Treacherous Beauty by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case. Blurb—
Histories of the Revolutionary War have long honored heroines such as Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams, and Molly Pitcher. Now, more than two centuries later, comes the first biography of one of the war’s most remarkable women, a beautiful Philadelphia society girl named Peggy Shippen. While war was raging between Britain and its rebellious colonists, Peggy befriended a suave British officer and later married a crippled revolutionary general twice her age. At age 19, she brought these two men together in a treasonous plot that, had it succeeded, might have turned George Washington into a prisoner and changed the course of the war.
Peggy Shippen was Mrs. Benedict Arnold.
Ethan Allen is perhaps most noted for leading the Green Mountain Boys on a daring raid to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British. Willard Sterne Randall’s biography Ethan Allen: His Life and Times reveals and explores much more to the Vermont statesman than many fans of American history are likely aware of. Randall also makes good on the promise of the second part of his book’s subtitle, painting the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years in keen detail. Randall was kind enough to talk to me about his book (which is new in a trade paperback edition from Norton) via email.
Randall has written many books on the American colonial and Revolutionary periods, including biographies of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benedict Arnold. He lives in Vermont, where he teaches American history at Champlain College. Check out his website.
Biblioklept: You’ve written books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, figures who obviously bear considerable influence on American history. Ethan Allen is a less-remarked upon figure. What made you want to tell his story?
Will Randall: When I moved to Vermont thirty years ago after a journalism career, I ran into Ethan Allen’s name everywhere—on a ferry, a federal firing range, an old cavalry fort, streets and highways, a bowling alley—but if you asked people what they knew about him, invariably it was with a chuckle and a sign of tippling or a wink and they’d say, “Ole Ethan, that drunk” or “that scoundrel.” Other than that, he knew he had captured a fort with the Green Mountain Boys (their names and his were always run together), but beyond one day at the beginning of the Revolution, they knew nothing.
As I worked on other biographies of more patrician and recognizable revolutionaries, I kept running into Allen’s name. The editors of a new compendium on the American Enlightenment asked me to do a profile of Allen as philosopher: turned out Allen was the first published American Deist philosopher. My son wrote a thesis in college on the precedents of the Union’s treatment of POW’s in the Civil War: turned out it was the treatment of Ethan Allen as a prisoner of the British in the Revolution. Treatment of the British: turned out Allen wrote a memoir of his captivity under horrible conditions for nearly three years as he was shunted by ship from Canada to England to Bermuda to Halifax to New York, etc., while George Washington laid down the law that, as Allen was treated, so would be British prisoners. That narrative turned out to be the second-best-selling book of the Revolution, only behind Tom Paine. And so it went, with virtually every Founding Father in one way or another interacting with Allen while he beat off, with four
volumes and scores of pamphlets of highly-charged words and weapons from clubs and daggers to the heavy artillery that drove the British out of Boston and saved Washington’s army, anyone who tampered with Vermont, which was virtually his creation. That, I decided, warranted a book.
Biblioklept: Allen often comes across as a sort of mythical frontiersman—you note in your prologue that he “projects himself as a populist frontier philosopher on horseback.” How accurate is this reputation?
WR: I think he fills his own bill. He was so popular that some 10,000 people braved February weather in Vermont to come to his funeral (out of a population of 80,000. He spoke for the poor who couldn’t make it in other more hierarchical New England colonies and, after revolting in Massachusetts, fled to Vermont, where he protected them. All his adult life, he took on, in person and in writing, the Puritan theocracy, selling virtually everything he had to attack their Old Testament religion in publishing 1,500 copies of a book, of which only about 200 copies survived the flames of a suspicious fire. While most other Founders prospered from the Revolution—Monticello, Mount Vernon, etc.—Allen chose to live out his days in a one-and-a-half story log house with the best view of his beloved Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. There, giving Voltaire’s name to one of his sons, he raised cattle and scribbled away, signing himself, “Clodhopper Philosopher” that the philosophes of Paris read in their salons on the eve of the French Revolution. And what finally killed him: according to a toxicologist I consulted, too much applejack mixed with rum in a “flowing bowl” of punch he consumed liberally in one last party with his Green Mountain Boys.
Biblioklept: At the beginning of Ethan Allen, you point out that there are few books or credible biographies of your subject. I’m curious how this impacted the composition of the book—was it frustrating? Liberating?
WR: Actually, it was liberating. It forced me to employ all the investigative techniques I had learned and made me read as widely as I have with any other Founding Father, following the research wherever it led me.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
WR: Not yet, but they’re getting expensive!
From Charles M. Skinner’s Myths And Legends of Our Own Land (1896):
Though several natural bridges are known in this country, there is but one that is famous the world over, and that is the one which spans Clear Creek, Virginia—the remnant of a cave-roof, all the rest of the cavern having collapsed. It is two hundred and fifteen feet above the water, and is a solid mass of rock forty feet thick, one hundred feet wide, and ninety feet in span. Thomas Jefferson owned it; George Washington scaled its side and carved his name on the rock a foot higher than any one else. Here, too, came the youth who wanted to cut his name above Washington’s, and who found, to his horror, when half-way up, that he must keep on, for he had left no resting-places for his feet at safe and reachable distances—who, therefore, climbed on and on, cutting handhold and foothold in the limestone until he reached the top, in a fainting state, his knife-blade worn to a stump. Here, too, in another tunnel of the cavern, flows Lost River, that all must return to, at some time, if they drink of it. Here, beneath the arch, is the dark stain, so like a flying eagle that the French officer who saw it during the Revolution augured from it a success for the united arms of the nations that used the eagle as their symbol. The Mohegans knew this wonder of natural masonry, for to this point they were pursued by a hostile tribe, and on reaching the gulf found themselves on the edge of a precipice that was too steep at that point to descend. Behind them was the foe; before them, the chasm. At the suggestion of one of their medicine-men they joined in a prayer to the Great Spirit for deliverance, and when again they looked about them, there stood the bridge. Their women were hurried over; then, like so many Horatii, they formed across this dizzy highway and gave battle. Encouraged by the knowledge that they had a safe retreat in case of being overmastered, they fought with such heart that the enemy was defeated, and the grateful Mohegans named the place the Bridge of God.
Founder of a nation, trouncer of the English, God-fearing family man: all in all, George Washington has enjoyed a pretty decent reputation. Until now, that is.
The hero who crossed the Delaware river may not have been quite so squeaky clean when it came to borrowing library books.
The New York Society Library, the city’s only lender of books at the time of Washington’s presidency, has revealed that the first American president took out two volumes and pointedly failed to return them.
At today’s prices, adjusted for inflation, he would face a late fine of $300,000.
The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.
The ledger simply referred to the borrower as “President” in quill pen, and had no return date.