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Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

Review

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

BENEDICT ARNOLD = TRAITOR. That’s what we all learn in school. Benedict Arnold is like a Lego character: iconic and somewhat square, not something you expend a lot of thought on except in remembering the simplistic idea that he was America’s first traitor. Nathaniel Philbrick, who can give an entire interview to Terry Gross without hemming and hawing or stopping once, is a historian of the utmost ability. He takes the driest information and finds the underlying psychological components that turn the story from one limp fable into a compelling, fascinating tale of the friendship of two men that helped shape the way a nation came into being.

VALIANT AMBITION both recognizes George Washington, first president of the new country, and his protégé, the brilliant and brave Benedict Arnold, in an entirely new light. Without using hip-hop language to draw you in (no diss meant to the immeasurable achievement of one Mr. Miranda), Philbrick fashions a tale that gives us the story behind the story, the real reasons that Arnold became a traitor to the American nation, and why Washington’s trust in him and love for him was so stalwart…until it wasn’t. It is an awesome way to look at history in a new light, and Philbrick hits a home run with this amazing and informative work.

"Even if you don’t find yourself panting over the next big tome of historical significance at your local bookstore, you will be completely immersed in this elegantly and eloquently told tale, a political thriller like no other."

Washington and Arnold are portrayed as brave and intelligent statesmen with sinister and canny ways of waging war. Washington sees him as a cohort, as a mentee, as someone he can trust and with whom he is going to instill the character necessary to become a founding father. Arnold appreciates this and sees Washington as a knowledgeable and confident leader, and someone to admire --- until a strange and Shakespearean turn of events causes him to distrust everything that the founders are trying to build together. Realizing soon after that the main threat to the new union is inside its ranks, Arnold moves through a series of unfortunate events that leads to the nursery rhyme simplicity of his traitorship.

Both admit to being passionate individuals, and there is great evidence that they are men of huge ambition and conviction. I believe that discussing the specifics of Arnold’s turnaround would give away the very reason you should be reading this book: to discover the truth behind the two-line story everyone learns in grammar school. American education loves the parts where you can look at a map to find out what happened, but the psychological specifics of why and how are always left out. Philbrick fills in these blanks for the reader in a most productive and fulfilling way.

Even if you don’t find yourself panting over the next big tome of historical significance at your local bookstore, you will be completely immersed in this elegantly and eloquently told tale, a political thriller like no other. VALIANT AMBITION will satisfy all beach readers, as well as every Ph.D. who picks it up. It’s the tragic and moving story of a friendship that was a cog and helped change the way we live and how this country came together. These portraits of Washington and Arnold are unlike anything you will have ever read before, so get a copy soon. (Father’s Day is coming up, and this would be an excellent gift for all the history buffs in your life!)

Audiobook available, read by Scott Brick

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on May 26, 2016

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

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143110195
  • ISBN-13: 9780143110194