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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Review: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, narrated by Scott Brick (audio)

I've been trying to bone up on my Revolutionary War knowledge since moving to New Jersey two years ago. Our first apartment here was on a block where George Washington had stayed in a temporary headquarters during the war, briefly, as our town has a good view of Manhattan. And a few months ago I stopped at Valley Forge and walked around. I just don't know much about the war itself, and it's fascinating when I read about it to hear of towns I've been to or driven past, which really brings it home and makes it more real.

Most Americans have heard of Benedict Arnold and know he was a world-class traitor, perhaps the best one that ever lived (at least in this country) what most Americans won't know or even puzzle through is that he was also a world-class general. Don't believe me? Well, think about it: how could he have been in such a position to betray our country on such a level, if he weren't very high up in the military?

He was bad playing politics. And I don't mean in the governing of a country sort of way--I mean playing the politics of sucking up to the powers that be to get promotions, that sort of thing. His social skills were seriously lacking. He was blunt and off-putting. Therefore, despite some really spectacular feats on the battlefields, he often didn't get the promotions and seniority that he rightly deserved (also this was because the Continental Congress got to make promotions in the military, not the military higher-ups. Washington did want him to get promoted.) So over time, he fell behind his peers, and especially he fell behind men who had made major military blunders, who had publicly proven their cowardice, and who were just incompetent. And he was a spendthrift, so he really needed the extra income that came with promotions.

Then he met Peggy Shippen. Mr. Philbrick doesn't outright claim that she was the brains behind his betrayal, but it's heavily implied. Peggy and Benedict got married. And Peggy then introduced him to a British officer, Andre, and Andre and Arnold plotted for Arnold to gain command of West Point (at that time a fort, not a military school) and turn it over to the British. The plot was foiled by Andre's stupid behavior upon attempting to return to the British lines, and he was caught with a letter from Arnold on him revealing the plot. Arnold became a high-ranking British officer. Andre was hanged by the Americans. And I hope Arnold was very happy with Peggy for the rest of his life. America lost a great general, although one who by that point, due to multiple on-field injuries, was not as useful as previously.

And then Mr. Philbrick makes a great conclusion which I never thought of before but heartily agree with: America at this point in time, was distracted, factionalized, and really needed a rallying point for everyone to get behind. And Benedict Arnold turned out to be that thing. King George, as not-awesome as he was, was not an inspiring villain. But Benedict Arnold was! His betrayal really became a rallying point that all Americans could agree on. And it helped coalesce various factions into a single nation. So the rather unusual conclusion is that America needed Benedict Arnold to be a traitor. He couldn't have done a bigger favor for our country.

I borrowed this audiobook from the library via Overdrive.

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