Just about the only thing most Americans know about Benedict Arnold is that he was a traitor, the turncoat par excellence of America’s founding. Today, his name is synonymous with “traitor.”
Beyond that, we tend to know as little about Arnold as we do about the rest of the American Revolution. To the extent that it is still taught in schools, the War of Independence is presented as a rather tidy affair. The Founders issued the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and his army spent a hard winter at Valley Forge and then crossed the Delaware, there was an exchange of musket fire and cannonry at Yorktown, and that was that. A new nation was born: Happy Fourth of July.
The reality is of course more complicated — and vastly more compelling. The American Revolution was anything but tidy, and the war was unlike any previous military conflict. It was a world war that lasted more than eight years, spanned two oceans and three continents, involved four European powers, and saw the largest deployment of ships and troops ever assembled by the British Empire. From it emerged a wholly new form of government, proclaimed by a fledgling and fractious republic clinging to the edge of a vast unsettled wilderness.
In the middle of all this was Benedict Arnold, a war hero who earned the title “American Hannibal” for his daring but unsuccessful assault on Quebec early in the war. He went on to distinguish himself as a patriot and valiant battlefield commander willing to risk everything for victory. In the end, of course, he convinced himself that the real enemy wasn’t Britain but his fellow Americans, who were tearing the country apart. As far as Arnold was concerned, he betrayed his country to save it from itself.
No contemporary author is better suited to reintroduce readers to this high drama than Nathaniel Philbrick. Author of the award-winning books Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea, Philbrick has a knack for cinematic depictions and dramatic pacing, and he uses these to great effect in his new book.
The Revolutionary War, writes Philbrick in his new book Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, wasn’t just a rebellion against Great Britain; it was also a civil war “so widespread and destructive that an entire continent was seeded with the dark inevitability of even more devastating cataclysms to come.” Along the ragged edge of British-occupied New York, “where neither side held sway, neighbor preyed upon neighbor in a swirling cat-and-dog fight that transformed large swaths of the Hudson River Valley, Long Island, and New Jersey into lawless wastelands.” It was the same along stretches of the New England coast, where Viking-style raids by alternating boatloads of patriots and loyalists harassed towns and villages.
Benedict Arnold is not the only villain in this story.
Then there was the espionage. The British and the Americans both developed vast spy networks, and, much like raiding coastal villages or joining a band of highwaymen, spying held out the promise of handsome payments — an inducement that would play a part in Arnold’s transformation from trusted patriot to unrepentant traitor.
But Arnold is not the only villain in this story. The revolution was rife with men whose ambition for wealth and prestige took precedence over their country’s interests. Congress was plagued by favoritism as delegates routinely put their particular states, and their friends, above the interests of the army and the war effort.
Washington was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, but Congress reserved the right to appoint generals. As Philbrick notes, “the inherently political selection process had created a list of generals that even John Adams had to admit was of exceptionally inferior quality.” To make matters worse, by 1777 Congress had adopted a quota system that allotted only two major generals to each state. Since Connecticut, Arnold’s home state, already had two major generals, Congress denied him a promotion that nearly all his contemporaries agreed he had earned by his battlefield conduct. He was to see himself passed over in favor of five less accomplished brigadier generals.
Outraged, Arnold wrote to Washington that he viewed the non-promotion “as a very civil way of requesting my resignation.” In a letter to General Horatio Gates, Arnold was less restrained. “When I received a commission of brigadier I did not expect Congress had made me for their sport, or pastime, to displace, or disgrace whenever they thought proper,” he wrote. “If this plan is pursued no gentleman who has any regard for his reputation will risk it with a body of men who seemed to be governed by whim and caprice.”
Arnold may have been brave on the battlefield, but he was also impetuous and egotistical. Washington was just the opposite, which is why he was able to defeat the Conway cabal. Although never quite a full-blown conspiracy, the cabal, named after an Irish-born brigadier general from France named Thomas Conway, was a faction of officers and congressmen who wanted to replace Washington with General Gates in the aftermath of the British occupation of Philadelphia. “They dare not appear openly as your enemy,” wrote one of Washington’s friends; their strategy instead would be “to throw such obstacles and difficulties in your way as to force you to resign.” Dispersing the cabal would be a matter of patience and perseverance — qualities that Washington had already demonstrated in his dealings with a meddlesome Congress and his waging of a defensive war against a vastly superior British force.
Even as the Conway cabal raged, Washington’s army would nearly starve to death at Valley Forge because of Congress’s unwillingness and inability to give it adequate provisions. It’s a wonder that Washington endured such terrible treatment from civilian overseers and managed to keep his army together; a lesser man would have either resigned in disgust or declared himself emperor and taken what his army needed by force.
Or he would have done what Arnold did: conclude that the country’s experiment in freedom had failed and that the only way to restore peace and order was to help the British win the war. Indeed, the country was barely holding itself together in 1778 and 1779. No state wanted to pay for anything outside its borders, which meant that the Continental Army, viewed with increasing suspicion and disdain by state legislatures, was perpetually underfunded. The national government barely existed. Local militiamen were thought by some to be the true patriots, but in reality many of them were nothing more than local thugs hired to harass and intimidate citizens, especially wealthy ones, whose loyalties were suspect merely because of their class.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Philadelphia, where Washington appointed Arnold to be military governor after the British withdrew in the summer of 1778. Arnold was sympathetic to the plight of the city’s wealthy denizens, in part because that year he began courting Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent suspected loyalist. (He would marry her a year later.) When American forces took control of the city, thousands of citizens who had spent the winter outside Philadelphia poured back in, and they had little sympathy for those who had stayed behind during the British occupation. Many residents were suspected of fraternizing with, if not aiding, the enemy. The city, writes Philbrick, “was at the vortex of an increasingly rancorous struggle involving almost all the seminal issues related to creating a functioning democratic republic, issues that would not begin to be resolved until the Constitutional Convention of 1787.”
When mostly trumped-up charges were brought against Arnold by state authorities looking to make an example of him for cozying up to the city’s upper class, it pushed him over the edge. Temporarily unable to walk because of an injured leg — another unappreciated sacrifice for his country — Arnold concluded, writes Philbrick, that “he must do what he had always done: attack his enemies and redeem himself through a single, extraordinary act.” Arnold decided, with much encouragement from his young wife, that he would tip the balance of the war in favor of the British, first by obtaining command of the crucial fortress at West Point and then by surrendering it. Arnold viewed himself as singlehandedly restoring peace and order to his beloved country and believed that, if he succeeded, he would be hailed as a hero.
Philbrick writes that Arnold considered himself “the leading personage in the drama that was his life” and that, in contrast, “Washington’s sense of right and wrong existed outside the impulsive demands of his own self-interest.” Washington believed that to break the rules or fail in his duty would, in his own words, render himself “lost to my own character.” Arnold, says Philbrick, was “not lost to his own character, but lost in it.”
Philbrick’s achievement is not just to shed light on the traitor’s character. He also illuminates a singular time in American history, when the fate of the country depended on the ability of men such as Washington to resist the temptation to put their ambition ahead of their honor. In the end, it was a close-run thing. As General Gates’s adjutant would later write, “a state of revolution is the most seducing on earth.”
– John Daniel Davidson is a senior correspondent for The Federalist. This review originally appeared in the August 15, 2016 issue of National Review.