GEORGE WASHINGTON AND BENEDICT ARNOLD: A Tale of Two Patriots

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GEORGE WASHINGTON AND BENEDICT ARNOLD: A Tale of Two Patriots, Dave R. Palmer, Regnery Publishing, Washington, D.C., 2006,395 pages, $29.95.

Retired Lieutenant General Dave Palmer's George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots provides no more, and no less, than its title suggests. Palmer presents the tale of two men whose fortunes frequently ran together on parallel tracks, but whose fates diverged sharply. George Washington's name became synonymous with public virtue; Benedict Arnold's became a byword for treachery. These radically different legacies, Palmer believes, were the result of differences in their character.

Palmer defines character by its component traits of fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice; as having "the moral fiber to take the harder right instead of the easier wrong"; and, in Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's words, as "a firm and seasoned substance of the soul." By all of these definitions, Washington excelled; by almost all of these measures, Arnold fell hopelessly short.

Not surprisingly, Palmer is at his best when describing Arnold's treason at West Point. The author of one of the better histories of the U.S. Military Academy (The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783, Hippocrene Books), Palmer explores in great detail the series of events that became the sole legacy of one of America's original heroes. Arnold, his young wife Peggy Shippen, the gallant Major John André, and a cast of lesser characters come to life in Palmer's appealing prose.

Unfortunately, Palmer makes little headway against the nagging question of why Arnold did what he did. After explaining factors that may have influenced Arnold's decision to betray the cause for which he had given so much-disillusionment with the civilian leadership of the rebellion, disgust with Congress's repeated failures to reward his contributions to the war, and disappointment with Washington's public censure of his (Arnold's) behavior as military governor of Philadelphia-Palmer recasts Arnold's treason as a failing of character. …