Thursday, July 14, 2016

What We're Reading: New American History

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

Nathaniel Philbrick writes books on American History that end up on the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s not because his books are revisionist or because he is engaged in new or original research. He has a knack for picking historical stories--with their sidelines and subplots--that are of popular interest, and fashioning them into a fresh and compelling narrative. Another hallmark of his books is that the reader is not flummoxed by arcane military history. Philbrick is able to explain the facts in such a way that the military strategy of a battle can be understood by the general reader, and his books are always accompanied by specially commissioned maps that provide a visual guide to understanding the topography and tactical array. And without being heavy-handed about it, he allows his readers to discover for themselves the instructive lesson of the tale, the ways in which the historical account has something to say of relevance about the cultural and political topics of our day.

Surrender of General Burgoyne to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga by John Trumbull.
Saratoga was one of the most critical battles of the American Revolution. The
American victory influenced France's decision to enter the war. Benedict Arnold
was one of the heroes of Saratoga, where he received a debilitating leg wound.

Key to his engaging narration is the care Philbrick takes to give us a sense of the character of each of his major protagonists, the way he can reach beyond the iconic and symbolic lineaments, and restore them to life as real people on the historical stage. In Valiant Ambition, the action and character of Benedict Arnold is the subject of extended research and rumination. Philbrick seldom, however, mentions any supporting figure in his cast without giving us a sense of his or her character as well. The British commanders--William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne in America--are all deftly presented, as are the American generals Horatio Gates and Nathaniel Greene. The measure of Philbrick’s skill is reflected in the fact that he leaves the reader intrigued and wanting to know more about some of these people. Nathaniel Greene’s advice to Washington seems intelligent and circumspect, and one comes to appreciate more deeply his role as an important adviser regarding Washington’s tactical decisions. His was often a moderating and cautious voice that got Washington to reconsider his more impulsive plans. If your appetite is whetted to learn more about the enigmatic Howe, there is a fine portrait of him in another book reviewed previously for this blog: The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, The American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.

Portrait of American General Nathaniel Greene
1783 by Charles Wilson Peale
The great character foil to Arnold in this book is George Washington himself. The exposition of Arnold’s flaws serves to highlight the leadership virtues that were needed to keep the fledgling revolt on course and to prosecute the war to victory. As in Robert Middlekauff’s fine recent book on Washington, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (also reviewed previously for this blog), we get a portrait of the pre-iconic Washington, the character of the person before the myth and apotheosis. Philbrick gives us the portrait of a flawed man who learned from his mistakes, one who, while jealous of his personal reputation and honor, always kept his ego in check in service of his commitment to his republican ideals and the military requirements of victory. In Valiant Ambition we get a perhaps unexpected portrait of the colonies in revolt: the general chaos that seemed to prevail, the problems of internal state rivalries, the lack of centralized and coordinated civilian leadership, the corruption and opportunism of so many colonists, the selfish personal agendas of both economic gain and reputation that so many pursued, and, above all, the lack of popular support for the dire needs of soldiers in the Continental Army.

Portrait of Washington, 1776 by Charles Wilson Peale.
Commissioned by the Continental Congress in
appreciation of Washington's successful siege that
drove British troops from Boston.
Washington had to deal with the practical problems of sustaining his army, manage the internal rivalries of his staff, and suffer the frequent disparagement of his competency and military leadership from both those he led in battle and from civilian leaders. But Washington suffered it all for the sake of his country when other men would have left their command in frustration with their wounded pride or, as Arnold did, offer their services to the enemy. As the war dragged on, most of that Continental Army was composed, not of native-born colonial citizens and militias that were central to the early years of the conflict, but of immigrants from England, Ireland, and Germany, and poorer native white men who were hired as “substitutes” by rich land owners and merchants. Philbrick makes the case that, in addition to his own vainglory and ego, the proximate grounds for Arnold’s disaffection related to his experience as a soldier, what his service cost him financially, his sense of how his service was not appreciated adequately in terms of rank and promotion, and the debilitating wounds he suffered in fighting for his country.

Color engraved portrait of Benedict Arnold.
This story builds to the moment of reckoning: Benedict Arnold’s attempt to betray, for a sizeable financial reward, the American fortress at West Point on the Hudson to the British. Philbrick has built his major themes well in the preceding chapters, and they come together in this fine account of the spying and intrigue, Arnold’s actions and flight, and the execution of Major AndrĂ© as a spy. Philbrick perhaps overstates the importance of Arnold’s treason in suggesting by his title that the fate of the revolution was at issue. The successful betrayal of West Point and the British control of a large segment of the Hudson that would have come as a result may have been decisive to the American cause, but others might argue that the outcome of the American Revolution had already become “fated” when France and Spain entered the war and the British government was forced to turn its attention to protecting its economically more valuable possessions in the West Indies. And while Benedict Arnold’s attempted treason certainly outraged Patriots, it is hard to know if they drew from it the instructive and reformative meaning that Philbrick ascribes--his notion that it created some kind of awakening in the country to the threats posed by radical dissension and disunity and the disaffection for the cause that they fostered. But we come away from this story understanding that in a national cause, personal valor and ambition (things we prize) are virtues that can exist in an individual without a vision of the common good and a commitment to serving it. They become vain-glory and egotism poised, dangerously, on the brink of dishonor.

No comments: