In Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, And The Fate Of The American Revolution (Viking), National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick presents a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to America. But it’s the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold that fuels the narrative. PW recently caught up with Philbrick to talk about two towering figures in American history.
What do you believe to be the biggest misconceptions Americans have about George Washington's role in leading the Revolutionary War?
We think of Washington as the defensive-minded pragmatist who won the Revolution by avoiding unnecessary risks on the battlefield. But that was not how he started out. What’s been largely forgotten is that Washington was highly passionate and aggressive, and it was only after losing Philadelphia to the British after a string of disastrous battlefield performances that he finally resigned himself to the more conservative approach with which he has since become associated. The irony is that Washington was, in reality, very much like Benedict Arnold. The big difference was that Washington was ultimately able to control his emotions, something Arnold never learned to do.
As you did your research, what surprised you most about Benedict Arnold?
I was surprised by how much sympathy I had for him. Arnold was no saint, but he was America’s best battlefield general, and the abuses he suffered from his own government when it came to being overlooked for a much-deserved promotion would have been hard for any officer to take, no matter how noble and self-sacrificing.
Arnold is often portrayed as evil, and there has been a tendency to assume he was a conniving Satan from the start, but that simply was not the case. He was a natural born leader on the battlefield, but when it came to ordinary life he was, to my mind at least, unexpectedly susceptible to the influence of others. Time and time again you see him being influenced, if not outright manipulated, by those around him, whether it was the members of his military family at the Battle of Saratoga, who encouraged his infighting with Horatio Gates; his aides who encouraged him to go head to head with the radicals of Pennsylvania’s legislature when he was military governor of Philadelphia; even his loyalist-leaning wife Peggy, who encouraged him to explore becoming a traitor.
Historians have been trying to present a more nuanced view of Arnold for decades. Do you think there’s a chance his negative image will eventually change?
I hope so. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to see figures from the past as caricatures—either all good or all bad—when the truth is always much more complex. In the case of Arnold, the truth—that Arnold was not all bad from the start and that he was, in a sense, betrayed by the government for which he was fighting—leads to the troubling realization that the American Revolution was not just a question of noble patriots throwing off the shackles of British tyranny. But a lot people just don’t want to hear that.
It’s difficult for many, in retrospect, not to regard the rebels’ victory in the Revolutionary War as inevitable. How close did they come to defeat in the period you cover in Valiant Ambition, and how did they manage to succeed?
As Washington and Arnold knew better than anyone, America came very close to losing the Revolution in the summer of 1780. After five years of war, the patriotic ardor of many Americans had cooled, to the point that many had basically lost interest in the conflict. The states were reluctant to fund the war and without an ability to tax the people. And the Continental Congress was powerless to provide Washington and his army with the financial support it required. Ironically, it was the betrayal of Benedict Arnold that woke up the American people to the realization that the War of Independence was theirs to lose. Indeed, you could argue that no one except for Washington did more to win the Revolution than Arnold—both as a patriot general and as a traitor.
What are you working on next?
I’m now working on a book that focuses on the Battle of the Chesapeake—a relatively little known naval battle between the French and British that made the victory at Yorktown in 1781 a virtual fait accompli. As an author who has always enjoyed writing about the sea, this is my chance to portray a naval slugfest, like the kind you read about in a Patrick O’Brian novel.