What led one of the great American generals of the revolutionary war on to become the father of our country? What led another equally great Revolutionary War general on to become the most infamous traitor in our countries history?
I confess that before I read Valiant Ambition, by Nathaniel Philbrick, I had never given either of those questions any thought. But in order for us to understand how George Washington and Benedict Arnold ended up in such different places Philbrick shows us first just how similar they are. Both men had a common desire to be known for their military achievements. Both had great military victories and defeats. Both suffered from the attacks of other generals within the Continental Army and the Continental Congress. It is the similarities that makes the one great difference between them so striking. Here is how Philbrick highlights the difference:
Washington’s sense of right and wrong existed outside the impulsive demands of his own self-interest. Rules mattered to Washington. Even though Congress had made his life miserable for the last four years, he had found ways to do what he considered best for his army and his country without challenging the supremacy of civil authority. … For Arnold, on the other hand, rules were made to be broken. He had done it as a pre-Revolutionary merchant and he had done it as military governor of Philadelphia. … What made Arnold unique was the godlike inviolability he attached to his actions. He had immense respect for a man like Washington, but Arnold was, in the end, the leading personage in the drama that was his life. Not lost to his own character, but lost in it, Arnold did whatever Arnold wanted…
The fundamental difference between Washington and Arnold was that the former was willing to sacrifice for his generals, his army, and his country. Arnold, on the other hand, was not willing to make those sacrifices. That is why he contacted the British in order to find out how much they would pay him if he would help them win the war.
Valiant Ambition is a great study in the contrast of these two men. It highlights what led Washington to become one of the greatest leaders our country has ever known, and what led Arnold to become the best-known traitor our country has ever had. It is a study in leadership. It was the sacrifices Washington made that endeared so many men to him. It was the selfishness of Arnold that led so many men to despise him.