Every battle is the “bloodiest”, or most “sanguinary”. Every storm is a historic deluge that always seems to occur just as some momentous turning point is about to occur. Every secondary, or little known event, is in reality the pivot on which [fill in the blank’s] fortunes depend, and of course George Washington is the “greatest horseman of his generation.”
These and many other cliches are standard for works of popular American history. They engage the reader, build suspense, and imply new or unusual interpretations of allegedly well-understood events. In reality however, they seem cherry picked as a way to propel a chosen narrative, rather than providing evidence for a well crafted hypothesis.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick makes excellent use of these, and other techniques to produce an admittedly well-crafted narrative review of its subject, that nevertheless, left me disappointed.
Philbrick, in my opinion, is one of only a handful of preeminent authors of popular American History. He has a gift for narrative only rivaled by David McCullough. I have enjoyed several of his previous works, including In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. With the exception of the last of these, they involved subjects with which I had little or no familiarity. I enjoyed them because of this fact, because of their narrative style, and despite their heavy use of the same type of hooks he uses in Valiant Ambition. I appreciated his book on Bunker Hill despite having more than passing familiarity with the topic, because he placed the event in its proper context, not elevating its importance beyond where it should be. In that work, he didn’t artificially elevate the importance of certain events to create tension. Unfortunately, with Valiant Ambition, he seems to have gone out of the way to do just the opposite.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a well-crafted book, which effectively weaves a dual biography of George Washington and Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary wartime experience into a pretty seamless story. But there just isn’t much new here that has not been covered in numerous other books on these two men. His heavy use of the artificial build up of events, along with his liberal use of the cliches mentioned earlier, left me with a “been there, read that” feeling.
Philbrick uncritically uses quotes and passages attributable to Washington, Arnold, and many of the people they interacted with or who were affected by their actions, to convey the intended narrative effect. In some cases they are used to assert something without really having to research whether it was true or not. So when he notes that George Washington was generally understood to be the “greatest horseman of his generation,” he was in fact using a passage written by Thomas Jefferson as evidence. Obviously there is no way Jefferson, or anyone at the time, could prove such an assertion. Yet Philbrick makes it without any context behind it to help convey a sense of gravitas around Washington.
Prominent men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote not only for an immediate need, but to make sure posterity interpreted their actions as they wished them to be. Whether it was a letter, a diary entry, or public conversation, they knew, and indeed hoped, their words would be shared. Using them without context, and without a close examination of the motivations behind them, leaves the interpretation susceptible to later contradiction. I understand why Philbrick does this, I just wish he had not done so so widely and uncritically.
I don’t want to overdraw the point however. There are place in the narrative where Philbrick does provide critical context, such as when analyzing the assertions by Benjamin Talmadge that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s plans to turn over West Point to the British was the fault of Arnold himself. Philbrick makes a persuasive case that the fault lay with John Andre, and that Talmadge’s assertions were designed to deflect blame from the failure of his spy network. In addition to this, in a few places, Philbrick hints at a deeper analysis of events than a simple narrative of them provides. I wanted more of this.
As a narrative work, Philbrick doesn’t make a real attempt at a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the Revolutionary War, or for Washington and Arnold’s participation in it. Given the number of books that essentially give the same narrative of these events as Philbrick’s (though admittedly with less skill), I wish he had instead applied his considerable talent to a deeper look. An exploration of the economic, cultural and political climate that gave rise to the Revolution or the motivation behind the participation of landed gentlemen such as George Washington, and of those who had acquired wealth through their own exertions such as Arnold, would have been fascinating. I would have liked a more thorough look at Arnold’s motivations for treason, not only based on his writings and actions, but on an analysis of what kind of hold identification as an American had for the average citizen, and how that affected Arnold’s decision and the reaction to it. He does hint at some of this, talking about the role economic class played in motivating those who supported independence. He also, briefly, dives more deeply into criticism of George Washington’s generalship. And he posited an interesting theory that Arnold’s treason actually brought together a country that was rapidly falling apart as the war dragged on. I just wish we had gotten a lot more of this kind of analysis throughout the book.
Overall I did enjoy this, if for no other reason than Philbrick is such a skilled writer. If your knowledge of Washington and Arnold doesn’t extend much beyond what you learned in school, this is a good place to start. If you are more familiar with the subjects though, this doesn’t provide much in the way of new insight, and may leave you wanting something new.