Interview with Kevin Graffagnino, author of Ira Allen: A Biography

This summer, the Vermont Historical Society will publish a new book: Ira Allen: A Biography, written by J. Kevin Graffagnino, which explores the life of one of Vermont's most influential figures during the American Revolution and its founding. While not as well known as his famous brother Ethan, Ira was no less important to Vermont's early history. 

Here's what the book is about: 

Land speculator, revolutionary, pamphleteer, politician, and empire builder, Ira Allen was a key figure on the Green Mountain frontier. In a remarkable Vermont pioneer generation that included such noteworthy leaders as Ethan Allen, Thomas Chittenden, Moses Robinson, Isaac Tichenor, and Stephen Row Bradley, Allen stood out for his extraordinary energy, vision, and accomplishments.

Allen helped create and sustain the independent State of Vermont; held such important state offices as treasurer, surveyor general, and member of the Governor’s Council; published hundreds of pages defending Vermont against a host of internal and external enemies; and represented Vermont in negotiations with the British Empire, other American states, and Congress.

J. Kevin Graffagnino’s biography ably details Ira Allen’s extraordinary life. As the first published examination of Allen’s career in nearly a century, this book shines new light on Allen and his prominent role in Vermont’s formative decades.   

To prepare for its release on September 13th, we sat down with Kevin to learn a bit more about himself and the long journey this project took to reach print. 

First off, can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I was born in New York and raised in Montpelier, Vermont, and went on to attend UVM, where I earned two degrees in history. From there, I got my PhD in History from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

When I returned to Vermont, I became the curator of Vermontiana at UVM’s Special Collections between 1978 and 1995, and along the way, became the youngest trustee in the history of the Vermont Historical Society (between 1979 and 1985), then left Vermont and became the library director at the Wisconsin Historical Society between 1995 and 1999. From there, I became the executive director at the Kentucky Historical Society in 1999, and in 2003, I returned to Vermont and became the executive director of the Vermont Historical Society until 2008. After that, I went on to become the director of the William L. Clements Library at the University o Michigan, and retired in 2019. Along the way, I’ve written and edited 25 books, 15 of them about Vermont’s history, and lectured about history throughout the state.

You’ve spent a good part of your career studying Vermont’s history: how did you come to write this book about Ira Allen?

I began researching Ira Allen in early the 1980s, after a lot of research and publishing on Vermont in the 18th century, and I thought he deserved more attention than he'd received. I saw James B. Wilbur's biography (published in 1928) as inadequate for assessing Ira's role in Vermont's beginnings. 

So I began planning a biography around 1984 and wrapped that research into my PhD work at UMass-Amherst for my dissertation, which I earned in 1993. I planned on turning that dissertation into a book, but life had other plans: my professional moves to Wisconsin and Kentucky, and Michigan diverted me to other publishing projects. It wasn’t until 2022 that I returned to the project when my mentor and friend Nick Muller urged me in his final months to put the biography into print. I contacted Steve Perkins and Alan Berolzheimer about it and VHS’s Publications Committee approved the idea. A couple of years later, this book is the result. 

That's more along the "how" line: on the "why" side, I see Ira as one of the most important and influential Vermonters of his time. He ranks up there with Thomas Chittenden, Ethan Allen, and a handful of others in the efforts to create, defend and sustain Vermont against a variety of opponents between 1777 and 1791. 

He held a number of important offices, such as State Treasurer, Surveyor-General, member of the Council, chief advisor to Governor Chittenden, and wrote and published a remarkable amount of material making Vermont's case for its existence. He was a key figure in the Haldimand Negotiations that discussed Vermont's return to British control during and after the American Revolution, claimed more than 200,000 acres in northern Vermont, worked towards a commercial and real-estate empire in the Champlain Valley that rivaled the visions/plans of early America's most ambitious land speculators, and planned revolutions in Canada and Mexico to advance his hopes and dreams. An early Vermont history without Ira Allen is incomplete; with him we have a much more complete and accurate of our state's formative decades.

How will this book paint a new picture of Allen and the founding of Vermont for readers?

I hope this book will combine considerable new detail on Ira's life with scholarly/objective analysis of his motivations, what he hoped to accomplish, and the factors that led to his ultimate failure.

Readers will learn a great deal about Ira and a good deal about Vermont between 1770 and 1810. This book breaks with the old Vermont tradition of regarding our Founding Fathers with worshipful approval to portray Ira as a complex, talented individual who deserves our respect if not always our admiration. It incorporates the perspectives and insights of leading Vermont and American historians of the past half-century to create a better-rounded picture of Ira Allen and early Vermont alike.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Allen in the course of this book?

I think what most surprised me about Ira was the tremendous optimism and tireless energy that he brought to his many schemes, plans, projects, and dreams. No matter how often he fell short of his goals, he always had a Plan B that was sure to produce a successful result.

Reversals and failures that would have crushed any normal individual had little effect; he never ran out of ideas and determination to move ahead. When he died in poverty in Philadelphia in 1814, after a decade of exile from Vermont, Ira was awaiting word of what he was sure would be the success of a military expedition he had sent south to start a revolution in what would become the independent state of Texas (only 22 years later than Ira expected). 

What is it about Allen’s story that you feel is important to learn in 2024? What do you hope that they’ll take away from the book when they read it?

More than two centuries after Ira's death, I hope his story can remind us that the men and women who created and sustained Vermont in its early years were complicated, multi-faceted human beings rather than cardboard paragons or (if on the "wrong" side) unprincipled villains. Their motivations and ideals varied, both individually and collectively, and an understanding of that historical reality can serve us well in dealing with the challenges, issues and disputes of our own time.

Ira Allen: A Biography will be published in September by the Vermont Historical Society. You can find details about the book here and preorder your copy here

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