The title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest chapter on the early days of the United States promises an inspirational account of how the American colonies broke free from Great Britain thanks to a “valiant” spirit with lofty goals, another stirring tale of the country’s brilliant and brave founders.

Instead, he presents a harsh picture of the revolution’s early days, marked by factionalism, defeat, inadequate leadership, indifference and greed.

Three years after the 13 colonies declared their independence, the venture was foundering and seemed about to fail, but somehow the ship was righted — largely thanks to the intervention of France and to British fatigue with a long-distance and expensive war.

Benedict Arnold, remembered as the quintessential traitor to America’s cause, is Philbrick’s symbol of the nascent nation’s best and worst qualities. Arnold was a sea merchant from Connecticut who impetuously joined the fight at age 34 in 1775 and was thrust immediately into the unsuccessful campaign to capture Canada.

That defeat would lay the groundwork for his betrayal four years later as he lost respect among influential officers and began resenting his personal and financial losses. Philbrick paints Arnold as a brave and inspirational officer in the battles on Lake Champlain, however, where his leadership frustrated British efforts to control this key waterway.

The author’s own sailing experience — he wrote “In the Heart of the Sea,” a popular book about a disastrous whaling voyage — shines in his vivid and clear accounts of these naval actions that led to Arnold’s victory over British troops at Saratoga in 1777. Severely wounded, Arnold won Gen. George Washington’s admiration, but the Continental Congress not only failed to back him, but also left its military commander without the supplies to fight.

Philbrick holds no illusions about the men who started the Revolution, then refused to provide the means to win it. Along with the thousands of troops who died of starvation and disease, Arnold was another of Congress’ victims, the author argues.

Marrying a woman with loyalist sympathies, he attempted to surrender the fortress of West Point in 1780 to the British in exchange for money and a royal commission. The plot failed but Arnold and his wife escaped, eventually living in England until his death in 1801.

The betrayal shocked the stumbling Congress, says Philbrick. “Dissent had created America,” he writes, “but, as proven by Arnold … dissent could also destroy it.” Hit with a slap of reality, America’s leaders united behind Washington and gave him the financial backing needed to carry the war to the finish.

Other historians share Philbrick’s conclusion, but it’s one that needs more development to lend it significance in the face of larger events that effectively brought our country its freedom. Credit Philbrick with reacquainting us with the early history of the Revolutionary War, but we need more convincing to lay its success at the clay feet of Benedict Arnold.

 

Bob Hoover is the former book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Valiant Ambition
By: Nathaniel Philbrick.
Publisher: Viking, 427 pages, $30.
Event: In conversation with former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, 7 p.m., June 1, House of Hope Presbyterian Church, 797 Summit Av., St. Paul. Free, but reservations requested to Magers & Quinn Booksellers.