Podcast #223: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Valiant Ambition

In the history of the American Revolution, two figures stand in stark contrast to each other: George Washington and Benedict Arnold. In the American imagination, Washington is elevated as an example of sterling character, while Arnold is ostracized to the seventh layer of Dante’s hell. 

But what few Americans know is at the start of the War of Independence, Washington was a blundering general, while Arnold was one of the colonies’ very best. How is it that Washington transformed himself into one of America’s greatest leaders while Arnold ended up betraying his countrymen?

That’s what my guest today explores in his book Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. His name is Nathaniel Philbrick and today on the show we discuss the evolution of Washington as a general and a statesman, Benedict Arnold’s amazing, but often forgotten battlefield exploits for the American cause, and how Arnold’s valiant ambition turned into a vain and treacherous appetite that led to his downfall. Along the way, Nathaniel and I talk about the life lessons we can take from these two eminent revolutionaries. 

Show Highlights

  • Why Philbrick’s mother was a huge fan of Benedict Arnold
  • Washington’s short-sighted and risky approach to battle at the beginning of the Revolutionary War
  • How Washington was able to go against his natural aggressive instinct and his pride in order to switch to a more defensive strategy
  • Why Washington’s ability to control his emotions and impulses made him a genius politician
  • Why Benedict Arnold was one of the great American generals in the Revolution and was considered the “American Hannibal”
  • The slights that Arnold received at the hands of the Continental Congress that sowed the seeds of his treason
  • Why Arnold’s inability to control his passion and ambition led to his treacherous downfall
  • The civil war among the colonies that was going on at the same time as the fight against the British
  • Why Arnold thought his act of treason was actually an act of patriotism
  • Arnold’s wife’s influence on his decision to surrender West Point to the British
  • How the uncovering of Arnold’s treacherous plot happened by pure chance
  • Why Arnold’s treason was the best thing that could have happened to the revolutionary cause
  • And much more!

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

  • Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Battle of Long Island
  • General William Howe
  • Battle of Brandywine
  • Washington’s “War of posts”
  • Joseph Reed
  • Fort Ticonderoga
  • Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys
  • Battle of St. John’s
  • Siege of Boston
  • Battle of Valcour Island
  • The Battle of Saratoga
  • Horatio Gates
  • West Point
  • Peggy Shippen (Arnold’s wife)
  • Major John Andre
  • Marquis de Lafayette

valiant ambition book cover nathaniel philbrick

Valiant Ambition is a fantastic read. The battle scenes are riveting, but the best part of this book is the character analysis Philbrick provides of both Washington and Arnold. The leadership evolution of Washington is something to be admired, while the treacherous ambition of Arnold should serve as a warning to us all.

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Source: Art of Manliness

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