The Ethan Allen Institute picked a more appropriate hero than they realized.

Ah, the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont’s independent voice for free-market dogma. Named for that brave and resourceful hero of early America, Ethan Allen — patriot, war hero, exemplar of the Vermont Way.

Ehh, not so much. On both counts. EAI ain’t so independent, and its policy prescriptions aren’t so Vermont-centric. And, as a new book reveals, the original Ethan Allen was far from an unblemished hero.

First, the institute. From its own website:

Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.

Oh. Ah. Well, “State Policy Network” sounds innocuous enough. Surely our Brave Boys at EAI aren’t in bed with some national right-wing conspiracy, right?


The State Policy Network (SPN) has franchised, funded, and fostered a growing number of “mini Heritage Foundations” at the state level since the early 1990s. SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country.

Huh. “Early 1990s,” you say. As in, for instance, EAI’s founding in 1993? Wouldn’t it be a stitch if our own right-wing policy shop was nothing more than an offshoot of a national effort?

Although SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, the Center for Media and Democracy’s in-depth investigation, “EXPOSED: The State Policy Network — The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,” reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders.

After the jump: the real Ethan Allen, self-interested, inexperienced, truth-challenged.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported that SPN head Tracie Sharp compares the Network to IKEA, in which SPN provides the materials and services, and local affiliates pick and choose from the SPN menu. And the affiliates don’t necessarily have much wiggle room:

Sharp “also acknowledged privately to the members that the organization’s often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. ‘The grants are driven by donor intent,’ she told the gathered think-tank heads. She added that, often, ‘the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.'”

And thanks to weak-ass disclosure rules, we really have no idea how dependent EAI might be on those out-of-state donors and their political agendas.

Now, Ethan Allen was his own man. But, according to a new biography, he and his namesake Institute share quite a few character traits — not all of them positive.

Inventing Ethan Allen by John Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller, tries to strip away the many layers of myth surrounding our state’s first hero and present a much more complicated reality. They also explore the myth-making process of 19th Century American history, originator of “I cannot tell a lie” and other legends useful in nation-building. They find, per the publisher’s blurb, an Allen who was a notable figure who did many good things, but who was also “a self-interested land speculator, rebellious mob leader, inexperienced militia officer, and truth-challenged man who would steer Vermont into the British Empire.”

I haven’t read the book (yet), but there was a fascinating write-up in last Friday’s Burlington Free Press that made me realize how truly appropriate Ethan Allen is, as an inspiration for the Ethan Allen Institute.

The Allen we think we know, the historians conclude, was a 19th Century “confection” that turned a complex and flawed human being into an icon. Allen “was not a central figure” in post-Revolutionary histories of Vermont. But then, as many Vermonters migrated to the newly-opened Midwest, hard times befell our state, and Vermont’s elites felt the need to counteract the state’s “moral and economic decay” by building up “a pantheon of heroes” from our alleged Golden Age.

(Yep, even in the 1830s, we were bemoaning the lost Vermont of the Good Old Days. Some things never change.)

Admiring biographies ignored inconvenient truths, and emphasized — or even created out of whole cloth — the man’s heroic acts. Like, for instance, Allen’s military “exploits”:

Yes, he took Fort Ticonderoga, but his band outnumbered the somnolent British 4 to 1 and they faced little resistance. He later made a bungled attempt to seize a sloop at St. John, and then staged a foolhardy attack on Montreal. He sat out much of the Revolutionary War, and Vermont’s constitutional founding, in British captivity.

And, “In his military career, he came under fire just once.”

Hm. Sounds more like John Wayne than George Washington.

Cowboy with no cattle,

Warrior with no war,

They don’t make impostors

Like John Wayne anymore.

— T Bone Burnett, “Fear Country”

The historians cast doubts upon Allen’s very patriotism. In the early 1780s, Ethan and Ira Allen opened secret negotiations with the British with an aim toward rejoining the motherland. Allen enthusiasts insist he was trying to trick the Brits; but others believe he’d abandoned political principle to protect his substantial property holdings.

Paper tiger. Tin soldier. Incompetent strategist. Truth-challenged. A man who, when push came to shove, put financial interest above principle. And who “came under fire only once.” Sounds like a great match for the sideline warriors of the Ethan Allen Institute, more so than John McClaughry or Rob Roper would ever want to admit.  

3 thoughts on “The Ethan Allen Institute picked a more appropriate hero than they realized.

  1. Yep, Roper, McClaughry, Johnston, and all the rest of them do put “financial interests” ahead of humanity and principle.  

  2. No fair to the real Ethan Allen.  His never firing a shot also means he devised clever ways to win without killing.  When two ‘peace officers’ from New York came to arrest him (NY claimed VT), he made each of the officers think the other had been shot and the both were allowed to run away.

    When he returned to VT after captivity, he made sure that a case was retried because due process had not been followed originally.

    The Constitution his followers enacted (VT first) is a radical and democratic document.

    His opponents were people like Isaac Tichenor, “Jersey slick” a lawyer from the ‘garden’ state.  Tichenor was a reactionary opposed to the egalitarian society of VT and used the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts to gain power after opposing politicians had been jailed.  He would have loved the  current Republicans.

    Finally, Allen’s (not very original) book on reason makes clear the Enlightenment perspective which undergirds the foundation of VT.

    Yes, he was a scamp.  That’s the charm.  He made most of his money by marrying the wealthiest widow in the state.  

    Gotta love the guy.  And boy was he tall.

  3. “Even in the 1830s, we were bemoaning the lost Vermont of the Good Old Days.”

    That is hilarious!!!

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