The Great Traitor

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A good many Americans have been accused of betraying their country over the past two centuries. Yet only Benedict Arnold’s name has entered the language as a synonym for treason.

One reason may be simply that Arnold was guilty as charged. About the rest of the most celebrated accused, we’re not so sure. Aaron Burr may or may not have tried to hack out a country for himself west of the Mississippi. Ezra Pound’s defense for broadcasting on behalf of the Axis during World War II was that he’d been mad. Alger Hiss may have provided secrets to the Soviets, but he was never convicted of having done so. Controversy still surrounds the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Jonathan Pollard’s excuse is that the country for which he was caught spying is an American ally.

 

But there doesn’t seem to be a whisper of a doubt about Arnold’s culpability. It is one of the many strengths of Clare Brandt’s vivid and concise new biography The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold (Random House, $25) that while offering no excuses for what Arnold did, she manages to provide a coherent explanation for why he did it.

Until the age of fourteen, Benedict Arnold had every reason to believe that he would move smoothly to a position of power and privilege. His father, a successful trader descended from the founders of Rhode Island, was wealthy enough to send his son away to school in preparation for attending Yale. But the elder Arnold was also an alcoholic; he had to be locked up for public drunkenness and lost his fortune, and, eventually, his senses. His son was pulled from school and apprenticed to a druggist for seven years, his family humiliated, their assured future suddenly vanished.

Benedict Arnold was bright, energetic, ambitious, and by the time he left his apothecary’s shop to lead the minutemen of New Haven off to war in the spring of 1775, he seemed well on his way to recouping the family fortune. But Brandt believes he had never recovered from the “earthquake” of his father’s disgrace; for all his outward success, “the space where self-assurance and self-respect should have developed was empty … [he] was … hollow … driven by a craving for reassurance and confirmation that could never be satisfied, even by his own well-earned triumphs. Whatever he had was never enough; the more he gained, the more he needed.”

Part of the reason Arnold makes such a satisfying villain is that he was first such an authentic hero. He may have been the ablest American battlefield commander in the Revolution; he was almost certainly the boldest. “He’d ride right in,” recalled an old veteran. “It was ‘Come on, boys!’ ‘Twasn’t ‘Go boys!’” With Ethan Allen, he seized Fort Ticonderoga even before the war was really under way. He led an arduous 350-mile wilderness march that almost took Quebec, then commanded a homemade fleet in a desperate freshwater naval engagement on Lake Champlain. And his extraordinary bravery at the Battle of Saratoga turned likely defeat into momentous victory; news of it helped convince France to take an active part in the struggle against England. In battle, he was, as one of his admiring men remembered, “the very genius of war.”

Had Arnold stayed with his country he might well be remembered as one of the greatest men of the Revolutionary generation. Instead he became the man that generation hated most.

We tend to honor the conviction of those individuals who act out of loyalty to a cause greater than themselves—even when we deplore both the cause and what it forces them to do. Arnold was Arnold’s only cause. He seems to have believed himself infallible. Everything he did was right because he did it; those who differed with him were wrong by definition. It was an attitude calculated to make enemies, and he made them everywhere. They delayed his promotions, challenged his expense accounts, charged him with profiteering—unjustly sometimes, according to his biographer, but very often justly—and finally brought him before a military court. In response he spun ever more tangled webs of lies, portraying himself always as a selfless patriot assailed by envious traducers. “Money is this man’s God,” an opponent wrote long before Arnold is known to have contemplated treason, “and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”

His enemy seems to have had it only half right. “To Arnold,” Brandt writes, “money meant far more than financial security; it was also a crucial ingredient of self-respect. … He was well aware of his talents and accomplishments to be sure; but pride is not the same as self-assurance—indeed, it often signals the opposite. Arnold needed money as tangible expression of the world’s regard, and he craved it not so much for its own sake … as for its ability to confirm his substantiality to the world and to himself.”

Unable ever to amass enough cash to alleviate his own perpetual self-doubt and unwilling ever to admit to the slightest personal weakness, Arnold came to believe that America did not sufficiently appreciate him and that Britain would not be so foolish—and might make him rich in the bargain. His young and beautiful second wife, Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia Loyalist, enthusiastically agreed. The Arnolds opened negotiations with the British in the summer of 1779 and went on haggling for ten months before striking a deal. Arnold was to turn over West Point to the enemy, along with its garrison. His price: twenty thousand pounds if he succeeded; ten thousand if he failed, plus five hundred pounds per year for life.