Analyzing the American Revolution is like peering into a kaleidoscope. Twist the lens and one is confronted with an entirely different view. Tories vs. Patriots. George and Martha (as in Flora Fraser's 2015 book). Red coats battling blue coats. The mighty British Navy vs. pesky privateers. Southern agrarians vs. New England merchants. Nathan Hale... Alexander Hamilton... Lafayette... the list goes on.
In Philbrick's new book, the lens focuses on treachery of a particular kind -- featuring Benedict Arnold and the effect he had on what George Washington was trying to accomplish: to actualize the Declaration of Independence. Most know that Arnold "flipped" during the conflict. But the author digs back into the very essence of who this Connecticut Yankee really was. And then trails him through the War, throwing dollops of dainty and otherwise discoveries along the way.
Where Washington was steady as a rock, Arnold was a volcanic, pretentious, petty, self-centered creature -- who, by the bye just happened to be a superb soldier. From forever, Arnold wore a chip on his shoulder as big as Gibraltar and incessantly craved the gods of money and stature. He could be credited with extraordinary success "generaling" on the battlefield—but he was fly paper to hatred. A totally dysfunctional Congress did its best to snub him and deny him rank, and even basic remuneration. He finally snapped. Ignominiously. With his wife reduced to madness as he fled.
But throughout the book, the author slips in slimy tales of important characters who do their best to stab others in the back. These here United States at this time were hardly united. Washington's key generals were running around currying Congress with lies so they could rise to the top, as cream in a milk bottle. Congress was simply unable to support the legions of poor people who signed up to fight¸as they starved, while sleeping on frozen ground with but shredded rags to wear. British sympathizers were lurking around every corner. Literally, there were fourteen teams on the field: King George III's and thirteen separate colonies. Even the native Americans were trading loyalties as they tried to figure out who the "winner" would be. As Henry Laurens noted at one point, "there are prompters and actors, accommodators, candle snuffers, shifters of scenes and mutes". After Arnold "turned", Washington turned to Lafayette and asked, "Whom can we trust now?"
Most people look through the Revolutionary War's kaleidoscope and see a nascent nation struggling to break the chains of tyranny as a singular set of patriotic peoples, enmeshed in a brutal battle of attrition. Well, not really. There ran a serious undertow throughout the conflict that almost dragged the whole idea of America out to sea. Valiant Ambition is sure to inject new insights into your view of our history.
“History buffs will welcome this serious and interesting salvaging of the American Revolution from the mists of legend and folklore. This book is also a reminder that the messy, often disturbing politics of our own time are not unique, that idealism conflicts with power struggles, that both war and building a nation can have destructive consequences, and that both revolutionaries and traitors can galvanize a movement. Complex, controversial, and important.”
— Susan Thurin (W), Bookends on Main, Menomonie, WI