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Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking Press, New York, 2016, $30

As the 13 colonies began their gradual transformation into a cohesive nation during the American Revolution, two U.S. commanders in particular faced significant challenges. George Washington had the monumental and unenviable task of forming and training a professional fighting force despite militia difficulties, contentious citizens, power-hungry subordinates and lack of financial support from an unenlightened Continental Congress. Meanwhile, a favorite commander, Benedict Arnold, sought the recognition he had earned on the battlefield and hoped to enrich himself like other notable officers of his era.

In Valiant Ambition Philbrick examines the complex personalities of these highly regarded military leaders against the panorama of the Revolutionary War. He skillfully depicts Washington’s evolution into a seasoned, formidable combat commander and patient diplomat. Philbrick also details Arnold’s spiraling trajectory from impoverished, temperamental and narcissistic officer to mercenary and traitor. He reveals Arnold’s frustration at being overlooked for well-deserved career advancement, his openness to unethical financial temptations, his lack of empathy toward others and his often-contentious relationships, even with his own officers. In addition, Philbrick probes the role Arnold’s second wife, Philadelphia socialite and Loyalist Peggy Shippen, played in her husband’s downfall.

Philbrick wryly notes that Arnold’s betrayal had the unintentional effect of galvanizing citizens of the fledgling United States to solidly oppose British domination, eliminating any lingering guilt over separation from Great Britain.

Valiant Ambition is an absorbing psychological study of two prominent figures in American history and the roles their personalities and relationships played in shaping the destiny of a nation.

—S.L. Hoffman