Historian Willard Sterne Randall Talks to Biblioklept About His New Biography of Ethan Allen

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 everywhereon a ferry, a federal firing range, an old cavalry fort, streets and highways, a bowling alleybut 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 RevolutionMonticello, 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!

Ethan Allen (Book Acquired, Some Time Over the July 4th Holiday)

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Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of OG Green Mountain Boy Ethan Allen—pretty good stuff—is new in trade paperback. We’ll be running an interview with Randall about the book sometime next week. From publisher Norton’s blurb:

While Ethan Allen, a canonical hero of the American Revolution, has always been defined by his daring, predawn attack on the British-controlled Fort Ticonderoga, Willard Sterne Randall, the author ofBenedict Arnold, now challenges our conventional understanding of this largely unexamined Founding Father. Widening the scope of his inquiry beyond the Revolutionary War, Randall traces Allen’s beginning back to his modest origins in Connecticut, where he was born in 1738. Largely self-educated, emerging from a relatively impoverished background, Allen demonstrated his deeply rebellious nature early on through his attraction to Deism, his dramatic defense of smallpox vaccinations, and his early support of separation of church and state.

Chronicling Allen’s upward struggle from precocious, if not unruly, adolescent to commander of the largest American paramilitary force on the eve of the Revolution, Randall unlocks a trove of new source material, particularly evident in his gripping portrait of Allen as a British prisoner-of-war. While the biography reacquaints readers with the familiar details of Allen’s life—his capture during the aborted American invasion of Canada, his philosophical works that influenced Thomas Paine, his seminal role in gaining Vermont statehood, his stirring funeral in 1789—Randall documents that so much of what we know of Allen is mere myth, historical folklore that people have handed down, as if Allen were Paul Bunyan.

As Randall reveals, Ethan Allen, a so-called Robin Hood in the eyes of his dispossessed Green Mountain settlers, aggrandized, and unabashedly so, the holdings of his own family, a fact that is glossed over in previous accounts, embellishing his own best-selling prisoner-of-war narrative as well. He emerges not only as a public-spirited leader but as a self-interested individual, often no less rapacious than his archenemies, the New York land barons of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys.