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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
She was unfailingly kind to the traitor’s only surviving sister, who had taken over the care of the three eldest sons after the death of their mother in 1775. Hannah Arnold openly resented her brother’s second marriage. She once wrote him a spinsterish letter, accusing his young wife of “frequent assignations” with “a certain chancellor,” meaning Robert R. Livingston of New York. The General displayed no jealousy, presumably because none was justified. No straying from matrimonial rectitude can be attributed to Peggy Arnold, whose letters reveal a strong religious bent, strangely Calvinistic for a woman brought up in the relative leniency of the Church of England. “These things,” she once observed of a shower of personal misfortunes, “are wisely ordained by the Almighty for some good purpose, and His justice and mercy we cannot doubt.”
In the early years of their exile the Arnolds were free of financial worry. Arnold’s “rewards” for treason were substantial. During the long negotiations with the British prior to his attempt to betray West Point, he had demanded £20,000 if he succeeded, £10,000 if he did not. Sir Henry Clinton agreed to the £20,000 for success, but would go no higher than £6,000 for failure. On October 18, 1780, only a few weeks after the collapse of the conspiracy, Arnold was paid this amount plus £315 for “expenses.” These sums were but the beginning. Although in 1780 Benedict, Jr., the eldest of the traitor’s sons by his earlier marriage, was only twelve, he was given a commission in the British Army carrying half pay for life; and in 1781 his younger brothers were commissioned on the same terms. Arnold himself, during his active service in the British Army, received a provincial brigadier’s pay, £650 a year. When the treaty of peace was signed in 1783, this fell to £225, the half pay of a cavalry colonel. The traitor also profited handsomely from his marauding expedition to Virginia, which seized American shipping on the James. Arnold’s share of the prize money appears to have been in excess of £2,000.
Shortly before the general left New York he dispatched £5,000 of his capital to London, where his broker then converted it into £7,000 worth of four per cent consolidated annuities. Subsequent to the Arnolds’ arrival in the British capital, the king added to their fortunes. On March 17, 1782, George informed his paymaster that it “is Our will and pleasure … that an annuity or yearly pension of five hundred pounds be … paid … unto Mrs. Arnold, wife of our trusty and well beloved Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.…” At about the same time, the British government provided for Peggy’s children, including those yet unborn, each of them getting a pension of eighty pounds net per year. Historians differ as to what dollar value can be placed on Arnold’s compensations for treason. One puts it as high as $120,000 in modern purchasing power; another as low as $55,000. Whatever the proper figure, the Arnolds could have lived on their income comfortably, indeed “genteelly,” for an indefinite period had the General been content. But to say that Benedict Arnold was never content is to epitomize his life.
In 1785 he submitted to the Commissioners on Loyalist Claims a “memorial” requesting £16,125 over and above the monies he had already received. He described this additional sum as a “moderate computation” of the losses he had incurred by coming over to the British.
One of his claims dealt with Mount Pleasant, the baronial country seat near Philadelphia that he had purchased in the spring of 1779 as a wedding present for Peggy. After exposure of his treason, the Pennsylvania authorities confiscated Mount Pleasant. Arnold said it was worth £5,000—£1,000 above a contemporary American appraisal; he did not add that his father-in-law had purchased the property from the Pennsylvania authorities and was holding it for his daughter. Another of Arnold’s claims was even emptier. Writing in the third person, he told the British commissioners that “in consequence of his loyalty and engagements with Sir Henry Clinton he [had] refused the command of the American Army in South Carolina, offered him … by Washington, which was afterwards given to [Major General Nathanael] Greene, who (the memorialist is informed) has been rewarded by the states of the Carolinas and Virginia with the sum of £20,000 sterling for his services, which would probably have been given to the memorialist had he accepted the command.” As a matter of fact Washington had never offered the South Carolina command to Arnold. Perhaps the hollow foundation of these claims eventually bothered the traitor himself. On April 26, 1786, he withdrew his memorial to the commissioners, explaining in a letter inscribed on gilt-edged paper that Clinton had compensated him for his losses, and that his wife had received her pension.