Book review: Valiant Ambition. George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Books. 2016)
Nathaniel Philbrick’s most recent offering, Valiant Ambition, tackles the difficult task of constructing a dual study of two very dissimilar men: George Washington, who led and personified the cause of independence, and Benedict Arnold, who ultimately sought to destroy it. This task is further complicated by the sporadic nature of their relationship, which became generally regular only in its climactic, final stage.
Philbrick’s solution is to alternate the military careers of the two generals, a device which results in a narrative often resembling a historical overview of the entire war in the north between 1775 and 1780. For example, he presents Washington’s 1776 New York-New Jersey campaign, and then turns to Arnold’s leadership in the St. Lawrence-Lake Champlain theater. Coverage of the 1777-78 campaigns again follows the separate experiences of the two commanders, with Washington trying to block the British at Philadelphia, and famously wintering at Valley Forge before achieving mixed results at Monmouth. Arnold, in contrast, was several hundred miles to the north.
The hero of the Canadian expedition and Valcour Island was already under criticism for allegedly commandeering government goods for personal gain. He was also seething over his placement in the ranks of major generals which he believed beneath the level his achievements had merited. Washington dispatched him to the northern army facing John Burgoyne’s increasingly desperate British force pressing south from Canada. Arnold, of course, played a key role in the spectacular rebel victory at Saratoga, suffering a severe leg wound in the process.
Philbrick suggests his bravura performance was motivated at least partly to convince Congress to restore his seniority in the major generals list. In that, he was to be frustrated. Despite his prominent role in the victory, Horatio Gates, the nominal American commander whose relationship with Arnold had soured, reaped credit for the triumph, deepening Arnold’s disgust and resentment. Washington, now able to exert more direct control over Continental Army affairs, tried to assuage Arnold’s bruised feelings, and held out the possibility that Arnold would join him as a field commander. In the meantime, he presented the sulking general with major general’s epaulets and a sword knot “as a testimony of my sincere regard and approbation of your conduct.”
With the slowly healing leg wound keeping him from active duty, Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia. Financially strapped, partially due to his extravagant living, he turned to insider trading and black market activities to expand his purse. “Arnold,” Philbrick contends,” saw nothing disloyal in doing what Americans had always done [under British mercantile restriction]: profit as best they could from whatever commercial circumstances presented themselves.” Additionally, Arnold took a soft attitude towards Philadelphia’s Tories, eventually marrying one of their own, Peggy Shippen, whom Phlbrick believes pushed Arnold over the line from disaffection to treason. He also became embroiled in a nasty confrontation with Joseph Reed, the leader of Pennsylvania’s radical republican faction. Reed charged Arnold with criminal behavior as military governor. He was cleared by Congress, but then endured a court martial which exonerated him of all the serious charges, but issued one relatively minor reprimand, enflaming his sense of grievance.
Strapped for cash, persecuted by Reed, and wed to a Tory, Arnold began to believe that not only had his country and cause failed him, but it was disintegrating as well. Currency was close to worthless, the Congress inept if not corrupt, the army was poorly supported, viewed with suspicion or considered a near mercenary force, and the fighting had devolved into vicious, internecine, yet inconclusive, combat in the contested areas of New York and New Jersey. The experiment had failed. In Philbrick’s words, “By April  Arnold had decided that he might just be the one to tip the scales. As far as he could tell, the British had a higher regard for his abilities than his own country did.” A month later he was in contact with Sir Henry Clinton. Whatever his other conclusions, Arnold’s negotiations with the British made clear “he was doing this first and foremost for the money.” Clinton would have preferred Arnold to take a field command, but the leg healed too slowly. Instead, Arnold secured command of the key Hudson River bastion at West Point, and with it all troops and outposts south to British lines.
The final denouement of the Arnold plot involved numerous twists and turns, culminating in the series of accidents which led to Major John Andre’s visit to Arnold behind American lines, the unexpected withdrawal of the British vessel which had delivered Andre and which was supposed to return him, Andre’s reluctant acquiescence in donning civilian clothing, and the fatal decision to return him to British lines through the contested ground of Westchester County. He was stopped by American militiamen at Tarrytown, where he blundered and revealed himself as a British officer. Taken into custody by the 2nd Light Dragoons, the plot disintegrated. Through another series of misjudgments, Arnold received word of Andre’s capture, and escaped down the Hudson to British lines, while Andre paid the price for espionage at the end of a rope.
Philbrick argues that the collapse of the Arnold-Andre plot was a major triumph for the revolutionary cause, however unexpected. With the Congress stuck in deep incompetence, localism and self-interest rampant, and the Continental army suffering two catastrophic defeats at Camden and Charleston, Philbrick believes the loss of West Point would have collapsed the Revolutionary cause resulting in a peace settlement on British terms. Instead, the near success of Arnold’s treason regalvanized the patriot cause: “Arnold’s treason had had a riveting effect. Government leaders were at long last beginning to focus on providing Washington the support he needed to fight the war.” If so, the effect was short lived as the woeful state of the Revolutionary cause between fall 1781 and November 1783 attests.
Philbrick ably navigates the intertwining elements of individual motivations, army campaigns, and, ultimately, espionage and treason. His research has been diligent, and the key sources, both primary and secondary, appear in the end notes—which are not numerical, but rather annotated discussions of the relevant materials. The book also benefits from excellent maps.
The great weakness of the book is the familiarity of the subject. The New York and Pennsylvania campaigns have been studied in depth since the smoke cleared, with superb modern accounts coming from the pens of McCullough, Fischer, Schecter, and Ferling. The Canadian-Lake Champlain-Saratoga campaigns have likewise enjoyed similar attention and exposition. Earlier generations of Americans became familiar with them—and Arnold’s central role—from the famously well-researched novels of Kenneth Roberts. Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga and Glenn F. Williams’s Year of the Hangman (which Philbrick borrows as a chapter title) are more recent, and valuable, contributions to the fighting on the New York frontier. The Arnold plot itself has long received substantial attention from historians, popular writers, and novelists. Van Doren’s Secret History of the Revolution holds up well despite being written in 1951. Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies, and my own study of Benjamin Tallmadge, explore the conspiracy and its undoing from somewhat different perspectives. A final question concerns the title. Whose Valiant Ambitions? Certainly Washington and Arnold had very different understandings of the words.
On the plus side, Valient Ambitions has the virtue of clarity, accuracy, and readability. For those unfamiliar with the northern campaigns and the West Point plot, or those who simply wish to revisit them anew from a different perspective, Phibrick has produced and accessible and reliable excursion into these dramatic and critical subjects.
I was surprised to read this lukewarm review of VALIANT AMBITION. I, too, am very familiar with the Arnold story, having been weaned on Kenneth Roberts and growing up to read the other titles mentioned, and more. Still, I gobbled up this book with delight. I repeatedly looked up from its pages to tell my husband, “This book is fabulous.”
VALIANT AMBITION takes two of my favorite figures of the Revolution, Washington and Arnold, and explains their characters and emotional lives in such a way that their individual responses under extreme stress seem not only understandable but almost inevitable.
I was fascinated to watch Washington learn to control his aggressive impulses on the battlefield (of course I knew he had a temper, and knew he had made many battlefield mistakes, but VALIANT AMBITION put those mistakes in a different perspective).
I was even more fascinated to consider how different history might have been if Arnold had been given a naval command. Nathaniel Philbrick’s perception that Arnold’s temperament (wanting control, impatient with collaboration) would have thrived at sea seemed brilliant to me. (For a school teacher, a classroom can be a similar kingdom of control. Over the years I have seen many very talented teachers promoted to administration where they alienate previously admiring colleagues, because collaborative leadership requires different skills.)
Again and again while reading this book, I was impressed by Nathaniel Philbrick’s perceptiveness. Simply because the people were so familiar to me, I was struck by Mr. Philbrick’s ability to make their emotional lives and human frailties so completely understandable. And he achieves this in clear, compulsively readable prose, supported by impeccable scholarship. I could not ask for anything more.
As for the title, I felt it was obvious that Mr. Philbrick was referring to the ambition of both George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and pointing to the truth that both men were driven by ambition — but given their different characters, driven to different ends.
Very encouraging to read this on many many levels
Philbrick is a very good writer, and he conveys the narrative clearly, but it is a story which has been examined many times before, and by many excellent historians. Those who are less familiar with the arcs of Washington’s and Arnold’s careers, and the West Point plot, will enjoy it more.
I’m about a third of the way through, and I agree with the reviewer. It feels like Philbrick is reaching a bit (so far) to make the Washington/Arnold study compelling. They’re both obviously compelling characters on their own, but the use of the comparison doesn’t seem to do what he wants it to do. We’ll see how it finishes.
Not surprisingly, it is a very easy and quick read without sacrificing detail. Perhaps even more so than some other excellent studies of different parts of the New York/New Jersey campaigns, I might recommend this book to a newcomer to the Revolutionary War.
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with it, Philbrick is a good writer and it’s an enjoyable read. It’s just that it probably relies a bit too heavily on secondary sources, there’s not really anything new, and the new contribution he’s trying to make (the Washington/Arnold study) doesn’t seem to have much “there” there. Yet. We’ll see how it unfolds.