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Pulitzer-prize winning author Nathaniel Philbrick discusses his book, Valiant Ambition, which looks at the complicated lives of Benedict Arnold and George Washington during the American Revolution.

Nathaniel Philbrick has earned critical acclaim and widespread success for his historical works, including In the Heart of the Sea, which won the National Book Award, and Mayflower, a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history. His book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution, appeared on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after its release.

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On a visit to Mount Vernon, he sat down with the Washington Library’s founding director, Doug Bradburn, to discuss Washington, Arnold, and the forces that drove the two men apart.

What is the story that Valiant Ambition tells?

It begins in the summer of 1776, with a George Washington at his lowest and Benedict Arnold at his highest. And we watch over the course of the next four years. Arnold, after almost losing his life at the Battle of Saratoga, becomes a traitor. Washington, after stumbling in New York, becomes that indispensable man, the only person that's holding the country together.

Who was Benedict Arnold? Did he see himself as a traitor?

Benedict Arnold 1776 (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection)
Benedict Arnold 1776 (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection)
Benedict Arnold was very much a patriot. He was a great battlefield commander. He had magnificent instincts in battle, but he was a fiery personality. If you were serving with him, you'd love him. If you were an officer trying to working cooperatively with him, there was a good chance that you would have a different opinion. He was not a very politic man. He made enemies very easily, so he was a constant source of controversy.

When the Continental Congress promoted five junior brigadier generals past him for political reasons, it was really a terrible blow to Arnold. The way he complained to Congress added to the controversy. Then he almost lost his leg at Saratoga and was more embittered. He began to question, why was he doing this? He did not see himself as a traitor. He had become so disillusioned with Congress, with what was happening to the American people, he felt that the ultimate patriotic act would be to end his country’s misery—to bring back the British.

Let's talk about Washington. What has he learned during this period?

In Washington I see the ultimate leader, someone who can actually learn from his experience. You see Washington evolve as a leader and develop incredible political skill...while he learns militarily he needs to fight a defensive war. When it comes to his political management of Congress, of rivals in the army, he proves to be a very astute—and when he needs to be, aggressive—political insider. Washington, in those four years, evolves in remarkable ways so that at the point when Arnold threatens to dissolve this country, Washington, I feel, has reached the point where he is the one through sheer force of personality and determination holding it together.

What was the relationship between Arnold and Washington? How does it evolve?

Arnold was, in many ways, what Washington could have been if he was 10 years younger and not saddled with the terrible responsibility of command. He could have gone in there and been that kind of battlefield hero that worked miracles on the battlefield. That was, I think, a kind of fantasy for Washington but, of course, he realized he couldn't do that as Commander in Chief.

What surprised you when you started writing this story that you didn't know?

We focus on the dates of pivotal battlefield points and lose the fact that this war went on for years. It's this long, terrible slog that causes people to really doubt themselves. We think of the revolution as American against Britain, and the fact of the matter is it devolved to the point where the real battle was within. The American people begin to lose faith and turn their attention inward, fighting among themselves. Loyalist against patriot, often neighbor against neighbor, in just a squalid, desperate civil war that really has nothing to do with ideals and is just a desperate battle for survival.


Valiant Ambition: An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

Pulitzer-prize winning author examines the complicated lives of Benedict Arnold and George Washington.

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