Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick
In Valiant Ambition, Nathaniel Philbrick recounts America’s first Civil War, the American Revolution, through the stories of George Washington and one of his most brilliant generals, Benedict Arnold. Citizens of Great Britain, living in North America, revolted against their legally constituted government. He vividly reminds us that support for the revolution was far from universal, and success was not a given.
The intertwined stories of these two men show that too little has changed in two hundred years. Opinions differ on the most fundamental issues. Obstinacy and vaulting ambition are still with us. The desire for fame and fortune is a powerful incentive. Indeed, the simple craving to be recognized for what one does can change the smallest slight into a whirlwind of anger and retribution, a hunger to “get what I am due.” Or, at least what one perceives as one’s due. Such was the case for Arnold. Being passed over for rank, nearly losing a leg, failing to be acknowledged for his significant successes in battle, and wanting to rise from a bleak childhood into wealth and respect were major factors in his betrayal of his oath of allegiance.
Philbrick continues the story he began in Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. The war is going very badly for the colonial rebels. The British have taken New York City thanks to poor tactical decisions. Congress is making battlefield choices that constrain George Washington, and his aggressive strategy is failing. Benedict Arnold once again demonstrates his warrior acumen as he beats the British on Lake Champlain with daring strategic brilliance. Yet, he is passed over for promotion as the Continental Congress favors lesser men. Then, later, when it seems the Congress is going to rectify its earlier decision to grant him rank and, just as important, restore his seniority over those promoted earlier, the Congress yanks the plum away once more.
The cast of characters, rebel and loyalist, is alive, warts and all. Washington had to learn to temper his aggression in battle and did not begin winning until he employed more reflexive defensive tactics. Arnold, on the other hand, never learned patience and could not reconcile his great pain at real and perceived slights. As in Shakespearian tragedy, his Lady Macbeth pushed him over the brink. Marriage to Peggy Shippen, a well-to-do loyalist, filled his desire for financial security, and she encouraged him to contact the British and became his co-conspirator. While we cannot agree with Arnold’s ultimate decision to betray Washington, Philbrick brilliantly helps us understand the layers of complexity that compelled him.
Any serious student of the American Revolution will find that Valiant Ambition is integral to understanding the story of George Washington and America’s most hated traitor, Benedict Arnold. Philbrick, once again, has demonstrated his ability to make history come alive, not by putting words into the mouths of the protagonists, but by putting life into the facts. That is a rare quality.