Nathaniel Philbrick knows how to tell a good tale. In Valiant Ambition, he tells not one but three of them. The first is an account of the early years of the Revolutionary War, with the battlefield victories and defeats, the ebb and flow of the public’s support for the cause, and the endless struggles between the civilian government and military leadership that hamper the war effort. This story, which could stand alone, provides the context for the finely drawn character studies of George Washington and Benedict Arnold that are the central tales of the book.
In less skillful hands, the war’s narrative could have been an exhausting account of battle after battle, producing little more than a scorecard of wins and losses for the American Army. But Philbrick wants his readers to experience the terror, the suffering and the adrenaline rush of battle, and he wants us to grit our teeth at our early politicians who, by their pettiness and shortsightedness, shape military events as profoundly as generals and admirals do. Finally, he reveals the emotional and physical cost of war on colonial society. He succeeds on all fronts.
Consider how vividly he captures the destruction of Philadelphia by the British occupation: “The city was a shambles. The British had used the State House as a prison, and the floors of its once immaculate rooms were heaped with human waste. … ‘Genteel houses’ had been used for stables by the British, who cut holes in the floors so that the dung could be shoveled into the cellars.” Consider also his use of the journal of young Joseph Plumb Martin to capture the terrors of battle and the deprivations of military life. As British warships bombarded the American Army at Kips Bay, the 15-year-old soldier contemplated his death by considering “which part of my carcass was to go first.”
Washington’s and Arnold’s tales take shape under similar circumstances. Washington has, of course, been the subject of countless books and articles, paintings and sculptures. But Philbrick brings us a Washington we may not have appreciated before, a man who was less hero than thoughtful leader, a man given to musing and contemplation, and a man of empathy as much as action. The author captures this Washington in a single scene: The general was wrapped in his cloak, lying amid his men through the long night after the Battle of Monmouth. When a soldier hesitated to wake him, Washington relieved him of his concern. “I laid here to think,” he told the officer, “and not to sleep.”
Washington was a man of “valiant ambition,” but his striving was social rather than personal: Its goal was the independence of his country. Here is the critical contrast with Benedict Arnold, a man of unbounded personal ambition who saw the war as a vehicle for his own elevation and profit. Arnold was not so much a villain as a narcissist; he was, in Philbrick’s view, high-strung and libidinous, impatient, greedy and self-serving, an elitist contemptuous of the men who admired him and vengeful toward those who did not. He had a temperament and character that made him oblivious to the harm he did to others, but he had neither the malice nor the sadism of a true villain.
Philbrick’s reading of these two men is nuanced and absorbing, but it is his revisionist portrait of Maj. John André that makes this book an important one. Traditionally, this young, handsome and charming British officer who collaborated with Arnold in the West Point plot is presented as a sympathetic, even noble figure. But Philbrick tells us that we have been duped. André has far more in common with Arnold than we had supposed; beneath his mask of dignity and simple patriotism, André is ruthless and ambitious. The André we think we know, Philbrick explains, is a con artist, skilled in ingratiating himself with anyone who can advance his career or write him into history as a man of dignity and honor.
Only two things mar this book. The first is that the multiple tales do not flow into one another smoothly. There is a jerky shifting, back and forth, between the larger picture of war and politics and the intimate portrait of Washington, just as there is too abrupt a shift in perspective between the betrayed general and his former protégé. The second is a flawed interpretation of the significance of Arnold’s thwarted plot. Philbrick’s insistence that Arnold’s treason awakened Americans “to the realization that the War of Independence was theirs to lose,” that his betrayal taught them what they were fighting for and that it spurred them to focus on transforming 13 colonies into a nation is a serious misreading of the era.
The revolution, it turns out, was the French navy’s to win or lose — something Washington knew well. Men like Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, not to mention hundreds of patriotic women who entered politics as “daughters of liberty,” gave ample testimony to the purpose of the war. And Arnold’s betrayal did not jump-start the consolidation of 13 independent and separate mini-nations into one. It would take two constitutions, a farmer’s revolt in Massachusetts, the combined genius of nationalists such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and a second war with Great Britain to turn “these” United States into “the” United States. The tales Philbrick tells do not need such lofty consequences to be worth reading.
Carol Berkin reviewed this book for The Washington Post.