Before it became a musical, a book, and a byword for American patriotism, 1776 was a long and trying year. And for George Washington, commander of the ragged outfit called the Continental Army, it seemed likely to be a catastrophic one. Desertion, death, and injury had claimed more than 75% of his soldiers by December. “Our affairs are in a very bad situation,” he wrote. “The game is pretty near up – owing in great measure to the insidious arts of the enemy.”
The British were just one of the problems Washington faced. After British forces captured Manhattan’s Fort Washington and New Jersey’s Fort Lee in November, Washington retreated across the Delaware to Newtown, Pennsylvania. He soon learned that adjutant general Joseph Reed, a trusted advisor, was covertly criticizing his leadership and urging that Congress replace him. One of the year’s bright spots was actually a defeat: an American Brigadier General named Benedict Arnold fought a bold two-day battle on Lake Champlain. The British prevailed, but Arnold earned widespread admiration as a courageous and capable commander at what would later be known as the Battle of Valcour Island.
Benedict Arnold is now infamous as a traitor who sabotaged the American Revolution, while George Washington is hailed as its exemplary hero. But in a fascinating new book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and The Fate of The American Revolution, historian Nathaniel Philbrick subtly complicates this received wisdom. He doesn’t justify Arnold’s betrayal, but Philbrick shows just how many circumstances – lack of earned pay and merited promotion by the Continental Army, a wife with loyalist leanings, the apparent likelihood of imminent British victory – motivated the decision to defect. Attributing diabolical villainy to Arnold makes for vivid rhetoric but bad history. Philbrick’s nuanced reading of the period shows that while a major gulf of character did separate Arnold and Washington, the former was more sympathetic and the latter more flawed than the popular mythology of American history suggests.
Washington’s strategy in the Revolutionary War was sometimes called “Fabian,” a reference to Fabius Maximus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal largely by evading him. Arnold himself, ironically enough, was described in the early years of the war as an “American Hannibal,” a comparison meant to convey his boldness in battle. But before Washington and Arnold became bitter enemies – Washington eventually went so far as to plan a kidnapping scheme to capture Arnold in British-held New York – the two men admired each other. Washington had been so impressed by Arnold’s performance at the battles of Saratoga and Valcour Island that he urged Congress to promote him to the rank of Major General.
If the congressmen assembled in Philadelphia had heeded Washington’s advice, Arnold would likely be remembered as a great hero of the Revolutionary War. But the selection process for promotion was entirely political, with congressmen rewarding friends and allies from their home states rather than trusting the assessments of Washington. This meant that Washington was largely unable to control the quality of his own supporting staff, a constant source of frustration and disappointment to the future president.
Perhaps even more vexing was Congress’s inability to levy the taxes that could have paid Washington’s troops. At one point during the war, the troops were so ill-equipped that they resorted to boiling and eating their own shoes. If congressional gridlock seems frustrating today, imagine Washington’s feelings as he watched his troops slowly starve to death while congressmen bickered in Philadelphia. Philbrick articulates the irony of this situation quite nicely: “Unwilling to pay the taxes demanded by Great Britain, the American people had fomented a revolution; unwilling to pay for an army, they were about to default on the promise they had made to themselves in the Declaration of Independence.”
Adequate payment might also have prevented Arnold from conspiring with the British. Newly married to a wealthy young Philadelphian named Peggy Shippen, Arnold was desperate to make good on the grandiose promises he had made her during their courtship. He initially tried to enrich himself by exploiting his military position to cut shady business dealings with Philadelphia merchants on goods and supplies. When these ventures were not sufficiently lucrative, he opened a secret line of communication to the British and tried to bargain his way to permanent financial security in exchange for information on Washington’s troop movements and the surrender of West Point to the British. Shippen also seems to have encouraged his defection to the British side.
Philbrick is both a meticulous historian and a captivating storyteller. The book has unforgettable novelistic details – the sheepskin-muffled oars of a boat rowing furtively across the Hudson, the trail of bloody snow left by Washington’s troops because they couldn’t afford shoes, and Washington himself throwing his hat to the ground as his troops retreated across Manhattan and crying out, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”
But "Valiant Ambition" also contains much astute historical analysis and argument. Philbrick sees Arnold not as the man who almost lost the war so much as the catalyst that helped to win it. Through his betrayal, Arnold showed the fractious American colonies and congressmen that internal dissent was a risk even graver than the British Army. It’s a lesson that still relevant today, and Philbrick encapsulates it perfectly: “By turning traitor, Arnold had alerted the American people to how close they had all come to betraying the revolution by putting their own interests ahead of their newborn country’s.”