Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Valiant Ambition

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution
Nathaniel Philbrick
History, Biography

George Washington mastered his passions. Benedict Arnold's passions mastered him. There, in an aphorism, is the essential difference between the two. 

Nathaniel Philbrick brings out the contrast beautifully by showing how the two men faced similar challenges--and reacted very differently. Furthermore, Valiant Ambition is a ripping yarn. Philbrick makes masterful narrative sense of the strategic picture, the tactics of the battles, the events, and the personalities of the commanders. Not only Washington and Arnold, either--their British counterparts get some insightful character portraits.

Less happily, Philbrick likes Just-So Stories. He wants to have a neat narrative explanation, where Outcome X happens exactly and only because of Prior Events A, B, and C. (The more technical term here is post-hoc fallacy.) In Valiant Ambition, he seems to be trying to set up The Story of Just How the Continental Congress Got Its Mojo Back. The conceit is that the shock of Arnold's betrayal somehow pulled Congress back from the brink: revelation dawned, there were hosannas and reconciliations, everyone pitched in with renewed vigor, the patriotic background music swelled up . .  . 

It's a feeble attempt. Even Philbrick seems to realize as much. He states it as a thesis right up front, and half-heartedly comes back to it at the very end, but in between times he more or less forgets the idea. That's just as well.

For related reasons, he's overly dismissive towards Washington's military abilities, and overly generous toward Arnold's. Washington was brave, ambitious, aggressive, inspirational, and under-prepared. Arnold was brave, ambitious, aggressive, inspirational, under-prepared ... and lucky. Philbrick, however, wants to tell The Story of Just How George Washington Learned His Lesson and Became a Great Leader.

(Also, Philbrick gets digressive. He devotes a good deal of space to, for example, David Bushnell. Bushnell was an ingenious and intriguing fellow, for sure, but he's perfectly irrelevant to the book.)

So Valiant Ambition doesn't strike me as a masterpiece of analysis. It's very enjoyable narrative, though. More than that, once you get past its unconvincing nominal premise, it has a point: character is can get you things that you can't get by depending on, say, intellect. I, personally, would have been better off if I'd learned that at a somewhat younger age.


  1. I liked Valiant Ambition, but I felt it fizzled a bit at the end. It worked up to how and why Arnold betrayed the Revolution, but then relegated the aftermath to an epilogue, and one that didn't tell us much about Arnold or his family's fates. Some nice stuff on the Revolutionary War as seen from the ground.

    1. Yeah, there were also a few things missing in terms of background. Like Arnold's expedition to Quebec--it's mentioned but not explained.

      What was your take on the "why"?

  2. Why Arnold's betrayal? I was somewhat persuaded, but I'm curious what, if anything, Arnold himself said in his later years.