Sunday, July 31, 2016

Staff Review: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

I have this thing for Benedict Arnold. I've been fascinated by him for years, primarily because of his amazing and heroic slog to Quebec through the wilderness of Maine and Canada at the start of the Revolutionary War (you can read all about that difficult and dangerous journey in Through a Howling Wilderness by Thomas Desjardin). By the time Arnold finally reached Quebec, his force of 1,100 troops had been reduced to 600 starving men.

Back then Arnold was well on his way to becoming the brightest star in the American military firmament, a reputation he continued to build with brilliant feats throughout the first battles of the war. I just hate that after amassing all that well-earned glory, he wound up committing treason. His name is now synonymous with "dirty, rotten scoundrel," the worst in U.S. history.

The highly-readable popular historian Nathaniel Philbrick tackles Arnold's tragic trajectory from "American Hannibal" to despicable traitor in his new book, Valiant Ambition. Philbrick juxtaposes Arnold's career with that of his commander, George Washington, who, unlike Arnold, made quite a few tactical mistakes and bad judgment calls in his early days as leader of the Continental army, but over the course of the war grew into a brilliant leader of the highest character. Arnold's character, on the other hand, had its flaws.

While Philbrick can't redeem Benedict Arnold, Valiant Ambition does help us to understand (and maybe even sympathize with) his eventual treason by relating how shabbily Arnold was treated by the Continental Congress and by other politicians and military leaders seeking their own advantage at his expense. Arnold poured his own fortune into the American cause and was never compensated by Congress. He was passed over repeatedly for promotion. He was seriously wounded twice in the service of his country, while many, many others sacrificed nothing, seemed indifferent to the outcome of the war, and were more concerned with grandstanding, profiteering, and personal advancement. Readers soon learn that there's a whole lot more to our founding story than we learn in school and much of it is pretty unsavory.

Ironically, Arnold's loss of faith in the integrity of the American effort and his ultimate act of treason united the country, forcing people to shake off their lethargy and take note of the fact that the greatest threats to the nation were likely to come not from without but from within. It might even be said that had Arnold not committed treason, we might well have lost the Revolutionary War.

~ Ann, Adult Services 

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