Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘Valiant Ambition’: How betrayal helped win the Revolutionary War

Nathaniel Philbrick’s gripping new work, “Valiant Ambition,” tells how, after years of bickering by Congress and the states, the Revolutionary cause was finally galvanized and united by Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. Philbrick appears Monday, May 23, at Town Hall Seattle.

‘Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution’

by Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, 443 pp., $30

The story of America’s founding is well known: Defiant citizen-soldiers threw a “tea party” in Boston, formed a well-timed coalition with the French, and defeated the mightiest army on Earth. It’s a great story, but the truth is, that’s not how it actually happened.

In fact, the Revolutionary War dragged on for eight years. George Washington’s “army” was barely supported by a bickering Congress and by deeply divided states uninterested in building a unified national government. The continental army nearly froze and starved to death at Valley Forge, for lack of meaningful support from Congress.

Nathaniel Philbrick, who won the National Book Award for “In the Heart of the Sea”, tells the fascinating story of Washington’s struggle, the fractious young Republic and Benedict Arnold’s surprisingly central role in it all. This is history at its most compelling: political machinations, military jostling and outright treachery. And Philbrick’s vivid writing brings the whistling cannon balls and half-frozen soldiers to life (and death) in vivid detail. He will discuss his book at Town Hall Seattle on Monday May 23, 2016.

One of Washington’s strongest generals, Benedict Arnold, played a decisive role in several key battles. He succeeded in delaying the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that could have lost the war for the Americans. The British recognized and rued his brilliance. Congress didn’t and promoted others past him, a stinging rebuke.

Arnold, desperate for cash, ultimately convinced himself that it was in the colonies’ best interests to end the war and reached out to the British to negotiate. In exchange for a substantial payment, Arnold would reveal the plans for the fortress at West Point (which he then commanded) to assist a British invasion.

He nearly succeeded. Arnold delivered the plans, but the plot was foiled when Major John André, the British spy chief working with Arnold, was stopped on his way back to British-controlled Manhattan by a band of New York militiamen who found the plans and frog-marched him back to the American forces.

Washington had Andre promptly hanged. Arnold, for his part, barely escaped.

Arnold’s treachery galvanized the American revolutionaries, forcing them to recognize that the long-slumbering war could, in fact, be lost and quickly. Self interest was put aside, the war effort funded and victory was ultimately achieved. Washington’s steady leadership obviously deserves unalloyed credit for that victory. But it was Arnold and his infamous betrayal that finally gave the Americans what they needed: a homegrown enemy to save them from themselves.

Perhaps the most honest account of the dysfunctional dynamics of the revolution and its fledgling government was penned by Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789. He planned to publish it in his retirement but, as the mythology of the heroic American Revolution took hold, he destroyed the monumental memoir instead. “Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men. Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”

Philbrick takes on that very task of “undeceiving” and peels back the mythology to reveal a teetering war effort, a bickering Congress, discordant states unwilling to coalesce to support the new national government and — above all — a traitor who sought to sell out his own country for personal gain and achieved instead the one thing that no other revolutionary could: a unification of the Americans and an end to the war. And for that, we have much to thank Benedict Arnold.

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