BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, May 2016
The state of play in the American Revolution, late 1777: One famous general has lost every significant battle he’s been in, often because he couldn’t curb his aggressive instincts. Another famous general has won several major victories, including one that will prove to be the most pivotal of the war.
The initially unsuccessful general was George Washington; the winner was Benedict Arnold. We know how it turned out—in the coming years, Washington became First in the Hearts of His Countrymen and Arnold became First Traitor. But how on earth did it happen? Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the bestsellers In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower, tackles this fascinating reversal of fortune in Valiant Ambition, an engrossing narrative of the war’s most difficult years.
In Philbrick’s view, both men were indeed valiant and ambitious, but their fundamental characters were diametrically opposed. Washington had a true moral compass, a long horizon and the capacity to learn from his mistakes. Arnold was impetuous, greedy and consumed with self-regard. When Congress mistreated Arnold, he became enraged, started smuggling contraband and ultimately sold out to the British.
The British unwittingly helped both men to their fates. The dysfunction of the infant American government was nothing compared to the internecine warfare of the British generals, who spent much of their energy scheming against each other. General William Howe beat Washington in every pitched battle they fought, but his hatred for his compatriot General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne exceeded his desire to win what he probably considered a pointless colonial dust-up. Perhaps Philbrick’s least favorite character is the British spy Major John André, the ruthless charmer whose careless misstep led to Arnold’s downfall and Andre’s own execution.
Philbrick argues that the quarrelsome, divided Americans needed Arnold’s perfidy as much as they did Washington’s greatness to unify their new nation. He pushes aside the patriotic myth to unveil the war’s messy reality—and it’s still a rousing adventure.