A history of the American Revolution, focused on George Washington (1732-1799) and Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), in which the author acknowledges Arnold’s good points but does not fully rehabilitate him.
National Book Award winner Philbrick (Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, 2013, etc.) devotes almost equal time to Washington, in his eyes an incompetent general and a slow—although eventually successful—learner but a superb judge of talent; he knew Arnold possessed plenty. As a militia captain at the 1775 siege of Boston, Arnold impressed Washington with his energy in capturing the fortress of Ticonderoga. His expedition to Quebec ended in disaster but burnished his reputation. In 1777, fearless leadership played a major role in defeating Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga. Arnold’s self-regard ensured that success produced more enemies than admirers. Appointed military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he was a controversial figure and began to profit from a variety of business deals related to his post. In 1779, he offered his services to the British and began sending useful intelligence. Only bad luck derailed his 1780 plot to surrender West Point to the British. In Philbrick’s opinion, Arnold was a psychopath. Oblivious to the consequences of his actions, he was incredibly brave under fire. Peculation was common even among loyal Revolutionary officers, but Arnold’s stood out. He exhausted his fortune to support his campaigns, lived beyond his means, and used his official position, especially in Philadelphia, to enrich himself. Payment dominated his negotiations with the British. After brilliantly chronicling two obscure voyages (In the Heart of the Sea, Sea of Glory), Philbrick turned to familiar subjects (Mayflower, Bunker Hill) with admirable, if slightly less, brilliance but better sales. Like the latter, Valiant Ambition is solid popular history.
A lively account of our Revolution’s most reviled figure.