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Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath Of Treason
The traitor was not destitute, but his family's life was not comfortable after the Revolutionary War.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
For a few weeks Arnold’s name figured prominently in the local press. He attended court at St. James’s Palace. Sir Walter Stirling, a London banker and a relative of Mrs. Arnold’s, introduced him to the king, and reporters spotted him strolling in the public gardens in intimate conversation with his Majesty and the Prince of Wales. From Paris, Benjamin Franklin wrote to America that “we hear much of audiences given to Arnold, and his being present at councils.” On the fourth of February the Daily Advertiser announced that Arnold was “shortly to return back to America, and to have the command of the Loyalists, a Prosecution of the War having been determined upon.” This report was singularly inaccurate, since the day was near when Parliament would compel King George to make peace with his “revolted colonies” and recognize their independence.
Peggy was not slighted. On Monday, February 10, Lady Amherst presented her at court: the king pronounced her “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” and the queen instructed her ladies “to pay much attention to her.”
But if a mild warmth suffused the reception of the Arnolds in some quarters, something closer to contempt was apparent in others. The March issue of London’s widely-read Gentleman’s Magazine quoted a peer of the realm who complained bitterly about “placing at the King’s elbow a man perhaps the most obnoxious to the feelings of the Americans of any in the King’s dominions at the moment the House was addressing his Majesty to put an end to the American war.” In the Commons, Edmund Burke expressed the hope that the government would not put the traitor “at the head of a part of a British army” lest “the sentiments of true honor, which every British officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted.”
Burke need not have worried. With the fall of the war ministry in March of 1782, what little prestige Arnold had enjoyed in London came to an end. He remained a general, which is to say he was so addressed; but England gave him no military post and his anxious and frequently repeated efforts to obtain one were fruitless. In 1784, restless and without occupation, he applied for a position with the East India Company. The answer to his application, written by George Johnstone, a director of the company, was a masterpiece of icy English honesty. The gist of it was that even successful traitors are “seldom greatly loved” by their beneficiaries. As a traitor who had failed, Arnold could never hope for employment with the powerful East India Company.
The Arnolds’ first home in London was on Portman Square. During the years to come they would occupy a succession of leased houses in this new and moderately fashionable neighborhood, a short distance northeast of what is now Marble Arch at the juncture of Oxford Street and Park Lane. Several American Loyalists lived in the area. Peggy established a lasting friendship with Ann and Sarah Fitch and their brother William, members of a once well known New England family. She visited regularly at the Fitches’ country home in Essex and frequently accompanied them to Bath and other watering spots.
As Arnold receded from prominence, so did Peggy, although in her case the shift was more a matter of choice than of necessity. As late as 1785 she was still highly esteemed in London. A visiting Philadelphian informed his wife that Mrs. Arnold “is an amiable lady, and was her husband dead would be much noticed.” According to her sympathetic but conscientious biographer and descendant, Lewis Burd Walker, however, Peggy made little or no effort to capitalize on her personal popularity. “We have no account,” Walker writes, “of her being present at any scene of gayety and pleasure.” Shock and suffering had left their mark. Those who had known the party-loving belle of Revolutionary Philadelphia would scarcely have recognized the devoted wife and mother of Portman Square. Repeatedly in her letters home she spoke of her “struggle to keep up an appearance” for the sake of her “children’s rising prospects.”
At the time of her arrival in England her American-born sons, Edward and James, were both under two years old. A boy and a girl, born in 1783 and 1784, died in infancy, but 1785 saw the birth of a daughter, Sophia, who though often ill lived to become a dear companion to her mother. Later came two more sons: George, born in 1787; and William, who, arriving in 1798, long after the others, was spoken of as Little William. Arnold already had three sons by his first wife, Benedict, Richard, and Henry, all of whom had remained in the United States. It tells us much about Peggy that she gave thoughtful love and attention to her stepsons. When, in his twenty-fourth year, Richard wrote that he had fallen in love, Peggy did not hesitate to express the hope, in a long, warm letter, that he would refrain from marrying the young woman “till you are enabled to support her in a comfortable style.”