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A Conversation with Nathaniel Philbrick

Q: In VALIANT AMBITION, Benedict Arnold is not depicted as a conspiratorial traitor from the start, but rather, one of Washington’s greatest generals. Do you think Arnold has been misrepresented historically? If so, what do people get wrong about him?

Yes, I do think Benedict Arnold has not gotten a fair shake. What he ultimately did was reprehensible, but as I go into in VALIANT AMBITION, there were some fairly compelling reasons why he was moved to question the cause to which he had given almost everything. Yes, he proved to be a traitor, but that does not change the fact that for the first three years of the war, he was America’s best fighting general.

Q: You argue that the greatest threat to America came not from the British but from our country’s own citizens, who showed more interest in fighting each other than the British. Could the Revolutionary War be called a civil war? Why was there so much fighting between neighbors?

Most of us assume that the American people remained united in their struggle against Great Britain during the War of Independence, but that was not the case. A significant portion of the country’s citizens had no interest in the Revolution and many remained loyal to the British Crown. As the war dragged on year after year and neither side appeared capable of bringing the struggle to a conclusion, pockets of the country saw a breakdown in social order as neighbor preyed upon neighbor in an ugly cat and dog fight that had more to do with anger and self-interest than high-minded political ideals. This is the sordid underbelly of the Revolution that caused many patriots—not just Benedict Arnold—to question whether the American people had the will and fortitude to see the struggle to the end.

Q: How did the relationship between Washington and Arnold transform from mutual trust and loyalty to an irreversible betrayal during the Revolution?

Washington had great faith in Arnold almost to the very end, and he was not alone. Arnold’s accomplishments on the battlefield had been so significant that it was difficult to conceive that a man who had risked so much and had fought with such bravery could turn traitor. For his part, Arnold never lost his great respect for Washington. That, however, wasn’t enough to prevent his growing disillusionment with the country’s political leaders and his increasingly straitened financial circumstances from convincing him that the time had come to change sides. Yet another important factor was his marriage to Peggy Shippen, a well-to-do Philadelphian with loyalist leanings who encouraged him to reach out to the British and ultimately became his co-conspirator.

Q: You argue that dysfunction in Congress is nothing new. Do any parallels exist between the Congress of today and the Congress during the American Revolution? What role did Congress play in Benedict Arnold’s decision to return to British loyalty?

It’s interesting; we associate the Continental Congress of the Revolution with such spectacular accomplishments as the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and tend to forget that in the years after 1776, Congress became a deracinated husk of its former self as leading lights such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams left the legislative body to assume other roles. With no executive branch and without the ability to tax the states, our national government simply did not have the power to work effectively, and much of the energy of the legislators was directed toward infighting and factionalism rather than coming to a constructive consensus. In that sense, there is certainly a similarity between then and now even if the circumstances are very different.

Adding to the dysfunction during the War of Independence was the fact that many legislators were fearful that as had happened during earlier revolutions, the army might one day take over the country’s civil government. As a consequence, Congress kept Washington on a very tight leash and even reserved the right to select his major generals. For political reasons, Congress failed to award Arnold his expected promotion in 1777, an injustice that was not fully addressed until after he suffered his terrible injury at the Battle of Saratoga, but by then the damage had already been done to both Arnold’s body and his psyche.

Q: You are the author of In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower, among other books. Each takes a piece of history we all think we know about and brings to life aspects that aren’t part of common lore. In Valiant Ambition, you do the same. What inspired you to write Valiant Ambition?

My mother, who was something of a renegade, had always been fascinated with Benedict Arnold so he was a figure I’d been aware of from a fairly early age. However, it wasn’t until I’d moved to Nantucket and read St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from American Farmer (which has several letters about Nantucket) that I began to realize how tortured the legacy of the Revolution really was. Crèvecoeur came to America after the French and Indian War, fell in love with this new land, and then was horrified by the civil war that destroyed his once idyllic community during the early years of the Revolution. That was a perspective I hadn’t really encountered before, and after finishing my earlier book Bunker Hill, I began to think about focusing on Benedict Arnold as a way to get at what was for me a relatively unknown side of the Revolution.

Q: Many people have heard of the partisan struggles in the South during the final bloody years of the Revolution, but VALIANT AMITION follows the internal conflict in the areas of the Hudson River Valley, Long Island, and New Jersey. What caused civil war to erupt in these areas during the Revolution and what was the impact on the region?

Much of it had to do with the fact that the British army occupied the city of New York. The presence of this large army meant that if you lived within a fifty mile radius of the city—whether it was to the east in Long Island, to the north along the Hudson River Valley or to the west in coastal New Jersey—you found yourself in a war-ravaged no-man’s land, where neither side held sway and where bands of patriots battled with bands of loyalists. In Westchester County along the Hudson River, they called it the “Neutral Ground,” where British “Cowboys” went at it against the patriot “Skinners.” New Jersey and Long Island had their own coastal versions of the Neutral Ground, where it came down to a ceaseless series of Viking-like raids that historians have called the “Whaleboat Wars.” All of this in-fighting had a devastating effect on these regions, forcing many inhabitants to abandon what was in essence a New York-centered civil war zone.

Q: At the Battle of Saratoga on October 7, 1777, Benedict Arnold suffered a debilitating injury. How did this moment ultimately set him on the path to treason?

Not only did Arnold almost lose his leg to an enemy musket ball at Saratoga, he was treated shamefully by General Horatio Gates and his staff, who received most of the credit for a victory that was largely Arnold’s doing. I think it’s safe to say that Arnold was damaged both physically and psychically at Saratoga and would be, in a very real sense, never the same. Combine that with his shabby treatment on the part of Congress and his growing money problems and you have the makings of a possible traitor.

Q: Arnold once admitted, “I am a passionate man.” How did his passion benefit and derail him?

Arnold’s naturally passionate nature made him an incredibly fearless and charismatic presence on the battlefield. What Arnold didn’t have was much tact or patience, and this created huge problems for him when it came to interacting with others on a daily basis. Unable to control his emotions, he had a habit of antagonizing his fellow officers as well as civil officials, and as a result, controversy seemed to follow him wherever he went. It all came to a head when Washington named him military governor of Philadelphia after the evacuation of the British in the spring of 1778. It wasn’t long before Arnold was regularly battling both the Continental Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature and feeling underappreciated by his own country.

Q: In what ways were Washington and Arnold similar? What were the most striking differences between them?

We think of Washington as defensively minded and pragmatic, but that was the approach he took only after three years of very mixed results during which he kept attempting to beat the British on the battlefield. Washington’s temperament was surprisingly close to Arnold’s—both were naturally passionate and aggressive. The big difference between them was that Washington had the ability to control his emotions and to learn from his mistakes. He also had incredible reserves of patience—something that was simply not a part of Arnold’s make up.

Q: How did you research this book? Did you find anything that surprised you during the research process?

A key archival source were the Clinton Papers at the Clements Library on the campus of the University of Michigan. Henry Clinton was the commander in chief of the British forces during the time that Arnold decided to change sides, and as a result his correspondence with British spy master Major John Andre are to be found in the Clinton papers. It’s pretty amazing to have the opportunity to examine the coded letter with which Arnold offered to surrender the fortress at West Point to the British. What surprised me was how long it took for Arnold to commit himself to treason—more than a year after first contacting the British—and the important role that his wife Peggy assumed in the negotiations.