'Unshackling America' and the War of 1812: Vermonter's new history ties the past to the present

MANCHESTER — Vermonter Willard Sterne Randall has made a national name for himself writing about the American Revolution in acclaimed biographies of Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

But the subsequent War of 1812?

"When I began teaching," the professor emeritus at Burlington's Champlain College says, "I could not find a textbook that devoted more than a page to it. It was a hiccup in history."

And yet a condition whose symptoms continue today. When Randall speaks of clashes over refugees, trade and the country's place in the world, he's not talking about the present, but two centuries past.

"Our major issues," he says, "are very much like those at the time of the Revolution."

Most people, however, assume the 1775-83 war put an end to such problems.

"We had won our independence, but were we truly independent?" the author says. "I've written biographies of the Founding Fathers, but I began to have my doubts."

And so Randall is unveiling his latest book, "Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution."

"The Treaty of Paris of 1783 only halted the overt conflict of the Revolutionary War and granted political autonomy, but it did not guarantee American economic independence and agency," he writes in the introduction. "For fully three more contentious decades that led to another war — the War of 1812 — Britain continued to deny the United States' sovereignty."

Randall is sharing his 464-page St. Martin's Press hardcover at spoiler-free appearances statewide.

"I won't take you through the whole thing," he recently told an audience at Manchester's Northshire Bookstore. "I'd love you to read it."

The 75-year-old scholar began his career as a journalist, working nearly two decades for Philadelphia newspapers and magazines and the Time-Life News Service, all while winning a National Magazine Award for public service from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Pursuing advanced studies at Princeton University, Randall moved to Vermont to teach and publish history. The New York Times named his "industriously researched" biography of Benedict Arnold a "notable book" in 1990, while Publishers Weekly deemed his "masterful, gracefully written portrait" of Thomas Jefferson one of the best such works of 1993.

"I started in journalism," the author says of his trajectory, "and just wrote longer and longer pieces."

Randall began his latest title after finishing his last, "Ethan Allen: His Life and Times," in 2011.

"I had gone around the table with the other founders and was interested in writing about the Madisons," he says of James and his wife, Dolley. "I saw them as having a co-presidency — and then realized a disproportionate amount of the book would be about the War of 1812, and I didn't understand it."

After six years of research, he now does.

"Revisiting such famous events as the Chesapeake affair, in which a British ship fired on and mustered an American crew," Publishers Weekly notes in its review of his book, "Randall brings to life the violent skirmishes that played out in the name of trade on sea, lake, and land."

The author, having spoken the past week in Manchester, Middlebury and South Burlington, is set to read in Washington, D.C. on July 15, at the North Hero Public Library on Aug. 1 and at the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington on Aug. 20. He's also offering a separate series of talks on "Hamilton, The Man and the Musical," with the full schedule on his website, www.willardrandall.net.

Randall isn't ready to reveal the subject of his next book, but notes he likes to revisit history. For his current title, he traveled to the Maryland Historical Society to view Francis Scott Key's handwritten lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner" (penned after the War of 1812's Battle of Baltimore) and to Ghent, Belgium, to see where American and British leaders signed a peace treaty.

"I like to walk in the footsteps of the people I write about," the author says.

The War of 1812, portrayed by some as heroic, was "pretty horrible," he opines. But visiting the Ghent location where the carnage finally ended, he found the site replaced by a store for the colorful international fashion chain Esprit.

"Some things," the historian concludes, "do change."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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