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The Great Traitor

June 2024
5min read

Benedict Arnold never quite understood the cause he served superbly and then betrayed

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.

Had his plot succeeded, the Revolution really might have failed. West Point controlled the Hudson River crossings; had these been turned over to the British it would have been impossible to feed or supply George Washington’s army.

The conspiracy disintegrated, thanks largely to Arnold’s stupid, prideful insistence that his British contact, Maj. John André, make his way through the American lines to call upon him in person. The British agent was captured with incriminating documents hidden in his stocking. At news of the arrest, Arnold fled to the British at New York City aboard the frigate Vulture (Tom Paine called it “one vulture … receiving another”). Once safely ashore, Arnold began importuning the British commander for an increase in his reward. André’s great charm and his unflinching dignity on the way to the gallows made him a posthumous hero on both sides of the Atlantic. The naked contrast between the ways the two men met their fates had already helped make Arnold almost universally despised. “Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for André,” wrote a Continental Army physician, “not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.”

Arnold suggested that his new allies bribe the revolutionaries and offer a title to Washington.

Empty of ethics himself, Arnold never understood that others might be moved by motives more exalted than his own. “Money, properly applied in America,” would shatter the Revolutionary ranks, he confidently assured the British secretary of state for the colonies after he had deserted his country’s cause; a “title offered to General Washington” himself “might not prove unacceptable.”

He fought alongside the British against his countrymen for a time, even led a fiery seaborne assault on New London, Connecticut, not far from his own hometown of Norwich, that ended with the butchering of the American garrison. Then, in 1782, he sailed for England with his wife and children. It disappointed him, just as America had, and he came to number British statesmen and soldiers, too, among his persecutors. The crown kept its pledge to pay him, though never so much as he had initially demanded, nowhere near enough, as he said, to keep him “in the style of the first people of America, by whom I was beloved and respected and among whom I had many friends.” The future George IV made a point of being seen strolling with him in his gardens. But an anonymous correspondent in the General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer spoke for many when he denounced Arnold as a “mean mercenary, who, having adopted a cause for the sake of plunder, quits it when he is convicted of that charge.” Politicians were careful to walk wide of Benedict Arnold. British officers shunned him as untrustworthy. He was attacked in the House of Lords as the living symbol of treason. British officialdom eventually wearied of his ever-escalating demands for further compensation. His offers to “liberate” much of Latin America from Spain and to fight for England against Napoleon too were ignored. His enemies were even denying him the chance to seek a soldier’s death, he told his wife toward the end. He had finally become, as Brandt writes, “nothing but a man whose papers other men mislaid.”

Arnold died on June 14, 1801, of “dropsy and a disease in the lungs,” brought on his widow said by an “agitation of the mind.” She died three years later. Major André rests with other eminent Britons in Westminster Abbey. The Arnolds lie buried in the dark crypt of tiny St. Mary’s Church in the London suburb of Battersea.

Arnold’s only monument in America marked the spot where he fell wounded at Saratoga. The inscription hailed him as “the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army.” But even those who set it up did not dare chisel onto it his name.

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