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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
When Arnold bankrolled a Connecticut captain and his privateering crew in a lawsuit against the state, he pushed the Pennsylvania authorities to their limit. The sloop Active had been captured by the British, recaptured by its own crew, and then captured again by Pennsylvania privateers. Arnold considered the Connecticut sailors his countrymen and fed and housed them and paid their legal fees in a long battle with Pennsylvania authorities; had they won, he would have pocketed half the forty-five-thousand-pound value of the ship and cargo.
Beginning in November 1778, anonymous Pennsylvania radicals vilified Arnold almost weekly in the Pennsylvania Packet . Arnold repeatedly counterattacked in print, and in February 1779 the Council of Pennsylvania brought eight charges against him, alleging abuse of power, misuse of military authority, and self-aggrandizing business dealings. Some charges were petty; others raised constitutional questions. He was accused of malfeasance in office for forcing shop closures and of misappropriating military property by using army wagons to haul private goods to Philadelphia.
Angered, Arnold wrote to Washington on May 5, 1779: “If your Excellency thinks me criminal, for heaven’s sake let me be immediately tried and, if found guilty, executed.” He despaired, he said, of ever receiving justice from Congress or the Pennsylvania Council, a “set of artful, unprincipled men” who had come to power and “misrepresent the most innocent actions.” He had, he reminded Washington, “made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country.” He had “little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.”
In April 1779 Arnold married Peggy Shippen, who, at nineteen, was exactly half his age. A month later he sent word secretly through a Philadelphia Loyalist that he was ready to so over to the British army, and on May 10 he opened negotiations with Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief. That summer Arnold resigned as military governor and with his new wife moved into a smaller house owned by his father-in-law. In late December 1779 Arnold faced a court-martial at Dickerson’s Tavern in Morristown, New Jersey. He indignantly denied all charges and opened his own defense with an impassioned speech.
“When the present necessary war against Great Britain commenced,” he said, "1 was in easy circumstances and enjoyed a fair prospect of improving them. I was happy in domestic connections and blessed with a rising family, who claimed my care and attention. … I sacrificed domestic ease and happiness to the service of my country, and in her service I sacrificed a great part of a handsome fortune. 1 was one of the first who appeared in the field and, from that time to the present hour, have not abandoned her service.” Insisting that he was being persecuted by Pennsylvania authorities for his open associations with accused Loyalists, he argued, “It is enough for me to contend with men on the field.”
Although there were those on the court-martial board who thought that Arnold should be cashiered from the army—and although documents discovered years later showed him to have been considerably more dishonest than the authorities suspected— its presiding officer, Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, who himself had clashed with revolutionary civilians as the military governor of Charleston, concluded that there was insufficient evidence on most counts. Arnold was convicted of only two misdemeanors: granting an illegal pass for the cargo vessel Charming Nancy and misappropriating public wagons. The board further recommended that Congress instruct Washington officially to reprimand Arnold.
The commander in chief did rebuke Arnold, characterizing his conduct in the Charming Nancy affair as “peculiarly reprehensible,” but in fact, Washington’s chiding was as mild as it could be without openly insulting the court-martial board, and he did not exclude Arnold from his plans for the coming campaign. Washington would soon offer Arnold a post of honor, command of the left wing of the main Continental Army. Arnold, however, was angry and dispirited.
Two more blows came almost immediately from Congress. On April 27, 1780, two weeks after Arnold’s official reprimand, the Board of Treasury ruled that, despite the fact that Arnold had never been paid as a Continental officer and that he had pressed for his back wages for more than a year, he owed Congress more than three thousand pounds.
One month later, in May 1780, Arnold’s request to be appointed to a naval command in the Caribbean was discouraged by Washington and rejected by Congress. Meanwhile, Arnold’s negotiations with the British had broken down when Clinton refused to pay him a flat fee of ten thousand pounds no matter what services Arnold was to render. Now he resumed his secret correspondence, filling coded letters with military intelligence and with predictions that the Revolution would soon collapse because Congress had ruined the economy. He noted the rap²d depreciation of Continental currency and scarcities of such basic commodities as flour as well as Congress’s failure to obtain vital loans because “their time is taken up in trifles.”