Book Review: Valiant Ambition
George Washington, Benedict Arnold,
and the Fate of the
by Nathaniel Philbrick
The treachery of Benedict Arnold, the collusion with British forces and the intent to hand over the American base of West Point, that old familiar founding morality tale of the United States, is the subject of the new book by Nathaniel Philbrick, the best-selling author of In the Heart of the Sea. It’s a story that’s been told many, many times by many historians; there can be no new history in telling it again, only new energy and interpretation. Fortunately for readers (and unsurprisingly for readers familiar with this author), Philbrick brings plenty of energy to his own interpretation of Arnold’s treachery, and he remains comfortably aware of the semi-mythological nature of the material. “The United States had been created through an act of disloyalty,” he writes. “The American people had come to revere George Washington, but a hero alone was no sufficient to bring them together. Now they had the despised villain Benedict Arnold.”
This parallel story arc is at once the strongest and the most annoying aspect of Valiant Ambition. In his spare moments, when the power of his central story line isn’t preoccupying his energies, Philbrick likes to imply that the very forces responsible for harrying Benedict Arnold into treason – the carping of politicians far from the front lines, the enormous financial strains of trying to live grandly in a time of revolution, the constantly looming threat of annihilation at the hands of the British forces – were simultaneously responsible for elevating and purifying George Washington, that what made the one a pariah made the other a paragon. This can get a bit tiresome, and again, it’s lucky for readers that Philbrick’s own sense of perspective restores the balance more often than not, sometimes prompting some fairly blunt assessments of the paragon:
[Washington] might fume about the quality of his soldiers, but if anyone had failed to meet the test at the Battle of Long Island, it was their commander in chief. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Brodhead, who’d witnessed the catastrophe on the American left, was still outraged by the ineptitude displayed by His Excellency and his subordinates. “Upon the whole,” he wrote, “less generalship never was shown in any army since the art of war was understood.” Colonel John Hasler was more diplomatic: “I fear General Washington has too heavy a task, assisted mostly by beardless boys.”
Far more interesting is the book’s elaboration of the long and incredibly acrimonious public legal battle waged between Arnold and former Washington adjutant Joseph Reed, who left military service to become President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council and while in office, in addition to hounding suspected loyalists, made a special project out of attacking Arnold on a daily basis. Philbrick tells this story with particular relish, bringing the vicious infighting of the colonial powers to the forefront of his narrative:
Once back in Philadelphia, Arnold was soon under near-ceaseless attack by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council even as he moved ever closer to marriage. Before Congress had a chance to address the state’s charges against Arnold. Reed accused the delegates of favoritism on Arnold’s behalf. Since the council was unwilling to provide the required evidence – primarily because they did not have any – the congressional committee appointed to examine the charges had no choice but to find in Arnold’s favor. This finding resulted in a volcanic outpouring of outrage on the part of the council accompanied by threats of withholding the state militia and the large number of state-owned wagons upon which Washington’s army depended.
There’s the strong temptation in such accounts to ascribe Benedict Arnold’s treason to simple exasperation, but here Philbrick is once again admirably clear: goaded by a settlement-hungry young wife and her family, enticed by large rewards dangled by the British, Arnold worked his abortive treachery solely for venal reasons. As Philbrick makes clear, even dented vanity doesn’t account for the former hero’s treachery; it was, in the end, the thirty pieces of silver that moved the man.