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book review

How America’s best-known traitor helped united the nation in ‘Valiant Ambition’

A painting depicting Benedict Arnold talking to British Major John Andre.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nathaniel Philbrick’s new “Valiant Ambition’’ may be one of the greatest what-if books of the age — a volume that turns one of America’s best-known narratives on its head, arguing that what is taught in schools consists of the facts, but not the broader truth.

And so Philbrick, who previously has broken new historical ground with landmark books on the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Little Big Horn combatants, asks: What if Benedict Arnold’s treason was not an act that split the nation but instead was the glue that bound it together and saved it?

“Without the discovery of Arnold’s treason in the fall of 1780,’’ he argues, tumbling all the fixed pillars of accepted thinking, “the American people might never have been forced to realize that the real threat to their liberties came not from without but from within.’’

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With a military force wracked by desertion and with a commanding general whose leadership wasn’t always inspiring, the American army was more pitiful than powerful. George Washington was, to be sure, a man of principle, but this was a war unlike any prosecuted before it, an uprising based on values against a mighty empire that spawned those very values.

In legend if not in reality Washington’s opposite was Arnold, one of the commander in chief’s greatest generals, a man described by Philbrick as “handsome and charismatic,’’ a “dashing risk taker who relished combat,’’ possessed of “almost superhuman energy and endurance.’’

“Valiant Ambition’’ ties these two warriors together, in part because Philbrick sees striking similarities, particularly in what he called “an inordinate appetite for risk.’’ Like Washington, Arnold, too, was brave and brilliant, known as the American Hannibal for his assault on Quebec.

But Washington knew the limits of prudent risk; Arnold did not. And the attribute that Philbrick calls Washington’s “cool resolve’’ had real utility in this unusual conflict. Moreover, while Washington gathered admirers easily, Arnold earned detractors, most importantly among members of the Continental Congress. He, Philbrick tells us, “had a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.’’

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Arnold, who once had horses shot out from under him on two consecutive days, may not have enjoyed favor among his American colleagues, but he did win admiration among his British opponents, who cited his “remarkable coolness and bravery.’’

Meanwhile, Washington’s critics were finding him indecisive and, Philbrick tells us, “not a good battlefield thinker.’’ He did have brilliant successes; the Battle of Trenton, for example, stands out even today as a remarkable triumph. But his army was in shambles, and so was the country whose independence it sought to win.

Philbrick brings vivid you-are-there writing to this volume, a balm for the many readers who resist battle accounts, which comprise most of this volume. This is a good example:

“Stripped of most of their native allies, down to a month’s provisions, and with little to no hope of support from the north, south, or west, [British General John] Burgoyne’s soldiers were marooned in this country of towering trees and insect-breeding swamps, all the while knowing that militiamen from New England and riflemen from Virginia were gathering in the surrounding forest like flocks of predatory birds.’’

He brings that literary skill to sketch Arnold as impatient, impetuous, and perpetually frustrated, as he believed that he failed to receive the credit from the American leadership he (and others, incidentally) thought his due. Often the man who felt what he called “zeal for the cause of my country’’ found he could contain himself no longer and lapsed into a rage. Once, fortified by spirits, perhaps by opium, he, according to a colleague, “rode about the [army] camp betraying great agitation and wrath.’’

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Though finally promoted and given the position of military governor of Philadelphia, he soon was under political criticism (his loyalty questioned) and financial pressure (his debts accumulated) and, by 1779, was increasingly convinced that the American experiment had failed.

To top it off “[a]s far as he could tell, the British had a higher regard for his abilities than his own country did.’’

Egged on by his wife, mortified after being attacked by a Philadelphia mob, embarrassed by a court-martial trial in which he emerged largely unscathed, he sold out his country and, literally, sold his services to the British, offering to turn over to them the strategically important West Point.

Later he would explain his decision this way: “[O]ur cause was hopeless; I thought we never could succeed, and I did it to save the shedding of blood.’’ It’s not the most convincing of arguments.

But Philbrick’s historical argument is convincing: that Arnold’s treachery had as much, or more, power over American sentiment than Washington’s heroism, and that Arnold’s treason steeled Americans once and for all to fight for their freedom. It is very possible that, as Philbrick argues, a nation created in disloyalty required an act of loyalty to find unity — and victory.

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VALIANT AMBITION: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, 427 pp., illustrated, $30


David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.