Published in 2016, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution
traces the history of the relationship between George Washington and the treasonous general Benedict Arnold, zeroing in on Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey during 1776 to 1780. The true question of the book is whether or not there would even be a country left if Washington could manage to win the Revolutionary War, and the author asserts that through his betrayal, Arnold might actually have helped to save the country. Although it follows the interactions of Washington and Arnold, the author’s real concern seems to be the unruly and easily angered nature of the American public.
The book begins with Sergeant Thomas Hickey, a member of Washington’s security team, the Life Guards, being hanged for conspiring with the British. The next day, 450 British ships arrive off the coast of Staten Island, and Washington is forced to evacuate New York.
The author then focuses on Arnold, who is with the “Mosquito Fleet” at Lake Champlain. Here, despite toeing the line of foolhardiness, the future renegade proves himself in battle, and Philbrick asserts that Arnold demonstrates his superiority over Washington in terms of military commandership. He further characterizes Washington as strategically uncertain and a poor battlefield tactician. Philbrick notes that, contrary to popular belief, during Washington’s December 25, 1776, planned assault on Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey, it was not the Hessians who became drunk but rather Washington’s men who looted the Hessian’s liquor supply and became drunk.
Philbrick discusses a possible motive for Arnold’s treachery, informing the reader that he was passed over for promotion, which points to the problem of Congress having been in charge of such decisions. While he accepts a belated promotion, Arnold attempts to resign in 1777, though Congress rejects this request. He is placed under the command of General Horatio Gates, a man who openly admits he does not trust Arnold. When a British force approaches the men’s headquarters at Albany in September of 1777, Arnold leads a small force against them, but he is shot in the thigh, a leg that had already been injured and frequently exhausted his physical and mental strength. Philbrick notes that this may have contributed to Arnold’s decision to become a British spy.
Toward the end of the year, Congress is growing increasingly tired of the continued conflict. The British had occupied Philadelphia, and food supplies begin to dwindle at Valley Forge, where the Continental Army is stationed. The war, says Philbrick, is fought more and more by African Americans and Native Americans.
In May 1778, the United States receives news that France officially recognizes it as a country and will engage militarily with the British. The French move in on the British in the Caribbean and off the coast of New Jersey. Meanwhile, Washington chooses Arnold to be military governor of Philadelphia. At the same time, Arnold is becoming infatuated with a well-to-do woman, Peggy Shippen, who may have suggested Arnold defect. After they wed, Arnold, who is burdened by debt, considers the opportunity to hand the fortress of West Point, New York, to the British for cash. Arnold begins making arrangements with British captain John Andre and is then court-martialed for his behavior.
By the end of 1779, the Continental Army is holed up in Morristown, New Jersey, with eleven-foot snowdrifts and record-breaking cold temperatures. Charleston, South Carolina, had been lost, and the starving Connecticut troops were becoming mutinous. Arnold’s trial proceeds that month, but he is only given a reprimand. Philbrick notes that Washington had a blind spot when it came to Arnold. As Washington makes ready to attack New York, Arnold is given command of West Point, a critical event in his eventual treason.
The final chapter of the book details both Andre and Arnold’s downfall. When Andre travels to meet Arnold, he encounters three militiamen in New York. Andre is found to have incriminating documents on him, raising suspicions that he is a spy. Washington and Arnold both learn of this news on September 25, 1780. Arnold flees to the protection of the British fleet. Washington then plans to kidnap Arnold, but the British move him to Virginia. When British general Henry Clinton refuses a trade for Arnold, Washington feels compelled to approve of the execution of Andre as a spy. His execution takes place on October 2, 1780.
The epilogue focuses on the overall impact of the events on the United States. Philbrick asserts that George Washington alone was not able to unite the young country but that hatred of Benedict Arnold more likely did. He further claims that America’s greatest threat was not the British but self-serving profitability disguised as patriotism.