The purpose of this research is to examine the life of Benedict Arnold with emphasis on his reasons for betraying the revolution.
Arnold is remembered as America’s most infamous traitor. One of the Revolutionary War’s greatest military heroes and field commanders, Arnold defected to the British side and offered to surrender West Point for money in 1780. The plot was discovered, and Arnold escaped, fought with the British Army and eventually went to England to live.
The reasons for Arnold’s defection and betrayal of trust are complex and manifold.
The man who today is remembered in history only as a traitor was born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut. He and his sister Hannah were the only two of their parents’ six children to survive childhood. The original Arnold family was substantial: Benedict’s great-grandfather was President of the Rhode Island Colony and his grandfather a member of the Rhode Island Assembly. His father was a successful shipping merchant who lost his fortune while Benedict was in his teens, and turned to heavy drinking.
”The boys privileged position lasted just long enough to make clear to him, when the family prestige vanished, what he had lost.” During the entire course of his lifetime, Benedict was highly conscious of prestige, class and money.
Benedict was considered a high-spirited, enterprising, ill-behaved boy, performing what were considered anti-social pranks. He received his education between 1747-1754 at schools in Connecticut, excelling in mathematics and Latin. In 1755, he was apprenticed to the Lathrop Brothers, pharmacists in Norwich, with whom he remained until age 21. He became an accomplished apothecary, but turned to the sea and the world of trade when his apprenticeship was over. His shipping business prospered but with the introduction of the Townsend Rules (including Tax Stamps) from Britain, colonial American sea trade suffered.
By the time Arnold married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of Samuel Mansfield, the High Sheriff of New Haven, in 1769, his shipping business as well as all colonial trade was failing as a result of the increased British customs efficiency.
Arnold, like many other colonist traders, was forced to engage in illegal smuggling in order to make profits. But while Arnold’s fortunes were improving, conditions in the colonies were worsening. The repressive British measures were bringing colonial events to their historic climax.
By 1774, Arnold was active in Connecticut’s revolutionary preparations, in charge of drilling a company of volunteers. Arnold was now turning his energies towards rebellion and separation from Britain. At the outbreak of the rebellion, Arnold was elected captain of the New Haven Footguards, one of the two uniformed elements of the Continental Army.
In May of 1775, Arnold was commissioned Colonel by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. Like many other field commanders, Arnold had to use his own money to feed and care for his men. He shared command with Ethan Allen in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, the first notable victory of the War of Independence.
His second campaign, begun in September 1775, was to capture Quebec. Leading 1,100 men Arnold launched his assault on Quebec with Brigadier General Montgomery. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded, but he lay siege to Quebec and was appointed Brigadier General by Congress by April 1776.
In both the above campaigns, Arnold came into conflict with other officers (Allen and Montgomery), as he was to do with their officers in future campaigns. It was an integral part of Arnold’s character that he be the one to lead, to receive the recognition. The individual states were in competition for leadership and the Continental Army was basically in growth stages.
By May, English reinforcements arrived in Canada and Arnold was forced to retreat. Congress, however, had voted him Brigadier General, and in spite of the retreat, Arnold was elated as a result of his promotion, since approval for his actions was important to him. In the same respect, non-recognition received in his later career led to great bitterness on his part and was certainly one of the major reasons for his treason.
Arnold, while in retreat from Canada, engaged in important naval battles on Lake Champlain. In spite of all his valor, however, it was revealed that Arnold had been engaged in profiteering, in plundering merchants while in Montreal. In December 1776, a military inquiry was held at Albany, New York into these charges. The results did not damage Arnold nor did they completely clear him; the war was considered paramount over the inquiry.
It was part of Arnold’s character to attempt to profit from whatever he was engaged in, even a revolution. In February of 1777, an event occurred which is certainly part of the basis for Arnold’s later betrayal of America. As a general, Arnold was called the best rebel leader by the British generals. He was acknowledged by Americans as a hero of the ongoing revolution. Even George Washington, his friend, held Arnold in high esteem for his military leadership and bravery.
Be the established military custom of seniority, Arnold was the next ranking brigadier general to be promoted to major general. On February 19, Congress appointed five new major generals but bypassed Arnold.
Congress has decided that seniority alone was a “dangerous criterion for promotion, since it established an internal army power which . . . thwarted the civilian government.” The legislators in Philadelphia based their promotions on a per state quota and on how many troops each state had sent to the Continental Army.
Washington wrote a letter to Arnold explaining what had happened. Fearful that Arnold would resign his commission, Washington also wrote Congressman Richard Henry Lee requesting Arnold’s promotion:
General Arnold’s non-promotion was owing to
accident or design. . . . Surely a more active,
a more spirited and sensible officer, fills
no department in your army. . . . It is not to
be presumed . . . that he will continue in
service under such a slight.
Arnold answered Washington’s letter with a tone of bitterness and self-righteousness stating that “it is rather a misfortune than a fault that my exertions have not been crowned with success.”
To Major General Horation Gates with whom Arnold led important naval battles on Lake Champlain, he wrote that Congress had disgraced him and he felt the “unmerited injury my countrymen have done me.”
In May, Congress promoted Arnold to major general, but not to seniority in grade. Washington dissuaded Arnold from resigning. Finally, Congress restored him to rank in grade while he was convalescing in a military hospital in Albany.
Most of Arnold’s thoughts during his stay in the hospital were expressed in the indignant letters he wrote and dealt with what he considered injustices heaped upon him. Men like Arnold -mercurial, flamboyant – may become paranoid, and need applause and encouragement; when overlooked or ignored, they stew in agony.
Upon his return to New Haven in May of 1778, Arnold was given a hero’s welcome, which helped soothe his ego. Later that month he reported to Washington at Valley Forge. As a matter of course, he renewed his oath of allegiance to America on May 30.
An alliance with France had been proposed by many Americans: To knowledgeable officers such as Benedict
Arnold, the proposed alliance with France
offered little more than a slim opportunity
for Americans to effect a truce of some kind
during which it was felt France would supplant
England in America, and Arnold, like most other colonials, viewed the French with more antipathy
than the British.
Arnold never felt certain that American would win the revolution, a factor which was to figure in his treason. Philadelphia had been abandoned by the British after a nine month occupancy which left the city corruption-ridden, Washington offered Arnold the military governorship of Pennsylvania with headquarters in Philadelphia, which he accepted, not knowing that Philadelphia’s powerful Executive Council was feuding with Congress. He also did not know that Congress had ordered all Philadelphia businesses closed for one week pending an investigation into conditions there. Using his authority as military governor, Arnold entered into several profitable, secret business transactions with Philadelphia merchants.
Like all Continental officers, Arnold’s military pay was in arrears, and he had never been paid back for his personal funds used for military purposes. This was true of other officers as well. But as we have seen previously, Arnold had questionable ethics regarding profiteering based on his position.
In his new position, Arnold was welcomed into Philadelphia’s upper echelon society. His wife had died in 1775 and the care of his three children were left to his sister Hannah. He now became attracted to nineteen-year-old Peggy Shippen, daughter of Edward Shippen, who, like most men of substance during that time walked a “narrowing path between loyalty and rebellion.” Arnold and Peggy were married in April of 1779.
Shippen had welcomed both British and American officers into his home. Captain John Andre was among the British officers who had become a friend of the Shippens.
Arnold, by the summer of 1778, had become involved in disputes with the Executive Council. That November he applied for a grant of 130,000 cres of land in the Mohawk Valley from the New York legislature. In February of 1779, Arnold went to Albany to negotiate the grant, and in his absence the Executive Council of Pennsylvania published eight charges against him.
Arnold returned to Philadelphia from New York demanding a hearing regarding the charges. Ethically speaking Arnold did not believe he did anything wrong. It was part of Arnold’s character and beliefs to believe in the freedom of the individual from interference by the state:
Arnold was a businessman, one of America’s
earliest capitalists, and any notion that
would deny him the fruits of his investments
and machinations received his scorn. Arnold
the general and soldier fought fiercely for
independence, but Arnold the businessman was
not fighting for a democratic concept in ]
social or economic terms.
The Council had instructed its delegation to Congress to demand the immediate ouster of Arnold but none of the other delegates agreed, and the motion was referred to committee. The committee reported that only four of the charges could be tried by court martial, and that only two of the four were likely to be proven. Arnold petitioned Congress for an immediate court-martial to clear himself and resigned as military commander of Philadelphia.
Washington, under orders from Congress, set May 1, 1779 as the date for the court martial, but the Pennsylvania Council said it needed more time to gather evidence, so the court martial was postponed to June 1, then to July 1.
The delays infuriated Arnold who felt Congress was giving the advantage to the Pennsylvania Council. On May 5, Arnold wrote Washington:
I ask only justice. . . . I have nothing left
but the little reputation I have gained in the
army. Delay . . . is worse than death . . .
During all this time, the war was still on, which also may have been a factor in the court-martial delays. The hearings opened on December 24, 1779, and continued to January 26, 1780. Arnold chose to defend himself.
The court cleared Arnold of all charges but one, the issuance of a safe-conduct pass to the ship “Charming Nancy” which he had permitted to land its goods in American-held territory (and in which ship he later acquired a share in ownership).
The sentence of Congress was that Arnold should receive a reprimand from the commander-in-chief, Washington. Washington wrote the reprimand with regret. But from Arnold’s point of view, as well as his bride’s, Peggy, the reprimand represented “the ultimate disgrace to a brave man.” Arnold felt betrayed, rather than the betrayer.
He also believed the reprimand would adversely effect his chances for getting an important command, which was essential for financial reasons as well as reasons of pride. Arnold’s grievances became more than resentment now; they took the form of action, of revenge.
Arnold, since 1779 and the court-martial postponements, had been sending coded messages to the British bargaining for terms and rewards. He was in treasonable correspondence with Major John Andre, the Shippen’s trusted friend. Andre was the link between Arnold’s contemplation of changing sides, and communication with the British Commander.
By July 1780, after the official reprimand, Arnold had offered to surrender West Point for a fee, if he could obtain command on it. West Point had been turned by Washington into America’s last great arsenal. The control of West Point could very likely decide the outcome of the war.
By 1780, Washington was badly in need of experienced officers. This factor, plus the opportunity for Washington to mitigate his public reprimand of Arnold, led to Washington’s decision to furnish Arnold “with the opportunities for regaining the esteem which you have formerly enjoyed. Preparing for a switch of sides, Arnold attempted to change his property into cash, and also requested back military pay from Connecticut.
Andre finally informed Arnold that the British commander Clinton agreed to Arnold’s delivering West Point to the British. On August 3, 1780, Washington issued the order that “Major General Arnold will take command of the garrison at West Point.”
After the long delay in treason plans, it now seemed certain that the British would receive West Point. Peggy joined her husband, wanting to be present for the surrender.
Arnold and Andre had a secret meeting, one they believed would end their business since the British had decided on their plan to attack West Point. Arnold gave Andre a pass to travel through New York. He was stopped by Americans who, in searching him for money, found papers in his stocking which were incriminating, and Andre was placed under arrest. Apprised of Andre’s capture, Arnold fled to New York. On September 29, a court martial found Andre guilty as a spy and he was hung on October 2, 1780.
In an attempt to vindicate his treason and to win over American soldiers to the British side, Arnold published a proclamation to the Continental Army. By 1781, Arnold was appointed a Brigadier General in the British Army, and was in active duty in Virginia against the Americans. He was also in command of an expedition against New London, Connecticut which led to the massacre at Fort Griswold.
Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781, and on December 15 Arnold sailed to England with Cornwallis. Arnold was given royal grants and pensions by the British but was turned down for active service in the British Army.
The reasons for Arnold’s betrayal stemmed from his early life, his character, his values and ultimately, his disappointment and frustration and bitterness in what he felt was a betrayal of him by his country.
Boylan, Brian Richard. Benedict Arnold, the Dark Eagle. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1973.
Flexner, James Thomas. The Traitor and the Spy. New York:
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1953.
Lengyel, Cornel. Benedict Arnold, The Anatomy of Treason. New
York: Doubleday & Co., 1960.
Paine, Lauren. Benedict Arnold, Hero and Traitor. New York:
Roy Publishers, Inc., 1965.
Lauren Paine, Benedict Arnold, Hero and Traitor (New York: Roy Publishers, Inc., 1965), 14. ↑
James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Boy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1953), 4. ↑
Paine, 22. ↑
Paine, 27. ↑
Cornel Lengyel, Benedict Arnold, the Anatomy of Treason (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960), 215. ↑
Paine, 70. ↑
8Lengyel, 216. ↑
Brian Richard Boylan, Benedict Arnold, the Dark Eagle (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1973), 89. ↑
Boylan, 90. ↑
Ibid., 91. ↑
Flexner, 121. ↑
Boylan, 149. ↑
Paine, 127-128. ↑
Ibid., 129. ↑
Ibid., 131. ↑
Lengyel, 217. ↑
Boylan, 158-159. ↑
Ibid., 159. ↑
Ibid, 160. ↑
Ibid., 161. ↑
Ibid., 162. ↑
Lengyel, 78. ↑
Flexner, 317. ↑
Lengyel, 219. ↑