Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution
Stories about history are listed in the nonfiction category, but the classification is misleading. Historical facts are not neutral truths awaiting discovery and exposition. They are value-laden speculations about events of the past, in many cases only as accurate as readers believe them to be. It helps when an author relies on primary sources and annotates his or her stories, but citations are fallible and always a matter of choice. Political history is particularly susceptible to biases borne of partisan preconceptions.
Histories of the American Revolutionary War have long extolled the role of George Washington, the primus inter pares among the Founders. He certainly deserved much praise, especially when compared with the squabbling, bickering, and procrastinating members of the Continental Congress for whom state loyalties and petty personality disputes outweighed any national allegiance.
Only after five years of armed rebellion did Congress appropriate enough funding to keep American soldiers from starving to death. Despite his variegated record of success on the battlefield, Washington was the only available unifying symbol of the new country.
After the war was won, however, the stories of Washington’s successes against the British (even if they were merely successful retreats) were hyped with little room for discussion of the disasters that they almost became. Up until the very last days of the Revolutionary War, the Americans remained only one defeat away from total collapse.
By comparison, all the histories of Benedict Arnold, the arch-traitor of the Revolutionary War, presented the turncoat as evil incarnate. Arnold too became a unifying symbol—but this time of malevolence. Although it should have been hard to totally ignore his country-saving victories on the battlefield, after he sold his soul to the British, few in America would remember him as anything other than an odious snake in the grass. It is not by chance that a synonym for traitor is “Benedict Arnold.”
Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution, is a spirited effort to balance myth with reality. His two protagonists, Washington and Arnold, are portrayed more as shades of gray than the black-and-white of traditional history.
Arnold was a remarkable, if totally reckless, battlefield general whose victory at Saratoga enticed the French into the war on the side of the Americans. That representation, however, does not fit into the accepted narrative. His brilliance as a tactician and personal sacrifice of both blood and fortune brought him into great favor in Washington’s mind. Arnold was the daring field general Washington wanted to be.
Philbrick’s portrait of Washington—while recognizing his military mistakes—also presents a picture of a complex man who cared deeply about his men and his country. He never lost faith in the new nation. His most favorable characteristic was his level head—not quick to be moved by passion and emotion. Like everyone else, Washington had misjudged Arnold, perhaps swayed by Arnold’s successes on the battlefield which few other generals could achieve.
Ultimately, under the influence of Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphian teenage beauty of mercurial and volatile temperament who became Arnold’s wife and worked diligently to turn him to the British side, the conspiracy was made. After Arnold was named the military head of West Point on the Hudson, he would surrender the fort and its men in exchange for a commission in the British army and the money he needed to maintain the kind of life his young wife demanded.
This sidestep for Arnold was not as surprising as some might imagine. The American revolutionary undertaking was always a contingent venture. A third of the citizens of the colonies remained steadfastly loyal to the crown. Leaders deserted all the time from one side to the other. Arnold himself had always been short of money. For years, he had sold valuable goods that belonged to the fledgling army in exchange for whatever bounty was available. He constantly complained to Congress about being mistreated and short-changed on the amounts he was owed. From this perspective, his apostasy was inevitable.
Philbrick’s work is a carefully annotated, well-written volume. Focused on Washington and Arnold, he grabs and holds the reader’s attention while telling this significant part of the story of the War of Independence. It is a fascinating account. We know the ending, but the trail to the finale is filled with twists and turns that transform the participants into real people.