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

The background of George Washington and his role in the American Revolution is quite well known. Readers of the books Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer or even Bunker Hill by Philbrick himself (to name a few well-known examples) will already know much that is here told (again) by Philbrick. But Philbrick expands the focus of this book to provide many details on lesser-known military actors in the war from both sides. And he puts Benedict Arnold in the forefront of his story. Most accounts of Benedict Arnold merely refer to his role as a traitor. Philbrick paints a much broader picture, one that is quite sympathetic to Arnold, at least at first.


As Philbrick reports, Arnold was “an immensely charismatic presence on the battlefield.” He also observes that “there were few officers in either the American or the British Army who possessed his talent of almost instantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.”

James Kirby Martin, author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered has also declared:

“His performance in taking and holding Fort Ticonderoga, invading Canada, delaying the British advance on Lake Champlain in 1776 (Arnold’s performance during the Battle at Valcour Island on Oct. 11 was a masterful example of brilliant leadership), and at Saratoga in Sept.-Oct. 1777 made him an invaluable asset to the American cause.”

By all accounts, including George Washington’s, Arnold was a brave and energetic soldier. Nevertheless, Arnold was also, as Philbrick asserts, prickly, vain, overly sensitive to a slight, difficult to work with, and did not suffer fools well. As it happened, the Revolutionary Army was full of such fools, especially because Congress awarded military responsibility on the basis of political considerations rather than merit. No matter how many battles were fought in which Arnold played a starring role, he could not overcome his lack of friends in high places and lack of “schmoozing skills.” As John Quincy Adams and even politicians up to this very day were to find to their sorrow, talent and intelligence are often not only less important than social lubrication ability, but they can be a drawback: causing resentment, and resulting in a valorizing of a lack of experience and/or intelligence.

Benedict Arnold in 1776.  Brown University/Wikimedia Commons

Benedict Arnold in 1776. Brown University/Wikimedia Commons

Arnold was a victim of just such a coterie of jealous and mediocre rivals who were promoted over Arnold’s head. Philbrick emphasizes that Arnold was not the only one to receive this ill treatment at the hands of Congress and rivals, but Arnold’s case stood out for the contrast between his obvious worth, the vehemence of the insults delivered to him and his status, and perhaps Arnold’s lack of ability to let these insults roll off his back (although it’s hard to imagine anyone having such an ability). Arnold’s enemies attacked Arnold’s honesty and character, and attributed his battlefield successes to others (such as the rather pusillanimous but popular Horatio Gates).  As Philbrick tells the story, it’s a wonder even more soldiers did not defect.

Major General Horatio Gates.  Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

Major General Horatio Gates.  Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

In particular, Arnold was defamed by Joseph Reed, who was perhaps the Joseph McCarthy of his day. Elected in 1779 to be President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, Reed was known in particular for his hatred of Pennsylvania’s Loyalist residents, and he instigated a number of trials of suspected Loyalists. To make matters worse, Arnold was named the military governor of Philadelphia by George Washington (a huge slight in Reed’s opinion). Reed yearned to be accepted by Philadelphia society, and now Arnold had a great deal of cachet.

Joseph Reed, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1778-1781. Credit: Courtesy of Capitol Preservation Committee, and John Rudy Photography

Joseph Reed, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1778-1781. Credit: Courtesy of Capitol Preservation Committee, and John Rudy Photography

But Arnold snubbed Reed, after which Reed instituted a smear campaign against Arnold based mostly on rumors. [The story of Joseph Reed and his desire for revenge on Arnold is very reminiscent of the story of Lewis Strauss and his resentment over, and desire for, revenge on Robert Oppenheimer, who spearheaded the Manhattan Project so that America would have the atomic bomb. After a social slight by Oppenheimer, Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, began a campaign to have Oppenheimer’s loyalty questioned. Strauss asked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to initiate surveillance to ferret out Oppenheimer’s alleged Communist sympathies. Strauss eventually managed to get Oppenheimer stripped of his security clearances, and helped destroy his reputation and career.] The moral of the (stories) it would seem, is to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

While in Philadelphia, Arnold met and fell in love with Peggy Shippen of a prominent society family. Philbrick claims Peggy and her family were staunch Loyalists, although other historians have disputed this. Arnold and Peggy married in April 1779, and here Philbrick also goes beyond much of the actual available evidence to claim that Peggy manipulated Arnold (who admittedly, wouldn’t have taken much manipulation at that point) to defect. Peggy did have friends among British officers, and allegedly she brought Arnold and them together.

Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Daniel Gardner

Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Daniel Gardner

As the story progresses, Philbrick’s presumed sympathy with Arnold begins to evaporate. He especially excoriates Arnold for making insider deals when in Philadelphia in order to make money (since Congress wasn’t paying anyone). In fact, as Philbrick admits, this was a common practice at the time. And one of the greatest inside-traders of all time, Andrew Jackson, was even elected President. But Philbrick has no sympathy here for Arnold. [I don’t wish to make a tu quoque argument for Arnold’s defense, but rather to provide some context.]

Meanwhile, Arnold was eventually court-martialed for the charges brought by Reed. He was acquitted of all charges except two very minor ones: allowing a vessel to clear port in Philadelphia when the port was closed (Arnold had an investment in the vessel and the trade goods it was carrying), and using public wagons to move trade goods belonging to him.  (Arnold had paid for their use.)

Part of the problem, it seems, that might have led to Philbrick’s loss of any good feeling toward Arnold was that George Washington endured some of the same insults and slights as Arnold (though not nearly as many), but managed to control his temper for the most part, and not alienate others over it. If one were to read Washington’s correspondence with members of Congress at that time, however, it is clear Washington wasn’t taking all this sitting down, but his complaints were not made public.

George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (US Senate)

George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (US Senate)

By the end of the book, Philbrick is using words like “Satanic” to describe Arnold. I felt a bit more sympathy than that for Arnold, even considering Arnold’s behavior around the time of his defection.

In any event, what happened when Arnold switched sides? Here, Philbrick pretty much drops the ball, only alleging that Arnold, while working for the British, was responsible for a “bloodbath comparable to the massacres at Paoli and Old Tappan.” (Other historians dispute this characterization. See for example, the account by James Kirby Martin, who maintains that Arnold “took it easy on the Virginians” and only destroyed “legitimate military targets.”)

Philbrick briefly makes a case that Arnold’s defection did have a positive result for America, in that it brought the country together by providing it with an enemy and a reason to step up support of General Washington. He doesn’t elaborate much, however, only supplying evidence of one parade in Philadelphia.

Broadside on a parade condemning Arnold in Philadelphia, 1780 Picture from America in Class, original source: Library of Congress

Broadside on a parade condemning Arnold in Philadelphia, 1780
Picture from America in Class, original source: Library of Congress

Philbrick also does not add anything about what happened to Arnold after the war, and in fact, ends the book with a totally superfluous vignette about Nathaneal Greene.

Evaluation: For those unfamiliar with all the difficulties in trying to fight and finance the American Revolution, this book has much to recommend it. However, I was disappointed in several aspects of this history, as indicated above. Philbrick also could have used better editing: he repeats several constructions, such as: “[whoever] would have none of it” and his explanation of Fabian warfare.

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Because I listen to quite a few non-fiction books on audio, I am very familiar with the voice of narrator Scott Brick. In fact, sometimes I feel disoriented and wonder which book it is that I am listening to! He’s a good narrator though, and adds a great deal of inflection and drama to his reading, albeit overusing a portentous tone. I also wish he would get the pronunciation of “forte” correct: “For-tay” is a musical term; the word meaning “strong point” is correctly said as “fort”.

But on the whole, I find Brick an excellent narrator for serious subjects.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published unabridged on 11 CDs (13.5 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Random House, 2016


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