Secret History of the American Revolution

ByCarl Van Doren . Viking Press. $3.75.
MR. VAN DOREN has had access to the truly extraordinary collections of revolutionary documents in the Clements Library ot the University of Michigan. These collections include the ‘Gage Papers,’ the ‘Sir Henry Clinton Papers,’ the ‘Lord George Germain Papers,’ the ‘General Nathanael Greene Papers,’ and others too numerous to mention. As one who has hastily scanned these collections, this reviewer can appreciate the treasure-trove of hitherto unpublished documents which Mr. Van Doren has so capably and wisely presented. For the first time the true story of Arnold’s machinations is disclosed, and the obscure network of minor treasons, stratagems, and spoils of that particular time and place clearly and convincingly explored.
To understand and evaluate this documentation, a new comprehension of the Revolutionary mentality is necessary, and Mr. Van Doren contrives to interpret his material with that retrospective imagination which is the essential furniture of the genuine historian. He treats the Revolutionary War as a civil war, tought between two parties, each convinced of the rightness and sacredness of its cause. Thus, to the Loyalists and the British, Arnold’s treason was an act of virtue. He was a brand which snatched itself from the burning, and of this Arnold was undoubtedly himself convinced. Major Andre, a most charming person, was the victim of cruel bad luck, but he died in the conviction that he had acted as a soldier and a gentleman. In this book you are permitted to see the very inside workings of the minds and souls of the chief and lesser actors in a moment of high drama.
Arnold himself, the dark hero-villain of this tragedy, is drawn by Mr. Van Doren from life. For me his picture is final and convincing. He gives full measure of praise to Arnold’s military qualities, his great fighting heart, his quick, aggressive intrepidity; he was the ‘fighting general ‘ of the war. But Mr. Van Doren effectually disposes of some of the claims that Arnold was consistently cheated and mistreated by Congress and his colleagues, that he never received the recognition due him. Surely he did not receive promotion proportionate to his exploits, but the reason is not far to seek. He was distrusted throughout his career, and rightly so. A venal man, he thought always of money. As a general he speculated and peculated whenever the opportunity arose. He was acquitted by a court-martial of his grosser frauds, but Washington, in spite of his real affection for this fighting, headstrong extrovert, was obliged officially to reprimand him for unbecoming and improper financial operations.
To Arnold, Arnold was always right. He wanted only a just return in cash money for his laudable activities. Over a long term of months he haggled with Clinton and Andre for the cash value of his treason. Twenty thousand pounds was his price. The others wanted a substantial service on his part prior to signing a blank check. The surrender of West Point would have been such a service and would have been richly rewarded. As it was, he came to the British with empty hands and a name execrated by his former fellow soldiers. Yet he had the profound and essential callousness to write to Sir Henry Clinton, only thirteen days after Clinton had heard of Andre’s death, asking for £10,000. In his letter he never referred to the tragedy of Andre’s death. His whole concern was with his own advancement.
I cannot praise too highly both the presentation of this evidence, new and old, and the author’s interpretation of it. The book is skillful, temperate, and wise. The appendix, notes, and bibliography add immeasurably to its value. Mr. Adams, curator of the Clements Library, and the late Mr. Clements himself deserve the thanks to be shared with Mr. Van Doren.
I think that Mr. Van Doren’s title is misleading. True, he omits a fatal ‘ A ‘ or ‘ The’ before ‘Secret History’ and also he qualifies the title as follows: ‘An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others, drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America, Now for the First Time examined and made public.’ Nevertheless the casual reader is bound to misread the title and refer to the book as ‘The Secret History of the American Revolution,’ which it certainly is not, as no one knows better than Mr. Van Doren. Long after the Revolution, John Adams wrote (I quote from memory), ‘The true history of the American Revolution will never be written.’ It never has been and probably it never will be.
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