- Historic Sites
Why Benedict Arnold Did It
To the end of his life America’s most infamous traitor believed he was the hero of the Revolution
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
Shortly after noon on Thursday, April 20, 1775, a weary postrider swung out of the saddle at Hunt’s Tavern in New Haven, Connecticut, with an urgent message from the Massachusetts Committee of Cor- respondence. At dawn the day before, British light infantry had killed six militiamen on Lexington Green. Anxious New Haven citizens crowded into an emergency town meeting and voted to maintain a policy of neutrality despite Massachusetts’s plea for troops and supplies.
Nevertheless, Benedict Arnold, the thirty-four-year-old captain of New Haven’s elite 2d Company of Governor’s Footguards and head of the town’s Son’s of Liberty, mustered his men and prepared to march on Boston. First, though, he led his company of militia, several of them Yale undergraduates, to Hunt’s Tavern, where the community’s selectmen were deliberating, and demanded keys to the town’s powder magazine. David Wooster, a colonel in the militia and also New Haven’s justice of the peace, refused. Arnold, he said, would have to wait for regular orders from the colonial legislature in Hartford. “Regular orders be damned!” Arnold retorted; a war had begun. Again Wooster refused, but Arnold’s band of radicals threatened to tear down the doors to the powder magazine. “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching,” shouted Arnold. Wooster handed him the keys.
Benedict Arnold’s confrontation with the New Haven authorities and his quick march to Boston were typical of a stormy military career that culminated in the most celebrated betrayal in American history. In the seven clamorous years between 1775 and 1782, Arnold may well have won a greater number of important battles than any other officer on either side. He rose to be the third-highest-ranking American general before deserting to the British. Many historians have believed Arnold turned traitor simply for money, but like the man himself, the motives were complex.
The man whose name is the very eponym for treason was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1741, a fifth-generation New Englander whose great-grandfather, also named Benedict Ar- nold, had been the first governor of Rhode Island. He lived with his pious Puritan mother and his devoted sister in a big gambrel-roofed white frame house on the outskirts of town. Arnold’s father, who had owned and sailed ships in the Caribbean trade, was an alcoholic. As his father’s business slipped toward bankruptcy, Benedict was sent off at eleven to a relative’s church school, where he learned Greek and Latin. At thirteen, after his father’s arrest for public drunkenness, he was yanked out of school and briefly roamed the Norwich waterfront, distinguishing himself for feats of strength and public pranks. Five feet ten, barrel-chested and muscular, with dark hair and gray eyes, proud despite his father’s disgrace—and perhaps the fiercer because of it—Arnold was often in trouble until, in 1754, he was consigned to an eight-year apprenticeship with his mother’s cousin, Dr. Daniel Lathrop.
Lathrop, a Yale graduate trained in medicine in London, operated the only apothecary shop between Boston and New York City. He was a cultivated man who lived opulently in a mansion surrounded by formal gardens, owned liveried slaves, and sent his young apprentice on errands in a fancy yellow carriage. He also taught Arnold about gardening, growing herbs, breeding horses, sailing, hunting, accounting, literature, and music, but he could not quench the apprentice’s restlessness.
Benedict twice ran away to join the militia in the French and Indian War. Both times he was hauled back, and by the age of eighteen he had become Lathrop’s trusted chief clerk, sailing to England, Canada, and the West Indies on buying and selling trips. When Dr. Lathrop landed the lucrative contract to provide medical supplies for the British Northern Army, it was Arnold who delivered them to British forces besieging Quebec. He learned that businessmen could make huge—and perfectly legal—profits in wartime.
When his apprenticeship ended in 1762, Arnold turned down Dr. Lathrop’s offer to remain in his business but accepted his generous gift of five hundred pounds to set up his own apothecary shop in New Haven. It was more like a general store, offering books for students across the green at Yale College and cosmetics, jewelry, and what Arnold called “a very elegant assortment of Metzotinto Pictures, Prints, Maps, Stationery-Ware and Paper-Hangings for rooms.” Arnold had a knack for selling. He soon opened a larger shop overlooking the harbor and bought a sloop. By the time he was twenty-six, Arnold had three ships trading lumber and “large, fat, genteel horses” he bought from Canada for sugar and cotton from the Caribbean.
As Americans began to resist British imperial trade regulations, Arnold emerged as New Haven’s leading smuggler of rum, sugar, and molasses. He also became its leading patriot but from the outset was an outsider in Revolutionary politics. Considered an interloper by New Haven’s landed society, Arnold was also excluded from the upper echelons of Connecticut politics by the Revolutionary clique around Gov. Jonathan Trumbull that governed the colony from Hartford. All his life an outsider, he became more and more a maverick in business and politics.