Valiant Ambition : George Washington, Benedict Arnold And The Fate Of The American Revolution / Nathaniel Philbrick

As a child in school, I learned in history class of the treasonous acts of Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution. He was presented as the blackest of villains who betrayed both friends and country. What those school history books failed to supply was the backstory that explained the events that led Arnold to commit treason. In this engaging read, Philbrick presents “the rest of the story.”

In the early days of the war, Arnold was a devoted patriot, someone who rose quickly through the ranks of the Continental Army to become a general who could lay claim to saving the young country from ruin. In several key battles, it was his leadership that led to the British being turned back when they attempted to invade New York from Canada. In the second battle, Arnold was severely wounded and nearly lost a leg. While an inspiring leader, he was often “prickly and hotheaded” in his dealings with authority figures, leading him to run afoul of the Continental Congress. Even though he had lost his family fortune and good health in the cause of freedom, it refused him reimbursement or further career advancement.

While Arnold experienced early successes as a general, George Washington in the first years of the war made a number of mistakes that almost led to the British crushing the rebellion. His saving grace was his ability to learn from his mistakes. Unlike Arnold, prone to recklessness, Washington realized the importance of outlasting the British rather than risking everything in one roll of the dice. Yet despite their differences in how to conduct the war, Washington held Arnold in high regard and did all in his power to assist him to win promotions and recompense.

As Philbrick shows, the British Army and the Loyalists were not the only stumbling blocks facing Washington’s ragged army. The “radical Constitutionalists” in the Continental Congress also did their best to derail the war efforts. They proved unable to find a way to adequately fund the military campaign. More interested in protecting their own state interests than the fate of the nation as a whole, members bickered about states’ rights rather than loosening the purse strings. Even though there was a clear need to raise taxes to insure an American victory, they were loath to do so. (Sound familiar? Some things never change in this country.)

Several things led to Arnold’s decision to betray the American cause. Money was a major problem for him. Having married the daughter of a rich businessman, he needed funds to bestow a settlement on her and find a means to support their upper class lifestyle. At the same time, as the military governor of Philadelphia, he was being hounded by the president of Pennsylvania’s Executive Council who was determined to bring him to trial for corruption. While Arnold’s greed and self-interest played a part in his betrayal, persecution by supposed allies led him to believe that he was the one who had first been betrayed by his country.

In 1780, George Washington put Arnold in charge of West Point, an American fort on the Hudson River in New York. Arnold had lobbied for the position, already determined to hand it over to the British for the promise of money and a high rank in the British army. And he nearly succeeded, as the final chapters of this book show. Ironically, once it was revealed, his treasonous act served to supply Washington with the funds his army so desperately needed. Benedict Arnold became the “despised villain” who helped to unite a divided country and caused the radical Constitutionalists to lose control of the Continental Congress.

For those who want to have a better understanding of this period in American history, Valiant Ambition will entertain even as it educates by telling “the rest of the story.”

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