Academic journal article Early American Literature

Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays: Contrasting Models of Political Representation in the Early Republic

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays: Contrasting Models of Political Representation in the Early Republic

Article excerpt

In the winter of 1786-87, two of early America's most famous folk heroes nearly crossed paths, as Ethan Allen, chief of the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, met briefly with two associates of Daniel Shays, the purported leader of the protests in western Massachusetts that shook that state the previous autumn. Allen reported meeting with Luke Day and Eli Parsons shortly before their ill-fated January attack on the national arsenal at Springfield. During their meeting, Day and Parsons reportedly offered Ethan Allen command of the "revolutionary army" they were assembling. (1) Allen undoubtedly appeared a kindred spirit to the disgruntled residents of western Massachusetts, having become famous for leading a frontier militia, the Green Mountain Boys, against the authority of both the colonial government of New York and the British Empire. (2) The Massachusetts protesters likely imagined themselves as part of the same stream of local resistance as the residents of Vermont since both groups had used collective action to block the proceedings of a legal system they believed favored wealthy, metropolitan interests at the expense of rural communities. (3) The protesters in western Massachusetts even adopted the same visual symbolism used by the Green Mountain Boys, with members of both groups placing a sprig of evergreen in their hatbands to show affiliation. (4)

Despite this apparent compatibility, however, Allen sought to distance himself from the Massachusetts uprising by refusing the offer of leadership and ordering Day and Parsons to leave Vermont. Allen then took the additional step of writing Governor James Bowdoin of Massachusetts to assure him the republic of Vermont would not give asylum to these rebels. In a Boston newspaper in March 1787, after the failed assault on Springfield and the subsequent rout of the insurgents by a small army led by former Continental Army general Benjamin Lincoln, Allen declared he had no further contact with Shays or his adherents and that "he heartily despised both them and their cause" (Walton 380). While they may have shared similar goals and methods, there would be no collaboration between Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays.

The politically savvy Allen likely realized a direct association with the insurgents in Massachusetts would only hamper his efforts to obtain recognition of Vermont's independence. While the threat of the Green Mountain Boys joining the fray in Massachusetts could be a means of pressing for inclusion in the national confederation, an actual collaboration would likely alienate the region from its neighbors. Thus, Allen chose to reject the offer from Day and Parsons, while also publicizing that this offer had been made. This attention to public perception highlights the contrast between Allen and Shays as leaders of popular uprisings: whereas Shays never sought to present himself as the head of a social movement, Allen consciously strove to be the spokesman for Vermont's independence. His talents for self-presentation have established Ethan Allen as a popular hero of the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that he spent much of the conflict either in British custody or at his home in Bennington. Daniel Shays, on the other hand, had served as a captain in the Continental Army and he repeatedly claimed the principles for which he fought the Massachusetts state government in 1786 were the same that had led him to fight the British ten years earlier. Yet Shays has become an iconic American hero only in hindsight, as during the 1780s his name was a watchword for anarchy among many of the early Republic's political elites. (5) Why then was Ethan Allen successful in his own time at presenting Vermont's movement toward independence as part of the American Revolution, yet Daniel Shays failed in the effort to depict the claims of the Massachusetts backcountry as continuous with the goals of 1776?

One source of this distinction must surely be Allen's prolific writings, especially his 1779 captivity narrative, which enabled him to define his public character in a way Shays never pursued. …

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