ticonderoga, Britain's southernmost outpost on Lake Champlain. Having succeeded in that effort, Allen marched north in an attempt to occupy Canada, which had remained Britain's loyal colony, but his attack on Montreal was unsuccessful. He was captured and sent to a prison in England. Returned to New York City on parole, he was exchanged for a Scottish officer in May 1778, having missed nearly the entire Revolutionary War.
While the Revolution raged in Boston, Brooklyn, Trenton, and Valley Forge, the northern front was just as active. Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence changed hands repeatedly, until the British eventually controlled Lake Champlain and its shores. Their path to crushing the revolt led through Hubbardton and Castleton, where they mustered troops for a final assault that could lead to Albany and the rest of the New England colonies. But the plan ended in defeat when they were routed by Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys at Bennington. The surrender of General Burgoyne in Saratoga in October 1777 was a turning point in the war enabling Washington to focus on the British in the mid-Atlantic states.
Wren's most fascinating research and story-telling focuses on the events in Vermont following the 1783 peace treaty that ended the war and recognized the United States as a sovereign nation. For while the new nation consisted of 13 colonies, there remained great confusion about the status of the land between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers, what we today call Vermont.
One month before the Battle of Bennington, a group of citizens had adopted a constitution at Windsor that created an independent nation. The Vermont Constitution was unusually enlightened in that it outlawed slavery, enabled non-land owning men to vote, and mandated the creation of public schools in every township. Originally called New Connecticut but soon adopting the name Vermont, the new nation comprised land grants that had been awarded by New Hampshire's governor, Benning Wentworth, between 1749 and 1764. Thousands of acres had been granted to individuals, but the New York governor and legislature disputed Wentworth's ability to have granted title to those lands and laid claim to the territory. This dispute which occasionally boiled over into violence threatened the integrity of the new entity, Vermont, as well as the fledgling American nation.
Much of the time, the Green Mountain Boys and their leaders were at least as interested in fighting the "Yorkers" for their claims to their land as they were in fighting the British. Here is where Ethan Allen emerges as a leading character in this little-known drama. Between 1777 and 1793, Britain wooed Allen with promises of independence, protection, and commerce if Vermont were to remain a British colony. At the same time, the new U.S. Congress, responding to New York and New Hampshire, continued to oppose Vermont's entry into the new nation and even planned an invasion of the new nation in 1782. Opposition by George Washington ended that potential disaster.
It wasn't until 1789 that Vermont and New York agreed to settle these claims with a payment from Vermont of $30,000. In addition, Vermont refused the application of 16 New Hampshire towns along the Connecticut River to join them. With New York's and New Hampshire's opposition neutralized, the Vermont legislature at Bennington gave its approval to the U.S. Constitution and applied for statehood in 1791. Two years later, Vermont was admitted as the 14th state. Foreshadowing the future challenges that slavery would bring to the new nation, a slave-holding Kentucky was then admitted as the 15th state to satisfy the South.
Wren's book is full of fascinating details, tense battles, and historical information that may be little known even to those Americans interested in the origins of our nation. It also holds lessons from England's experience as an imperial power in the 18th century that Americans would do well to remember 250 years later. Edmund Burke argued in Parliament in 1775 that "Three thousand miles lie between you and them and no contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government." George Sackville Germain, the king's secretary of state for the Colonies, endlessly assured Parliament and King George that the uprising was contained and the war was going well. He maintained that optimistic position right up until Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
Whether in Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s or in Afghanistan and Iraq in more recent times, America would have done well to recall Burke's advice, Germain's distortions, and the ultimate failure of Britain's overseas imperial experience. Perhaps, Wren's work will help us be more aware of our own roots and the failures of empire that led to our nation's and our state's birth. This is a book well worth reading.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. His website, www.EpsteinReads.com provides more than 1,000 ideas for what to read next, and he can be reached there.