George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking. 403 pp. $30 nolead ends
nolead ends The smash Broadway musical Hamilton owes some of its success to Americans' respect for the Founding Fathers, honored in a recent outpouring of biographies.
Historians have lately questioned the show's glowing portrait of the first secretary of the treasury, but audiences don't seem to care, instead wanting to believe in the nobility of the men who launched the republic.
Someone who isn't in awe of these 18th-century heroes is Nathaniel Philbrick. Valiant Ambition, his latest, has an inspirational sound - but instead, it gives a harsh picture of the revolution's early days, marked by factionalism, defeat, inadequate leadership, indifference, and greed.
Three years after the 13 colonies declared their independence, the venture was foundering and seemed about to fail, but somehow the ship was righted, thanks to the intervention of France and mounting British fatigue with a distant and expensive war.
Benedict Arnold is Philbrick's symbol of the nascent nation's best and worst qualities. Arnold was a sea merchant from Connecticut who impetuously joined the fight at 34 in 1775 and was thrust immediately into the unsuccessful campaign to capture Canada.
That defeat laid the groundwork for his betrayal four years later, as he lost respect among influential officers and began to resent his personal and financial losses. Philbrick paints Arnold as a brave and inspirational officer in the battles on Lake Champlain, however, where his leadership frustrated British efforts to control that key waterway, including Arnold's victory over British troops at Saratoga in 1777. Severely wounded, Arnold won George Washington's admiration, but the Continental Congress failed to back him.
Influenced by his wife, who had loyalist sympathies, he attempted to surrender the fortress of West Point in 1780 to the British for money and a royal commission. The plot failed, but Arnold and his wife escaped, eventually living in England until his death in 1801.
The betrayal shocked the stumbling Congress, says Philbrick. "Dissent had created America," he writes, "but, as proven by Arnold . . . dissent could also destroy it." America's leaders united behind Washington and gave him needed financial backing.
Other historians share Philbrick's conclusions, but they need more development. Credit Philbrick with reacquainting us with the early history of the Revolutionary War, but we need more convincing to lay its success at the clay feet of Benedict Arnold.