Benedict Arnold, explained but not excused

October 12, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writers.

Nathaniel Philbrick‘s Valient Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. explains–but does not excuse–Benedict Arnold. And the explanation is an important part of the history of the American Revolution. And, therefore, it is important for Americans to hear and understand.

Philbrick is a top-flight historian whose narrative prose makes any topic he tackles readable and enlightening. I was disappointed with his book Valient Ambition only because it ended where it did — and too soon.

Philbrick’s major theme in Valient Ambition is that rather than the “glorious Revolution” that we think of, the period during which we separated ourselves from Great Britain was a time of strife and dissension, pitting brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor. At no time other than the Civil War was America so divided. The political divisions that we lament in our current era pale in comparison to these two periods.

It was this dissension that, in part, created Benedict Arnold, the traitor.

Arnold had been a successful Connecticut businessman who had given himself fully to the idea of independence for the American colonies. In doing so, he discovered that he was a brilliant, fearless, and inspiring battlefield commander. But he was also selfish, egotistical, and narcissistic.

He made enemies rather than friends; he remembered slights and held grudges; and when the Continental Congress failed to adequately recognize and compensate him — despite his sustaining severe wounds in the battle of Saratoga — he had neither the inner strength nor the political skills to deal adequately or equitably with the situation.

The war against Great Britain was a long on (eight years), and for much of that time, things did not go well for the Americans. As their fortunes waned, so did their will to carry on. The Patriots began turning on each other as well as the Loyalists, and Arnold was caught in the middle of these battles and was, more often than not, on the losing side.

None of that, of course, excuses the treachery that involved his plan to hand over the American base at West Point, New York to the British in 1780. Arnold did it, in the end, because he had received promises of money for doing so. His traitorous actions were exposed, accidentally, when British Major John André was captured carrying some incriminating documents by American troops. Arnold barely escaped to the British as George Washington found out about the plan.

Inadvertently, Philbrick argues in his book, Arnold performed a valuable service for America when he betrayed the cause of independence. He gave the story of the Revolution a villain. His actions became quickly and widely known and served as a wake-up call to the colonists. They needed to stop fighting among themselves and remember who they should be fighting and why. Benedict Arnold helped them do that, at least.


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