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Ethan Allen's great thoughts on property rights

10/29/03 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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(Host) As VPR's Great Thoughts of Vermont series continues, commentator John McClaughry examines how Ethan Allen's concept of land ownership shaped the state and continues to influence us today.

(McClaughry) One of the most unique and original Vermonters of all time has to be Col. Ethan Allen, the leader of the 18th Century Green Mountain Boys. Ethan - all through the 19th century Vermonters referred to him simply as Ethan - was indubitably a brave, resourceful, and inspiring revolutionary leader. He was also a big time land speculator, a carouser, a world class blasphemer, and an irreverent deist in religion.

Ethan labored mightily to establish a republican government in what became independent Vermont. Today's Vermonters would do well to appreciate more fully one cardinal principle in his political thought.

Ethan saw very clearly that a republic can only be founded upon an economic base of freehold property ownership. Freehold led to independence and prosperity. Feudal property laws led to subservience and misery.

Ethan looked west to New York, where the great Hudson Valley land barons held farmers in a state of perpetual tenancy. He looked to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and his native Connecticut, and saw freehold property, self-governing communities, liberty, progress, and human happiness.

So Ethan vowed to defeat New York's feudal land grants in what is now Vermont, and establish the New England freehold property system. This was, of course, related directly to his self-interest, since Ethan and his brothers owned lots of New Hampshire grants that would become valueless if New York prevailed. But it was also Ethan's intention to found a republic of free citizens, not an oligarchy of land barons and dependent serfs.

Ethan's handiwork has come down to us in the Vermont Constitution. Article First declares that all men have the natural, inherent and unalienable right to acquire, possess, and protect property.

Article Second goes on to make private property subservient to public uses "when necessity requires it" - but adds that whenever private property is so taken, the public must pay the owner "an equivalent in money." This is the first written constitution in the world to require just compensation for the public taking of private property.

Ethan's freehold system is the antithesis of a social property system. Ethan's championing of freehold against the baronial system of New York also erected a bulwark against collective ownership through the modern state. That was not the threat in 1777, but the remedy Ethan gave us then serves us well against an all powerful state today.

That is Ethan Allen's finest legacy to Vermonters. Without it, Vermonters would live in a state of social property, where the privileges of ownership are vested not in individuals, but in their government. If anyone wonders what that leads to, let them examine the collective property ownership of any socialist or communist country, and ask themselves what they like about it.

This is John McClaughry - thanks for listening.

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