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Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution Hardcover – May 10, 2016
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An Amazon Best Book of May 2016: I spent early summers running around Valley Forge in Pennsylvania and my later childhood years living next door to Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought—so I thought I had a pretty good handle on the war. Philbrick proved me wrong with his fascinating history of the years from 1776 to 1780, when the new country teetered between victory and disaster, its destiny influenced by George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Both generals were audacious—Washington and Arnold jumped into situations risky both to themselves and to the soldiers who fought for them. Both generals suffered indignities at the hands of the Continental Congress, a body riven by its own politics and hamstrung by its inability to set taxes on its citizens. But while Washington learned to temper his aggressiveness, sought others’ wisdom, and developed a strategy for winning the war, Arnold remained self-centered and self-aggrandizing, focusing on the tactical to the detriment of the larger goal—culminating in his decision in 1780 to turn coat and deliver the fortress at West Point to the British army. Philbrick’s eye for the illuminating detail and his clear writing keeps the story taut, unlike many history books that too often overwhelm the reader with a sludge of see-I-did-my-research prose. Riveting and relevant, Valiant Ambition explodes the myth that a triumphant revolution was inevitable. --Adrian Liang
"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.”
“A suspenseful, richly detailed, and deeply researched book about the revolutionary struggle that bound George Washington and Benedict Arnold together and almost disastrous dysfunction of America’s revolutionary government that helped drive them apart.”
—The New York Review of Books
"Clear and insightful, it consolidates his reputation as one of America's foremost practitioners of narrative nonfiction."
—Wall Street Journal
"Philbrick is both a meticulous historian and a captivating storyteller. The book has unforgettable novelistic details [and] 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."
—Christian Science Monitor
“This is history at its most compelling: political machinations, military jostling and outright treachery. And Philbrick’s vivid writing brings the whistling cannon balls and half-frozen soldiers to life (and death) in vivid detail….He peels back the mythology to reveal a teetering war effort, a bickering Congress, discordant states unwilling to coalesce to support the new national government and — above all — a traitor who sought to sell out his own country for personal gain and achieved instead the one thing that no other revolutionary could: a unification of the Americans and an end to the war. And for that, we have much to thank Benedict Arnold."
"Benedict Arnold takes center stage in Nathaniel Philbrick’s vivid and in some ways cautionary tale of the Revolutionary War. The near-tragic nature of the drama hinges not on any military secrets Arnold gave to the British but on an open secret: the weakness of the patriot cause….Arnold’s betrayal still makes for great drama, proving once again that the supposed villains of a story are usually the most interesting."
—New York Times Book Review
“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.”
“Philbrick has the ability to take seemingly dry facts of history and turn them into exciting prose. The players come alive and their motivations are clear. The people he chronicles are legends, so revealing to the reader what makes them human, foibles and all, helps make sense of the events that transpired and why they acted the way they did.”
"Philbrick's deep scholarship, nuanced analysis, and novelistic storytelling add up to another triumph."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A lively account of our Revolutions’ most reviled figure.”
"An engrossing narrative of the war’s most difficult years... Philbrick argues that the quarrelsome, divided Americans needed Arnold’s perfidy as much as they did Washington’s greatness to unify their new nation. He pushes aside the patriotic myth to unveil the war’s messy reality—and it’s still a rousing adventure.”
“As another American summer crawls toward the Fourth of July, and with a presidential election creeping up like Freddy on Elm Street, Nathaniel Philbrick offers some beach reading to remind us that outsized egos and a dysfunctional Congress were as much at issue in 1776 as they are now — if that’s any comfort...Valiant Ambition colorfully reconstructs the character-driven battles that defined the Revolutionary War.”
“Look, you’re not getting tickets to Hamilton. If he were alive, George Washington himself couldn’t get tickets to Hamilton. Here’s a cheaper alternative…a new look at the first American president and contrasts him with our most famous traitor.”
—The Miami Herald
Praise for Bunker Hill
"A masterpiece of narrative and perspective."
"A tour de force . . ."
"Popular history at its best—a taut narrative with a novelist's touch, grounded in careful research."
"A story that resonates with leadership lessons for all times."
—Walter Isaacson, The Washington Post
"A gripping book."
—The Wall Street Journal
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The last hundred pages seamlessly turn to the background of Arnold’s quixotic personality, self- centeredness, need for money and his marriage to the unstable Peggy Shippen. The events of September – October, 1780 play out like an opera bouffe; and if they were not so serious, at times, comedic, leading to the accidental last mile seizure of John Andre’ thus to the uncovering of Arnold’s plot to turn over West Point to the British. Philbrick concludes that Arnold’s “decision to sell his loyalty to the highest bidder, the greatest danger to America’s future came from self–serving opportunism masquerading as patriotism.”
The book ends as the fight for independence moves south. One might expect another book on that subject.
Many authors have portrayed the Arnold-Washington relationship from an Oedipal angle. Happily, Philbrick saves that interpretation for Washington's relationship with the Marquis de Lafayette who plays only a minor part in Valiant Ambition. This telling of Arnold and Washington focuses upon how similar the two men were--extraordinarily ambitious and determined to tie their fortunes to the nation's. Each soldier was, initially, impetuous and prone to risk--some would say recklessness--that their troops would pay for with their lives. At the outset at least it was Arnold who was the better soldier. Both suffered injustices and calumnies from intriguing antagonists and a suspicious Continental Congress.
The difference between these very similar men was that one had the capability to learn from mistakes and to "grow in the job." Both were proud to a fault but only one had the ability to subordinate himself and at times his dignity to a cause greater than himself. "It was imperative that as commander in chief he [Washington] view the proceedings with as much objectivity as possible--to voice private sympathies in the context of an official proceeding--would require Washington to become, in his words, 'lost to my own character.' Here, in this reference to character, Washington hit upon the essential difference between himself and Arnold. Washington's sense of right and wrong existed outside the impulsive demands of his own self-interest." (pg. 246).
It is this strength of character, character in contrast to a wanton narcissism that leads to the deification of one and the demonization of the other. For all the slights and injustices Arnold could justly decry it is impossible to argue America's most famous traitor doesn't deserve our contempt to this day. What is so refreshing about Valiant Ambition is it makes abundantly clear there is much to despise in America, circa 1776-1781. "Sunshine patriots" who, finding war difficult, decide to let others (slaves and immigrants) fight it for them; Chicken hawk generals like Horatio Gates who wrap themselves in another's glory and hightail it away when battles go badly; state legislators without the vision or the decency to feed and clothe an army of men literally starving or freezing to death on their behalf.
Nathaniel Philbrick final insight is that Arnold did perform one last invaluable service for his country. His treachery awakened a nation to the fact that it had more in common with him than many would have liked to admit. Americans had grown complacent, self-absorbed and indifferent to those who were actually paying the price for liberty. Arnold's treason awoke the slackers and shamed the selfish into rededicating themselves to a cause they had, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. For that, we can all thank Benedict Arnold.