Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Grade school histories in America are, when it comes to the American Revolution, all about how great George Washington was and what a terrible traitor Benedict Arnold was. This book delves into the history of the two men from 1776 to 1780, following their military campaigns as generals in the Continental Army. Author Nathaniel Philbrick draws an initial contrast between the two gentlemen. Washington struggled with defeats and outmaneuvering by General Howe in New York and New Jersey; he barely kept his army together. Arnold craftily fought by the Canadian border on land and on Lake Champlain; he kept the British from streaming down the Hudson and dividing the colonies in half. Both men were temperamental and ambitious but clearly Arnold was more successful.

Both men had to deal with a very difficult opponent--the Continental Congress. In 1776, spirits were running high but the new government had little else. They had no powers to tax the states' citizens, relying on whatever money and militia they could beg from each state. Often they resorted to printing more money, which just devalued the cash. The congress was also somewhat suspicious of a standing army, worried Washington or another ambitious general might try to make a military dictatorship of the new country. Plenty of generals and state leaders were more adept (and had more time) to play the political games necessary to influence congress. Washington slowly learned to play the long game and not be rattled by the interference of civic politicians in military matters. Arnold, by contrast, became more and more frustrated with the civic government.

On the military front, Washington learned to be daring but not reckless; battles like Trenton inspired the rebels to fight on even against the bad odds of defeating the British. Thanks to battlefield injuries, Arnold wound up as military governor of Philadelphia after the city was taken back from the British in 1778. He used his position to unfair advantage in an attempt to restore some of the wealth he had spent on the war. He also wanted to woo Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia socialite with sympathies for the British. He needed the ability to support her which was hard when he was passed over for promotions and Continental cash had little value.

Arnold began to falter more, coming to the conclusion that the best thing for the colonies would be to reunite with the British Empire. Thus he schemed to surrender West Point (then a major fortification keeping the Hudson River out of British hands and keeping the country united). He might have succeeded if not for the ill-luck that befell his British conspirator, General John Andre. On the way back to New York from West Point, he was captured by Americans who found the plans for West Point while searching him for valuables. Arnold managed to find out about the capture of Andre before Washington found out/ Washington was on his way to inspect West Point. Arnold managed to escape to New York and ever living infamy.

Philbrick's descriptions of the battles and conditions of the time are detailed and fascinating. I myself know very few details of the American Revolution and was glad to learn more. He seems to think that people will find shocking the back-biting and difficulties the army, and Washington in particular, faced. Other generals wanted to be in command and the congress was often the opposite of helpful. While I didn't know about those details, I hardly find them surprising.

I was surprised at the level of admiration Philbrick has for Arnold, who was a brilliant general. Philbrick credits his betrayal with reigniting the country's passion for independence. Without Arnold as the villain, the cause could have faded away. The true enemy was the average citizen who would satisfy their own comfort rather than sacrifice for their fellow Americans. Arnold's self-serving betrayal (he was going to get a lot of money if he succeeded) was a wake-up call to the Americans. The argument is interesting but I am unsure if it was THE thing that turned the revolution around.

The book is an interesting and detailed look at the history of the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington and even more so through those of Benedict Arnold. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment