Ethan Allen: His Life and Times

Ethan Allen: His Life and Times

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by Willard Sterne Randall

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The long-awaited biography of the frontier Founding Father whose heroic actions and neglected writings inspired an entire generation from Paine to Madison.

On May 10, 1775, in the storm-tossed hours after midnight, Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary firebrand, was poised for attack. With only two boatloads of his scraggly band of Vermont volunteers having made it


The long-awaited biography of the frontier Founding Father whose heroic actions and neglected writings inspired an entire generation from Paine to Madison.

On May 10, 1775, in the storm-tossed hours after midnight, Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary firebrand, was poised for attack. With only two boatloads of his scraggly band of Vermont volunteers having made it across the wind-whipped waters of Lake Champlain, he was waiting for the rest of his Green Mountain boys to arrive. But with the protective darkness quickly fading, Allen determined that he hold off no longer.

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 of Benedict 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.

As John E. Ferling comments, “Randall has stripped away the myths to provide as accurate an account of Allen’s life as will ever be written.” The keen insights that he produces shed new light, not only on this most enigmatic of Founding Fathers, but on today’s descendants of the Green Mountain Boys, whose own political disenfranchisement resonates now more than ever.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The brash, multifaceted ebullience of the United States at its birth comes through in this rich portrait of Ethan Allen (1738–1789), one of its iconic founders. Historian Randall (Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor) gives us a complex, protean Allen: strapping frontiersman; cunning entrepreneur; rationalist philosophe whose deistic manifesto scandalized Puritan divines and influenced Thomas Paine; amateur soldier whose impetuosity led to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the first strategically significant American victory of the Revolution, and later to disaster; finally, he was a Machiavellian politician who played the British off against the Continental Congress. Allen's saga was founded on a giant real estate swindle—the royal governors of New Hampshire and New York sold the territory of modern-day Vermont twice, to rival cliques of developers—that took on insurrectionary dimensions as he led his Green Mountain Boys militia against absentee landlords trying to evict settlers (a project that handily benefited his own byzantine land deals); the result, as Allen trod "a blurred line between land speculator and latter-day Robin Hood," was a new style of politics mixing populist ideals with canny corruption. Randall incorporates a wealth of research and colorful detail into an absorbing, well-paced narrative that highlights Allen's distinctively American energies—and contradictions.16 pages of illus. (June)
Philadelphia Enquirer
“[An] engrossing treatment from an accomplished biographer.”
Wall Street Journal
“Exhaustively researched and insightful.”
Dallas-Morning News
“Graceful, authoritative . . . a gripping story of guts and élan. . . . This balanced biography is equally adept in relating Allen’s heroics, as in revealing his ‘intrigues as a frontier politician.’”
John Ferling
“Willard Sterne Randall has few equals as a writer. A careful and meticulous historian, and an esteemed biographer, Randall has marshaled his many talents to produce the definite biography of Ethan Allen, one of the most fascinating figures in the founding of the American nation.... a must read.”
Jon Meacham
“This is the powerful story about an essential and little-understood figure in American history. Willard Randall writes with grace and insight, and Ethan Allen is an engaging biography.”
Joseph J. Ellis
“This is the first biography of Ethan Allen in half a century, and the only one to render him a psychologically complicated, fully flawed hero of the American Revolution.”
Library Journal
In this work, Randall (history, Champlain Coll.) presents Ethan Allen as much more than the hero of Fort Ticonderoga, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, and founder of Vermont. A contradictory character, Allen is shown here as the outspoken defender of New York land-grant settlers against land speculators but also as a land speculator himself; as a principled champion of justice and liberty while still an ambitious, glory-seeking opportunist; as a riotous and impetuous frontiersman as well as a self-educated philosopher and religious iconoclast. Randall effectively explains Allen's beliefs and actions by chronicling the economic, religious, and political developments in Colonial New England that shaped Allen and fomented the atmosphere of rebellion before and after 1775. VERDICT The relaxed narrative is supported by valuable primary documents and secondary sources, but Randall ignores Michael Bellesiles's Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (1993). Of greater concern, upon viewing the first submitted galley for the book, LJ pointed out to the publisher that certain passages closely followed Charles Jellison's Ethan Allen: Frontier Rebel (1969). The book has since been revised for publication, yet the new version still contains some passages that echo Jellison's narrative patterns. Nonetheless, this biography of a larger-than-life adventurer and flawed hero will be enjoyed by readers of popular histories about the country's early years, and by serious researchers in Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York history.—Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews

Randall (History/Champlain Coll.;Alexander Hamilton: A Life, 2003, etc.) delves beneath the myth to fashion the definitive biography of the frontier hero and founder of Vermont.

Best known for leading his paramilitary Green Mountain Boys on a daring attack on British-held Fort Ticonderoga, at Lake Champlain, on May 10, 1775—the first American action in the Revolutionary War—the charismatic Allen was a Connecticut-born farmer, businessman and politician who would become an American folk hero. Self-educated, foul-mouthed and over six feet tall (unusual for the time), he was celebrated for his legendary physical prowess.He could lift a bushel bag full of salt with his teeth and throw it over his head, the stories said. "He was a Paul Bunyan before Bunyan ever existed," writes Randall. When Allen first moved to Vermont in 1770, the territory was claimed by both the colonies of New Hampshire and New York. Determined to see Vermont become part of New England, where he owned land, Allen and his militia waged a five-year campaign of intimidation to drive away New York settlers. This same rag-tag band of Vermont farmers and hunters took Ticonderoga, without the Continental Congress's approval, shortly after hostilities began at Lexington and Concord. Randall's authoritative, vivid book is especially good on Allen's nearly three-year imprisonment after his failed attack on Montreal in 1775.Harshly treated, first in England and then in New York, he was finally released in a prisoner exchange. He then served Vermont as commander of the militia, chief diplomat to the Continental Congress and advisor to the governor. "The war hero, the counselor of state, he became the public face of Vermont, inside and outside the republic," writes the author. Allen's prison memoir was a bestseller during the Revolutionary era.

Colorful, well-written and nuanced.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Willard Sterne Randall is the author of is the author of Ethan Allen: His Life and Times and Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Randall is a professor of history at Champlain College and lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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Ethan Allen 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi -- I'm a moron who is giving this book that I haven't read a 5-star review, because even I understand that it's needed to balance out the 1-star reviews from the e-book chuckleheads who don't get that reviews are supposed to be ABOUT THE BOOK. Seriously, b&n, can't somebody do some basic editing?
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