Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick is a mess of a book.
I should have known by looking at the title and subtitle.
From those, I guessed that this would be a book centering on Benedict Arnold. After all, lots of other books are out there about Washington, and Arnold was the infamous traitor of the American Revolution. Hence, the “Fate” reference.
As it turns out, the book sort of centers on Arnold, a talented military leader who was self-centered in the extreme. At least, that’s how Philbrick paints him.
I’m not sure I fully trust Philbrick’s reading of Arnold.
Let me explain:
In 326 pages, Valiant Ambition seems to be attempting to do too much. It covers a four-year period (1776 – 1780). About a third of the book has to do with what Arnold did during that period, and about a third with what Washington did. The other third is about other stuff going on, such as campaigns by other generals and the doings of the Continental Congress.
One of the points that Philbrick seems to try to make is that Washington had many failings as a commander while Arnold was something of a military genius. He also appears to be arguing that, while Arnold had a tin ear for dealing with others, particularly his military colleagues, Washington was able to listen to and interact with most others in ways that resulted in their willingness to work with and for him.
I think both of those points are generally true, but this way of writing about them falls far short of being adequate — mainly because Washington and Arnold didn’t influence each other to any great extent.
No earlier context
What I mean is that, for instance, Washington’s skill as a commander and battlefield strategist evolved during the war in a way that had nothing to do with Arnold. The reader doesn’t need all that Arnold stuff to get a feel for what Washington was learning as the war went on.
Similarly, Arnold’s inability to relate in a positive way with most human beings had nothing to do with Washington. So, all that stuff about Washington’s skill isn’t necessary to see Arnold as a mean-spirited blowhard.
Which leads me back to my unwillingness to completely trust Philbrick’s reading of Arnold.
This book opens with Arnold at the age of 35. There are passing references to what went on in his life before 1776, but, essentially, the reader gets nothing about how Arnold’s childhood and early adulthood shaped the man he was at the start of the Revolution.
I’m willing to accept the anecdotes and documents that Philbrick trots out to show how callous and greedy Arnold was. But, because there’s no earlier context, these came across to me as something like piling on. Philbrick paints Arnold as a scheming buffoonish bully. Yet, how was it that he succeeded as a merchant before the war? How was it he was able to win Peggy Shipton’s hand? What I mean is that Philbrick’s presentation of Arnold feels like a caricature, cartoonish.
Not only does Philbrick not give much earlier context to Arnold, but he also spends a lot of time away from him, writing about Washington and those other campaigns. And a similar thing results.
If you read Valiant Ambition, you’re likely to come away with a vague sense of Washington, but you’d have to read something centered on him to bring him into sharper focus. Similarly, if you read the book, you’re likely to come away with a vague sense of what was going on in the rebelling colonies during these four years. But, without another book looking more directly at the issues of that time, you’d be left with a fuzzy sense of things.
Adding to the fuzziness is Philbrick’s tendency to describe seemingly every battle or potential battle as well as other actions by the British or Americans as having the potential “to end the war” in one stroke.
In some cases, it seems he has a quote from someone at the time making that assertion. But, really, it’s the nature of military men and politicians to argue that a particular strategy will have far-ranging implications. In calling so many battles and so many other actions as potentially war-ending, Philbrick leaves the reader unsure of which were really important and which were less so.
Since none of these ended the war with one stroke, there’s a Monday morning quarterback element to this, as if everyone Philbrick is writing about is really pretty stupid.
Anyone who has studied history knows that military, political and economic actions are taken in a fog of uncertainty. The winners, it seems to me, are often as surprised as the losers. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid. It means they’re human.
Philbrick ends Valiant Ambition with the assertion that Arnold’s treason ironically brought the new United States together in a way it hadn’t been before. He doesn’t do anything to prove that. He just asserts it as he asserts so much in his book.
I’m not arguing that Philbrick should have written another book. It’s just that, in this book, Philbrick seems willing to put stuff like Washington’s early failures and Arnold’s early victories next to each other and expect the reader to find some meaning.
Patrick T. Reardon