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Great thoughts: Ethan Allen and the spirit of rebellion

12/09/02 12:00AM By Frank Bryan
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(Host) Commentator Frank Bryan examines the intellectual legacy of Ethan Allen, and in particular, one especially enigmatic statement.

(Bryan) The body of Vermont was formed during a thunderstorm in Windsor in 1777 when we created ourselves by adopting the most liberal constitution then known to man. But the soul of Vermont - its spirit - was given life in a bar in Albany, New York.

It was there that Ethan Allen, Vermont's greatest folk hero met with a group of Albany sheriffs who had invited him there to discuss the future of Vermont, which New York claimed belonged to New York. After passing round the "flowing bowl" (an eighteenth century euphemism for having a few beers) it was suggested to Allen with a wink and a nod that if Vermont's brave and wise leader would acquiesce to the very reasonable suggestion that Vermont be annexed to New York, his courageous action would surely be remembered and his own Vermont holdings spared from the ensuing taxation that was to follow.

One can only imagine the mix of emotion - from anger to bemused delight - that Allen felt when he declined the offer, rose from the table to leave, turned and said: "Sirs, the Gods of the hills are not the Gods of the valleys." As historian Richard Carlson has said: "If every society needs to possess a mythical moment of its creation, this is Vermont's."

Ethan Allen's life has been surrounded by controversy. But two truths are clear. First he was a rebel. Aligning himself with the more radical elements of America's early revolutionaries like Thomas Young, he was a constant source of irritation (and even legal indictments) to and from the established hierarchies of Church and State. He penned the first anti-Christian book ever published on the North American continent. A freethinking liberal, churchmen throughout New England breathed a sigh of relief on his death. Even in Vermont he was feared and distrusted. Rebellion was his legacy.

Second, he could not be bought. Not by New York, not by the United States Congress, not even by Vermont. We see this mix of stubborn defiance and loyalty to principle throughout the history of our state. We see it in our objection to the War of 1812, in our refusal to obey the fugitive slave act, in our taking the lead against McCarthism in the 1950's, in our town meeting votes for a nuclear weapons freeze in the early 1980's.

Ethan Allen would have supported Vermont's pioneering civil unions law with enthusiasm. He would have also understood those that put "take back Vermont signs" on their lawns. This is the soul of Vermont's special individualism - a tolerance for those with whom we disagree and an appreciation for being one of the minority. After 200 years Ethan Allen is still in our blood.

This is Frank Bryan from Starksboro.

Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont.
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