Autonomy and the Risk of Anarchy
Today is dedicated to celebrating liberty and our independence from British oppression. Besides backyard barbeques, there are many earnest recitations of the Declaration of Independence, political speeches, and idealized stories about American patriots. The pageantry is a celebration of the American credo about the people’s rights—the autonomy or liberty—to live as they see fit. Balancing individual autonomy with social order goes to the heart of America’s argument with itself since 1776. The American Revolution continues because our high-minded ideals are in conflict with the supremely murky human motives that pit us against ourselves.
My ancestors lived in Vermont during the Revolution and their experiences highlight how easily autonomy can slide into anarchy. From 1761 until 1791, Vermont was an unorganized no-man’s land called the “Hampshire Grants” claimed by the colonial governments of New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It served the French and Indians as a backwoods staging area for raids on New England.
In 1761, after 125 years in Massachusetts and Connecticut, John, Reuben, Lemuel, and Gideon Searle along with 58 other men secured 25,000 acres in the ‘Hampshire Grants’ from New Hampshire’s royal governor. The grantees called it Arlington, chose John Searl as the town moderator, and levied taxes for surveys and roads. Several years later, New York’s royal governor granted 26,000 acres covering the same land to New Yorkers. When New York surveyors showed up in 1769 and 1771, a armed men with New Hampshire patents drove off the surveyors. New York captured and tried nine men represented by Ethan Allen but, finding no justice in court, Allen organized an armed force called the “Green Mountain Boys” that included Gideon Searl Sr. and Jr. The local Committees of Safety used the militia to run off New York claimants, surveyors and sheriffs.
During the low level conflict with New Yorkers in the political vacuum of the ‘Hampshire Grants,’ Ethan Allen, Gideon Sr. and Jr., and others took advantage of Vermont’s autonomy to speculate in land. Gideon Sr. and Jr. also secured interest in a New York grant given to British Major Phillip Skene at the end of Lake Champlain. At the same time, Skene and Ethan Allen schemed at creating a new province extending across northern New York from the Connecticut River to Lake Ontario. The plan died in1775 when Skene rejoined the British army and Allen’s militia captured Ft. Ticonderoga. Allen had two aims: drive the British out of the Lake Champlain Valley to show solidarity with the colonies and create a potential bargaining chip with the British.
In the face of the war, and to protect their holdings, Allen and his allies proclaimed the republic of Vermont in 1776 with a constitution, an organized government, troops, and control over the Loyalists. In this chaotic period, many men saw and seized opportunities for personal gain. Vermont’s government set up courts of confiscation to seize and sell Crown and Loyalist property to fill the Vermont treasury. When William Searle, Gideon’s brother, confiscated Loyalist property on his own, the Vermont Council of Safety found him guilty of illegally keeping the property and ordered him to pay the government. Gideon was more prudent, however, and bought confiscated properties from the state in several locations during the lulls in his four years of militia service.
The Republic of Vermont sent delegates to the Continental Congress in 1777 but New York opposed them because of the over-lapping boundary claims between Vermont and New York. Southern states and states with competing claims also opposed Vermont’s admission. Meanwhile, Ethan Allen opened negotiations with Britain in 1781 to reunite with it but the talks ended in 1783 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Vermont remained autonomous until 1791, when it joined the United States along with Kentucky.
With the end of hostilities , Gideon Jr., John Jr., Reuben, Lemuel and William Searl petitioned the Vermont Assembly in 1781 to establish a township and grant them title to “a Certain Vacant Tract of unappropriated Land” south of Lake Champlain within a part of New York claimed by Vermont. It was a politically opportunistic move that Vermont’s government declined. When the State of New York sent its militia to enforce the border it claimed inside Vermont, a larger force of Vermont militia, including Gideon Sr., met them at the border. Both sides backed away from open conflict at the last minute.
Gideon Sr. and Jr. moved from Arlington to Whitehall, New York, in 1782 and settled on the land they originally leased from Skene at the end of Lake Champlain. They owned adjacent farms, operated a sawmill on Castle Creek, and held various local offices, including assessor. Not until 1815 did negotiations resolve the issues of the New York-Vermont border and conflicting land titles.
The Revolutionary War was a messy affair unlike the idealized picture of a continent populated by selfless, armed patriots opposed to British oppression. It is estimated only a third of the American colonists supported Independence, another third opposed it (Loyalists), and the remainder were indifferent. My ancestors’ experience was typical of the times. They seized great opportunities with near total autonomy but the excessive autonomy threatened to become anarchy in the absence of an effective government.
This lesson is worth remembering in our restive times. Our current political struggles over the limits of governmental authority and personal autonomy have hardened into absolute positions that defy compromise. The political paralysis of our current divisions points to several dangers as grave as the anarchy in Vermont—the lack of a broad social contract, a Congress incapable of acting effectively on matters of great national importance, an executive extending its authority to act in the place of Congress, and a sharply divided court. The partisan electoral system is corrupted by money, serves the interests of powerful groups and produces broadly unpopular candidates at least one of whom slyly condones if not inspires mob-violence. It’s our nation’s 240th anniversary, and these are truly the times that try people’s souls.