Historically Speaking: Fear drove Arnold’s treason
Historically Speaking: Fear drove Arnold’s treason
Benedict Arnold’s name will always live in infamy. The Norwich native has cemented himself as America’s most infamous traitor, and for generations historians have debated what exactly led to his unforgivable downfall.
Historians and authors including James Kirby Martin, Nathaniel Philbrick, Joyce Lee Malcolm, and more have researched and uncovered almost every known aspect of Arnold’s life and the events that led to his treason, which have added incredibly deep layers to his life’s story. There have also been plenty of unsubstantiated rumors and outright fabrications about Arnold’s life that originated almost immediately following his treason.
One of the more extreme claims stated that Arnold engaged in wanton animal cruelty as a young child and that similar instances defined his life as a soulless sociopath; in short, there is no evidence to support these claims.
What is evident, though, is the amount of trials and tribulations that defined Arnold’s life as a young man. These ordeals, both professional and personal, had a profound impact on the choices he made and how he developed into adulthood.
The one common denominator that always emerges throughout each stage of his life is the one that directly contributed to his decision to betray his nation: fear.
As a boy, Arnold had much to fear, just like any of his peers growing up in the 1740-1750s. The biggest fear was one’s mortality – young Arnold had the tragic misfortune of watching three of his younger siblings succumb to disease, which took a devastating toll on the Arnold family’s morale. His father, Captain Benedict Arnold, turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, while his mother Hannah Waterman Arnold suffered greatly from bouts of depression.
The family’s finances and standing in the community never recovered, and Benedict was ultimately forced out of school as there was no more money left, and his mother’s dream of providing him with a gentleman’s education was officially over. The amount of public shame that came with the family’s tragedies was nothing short of overwhelming.
His mother passed away in 1759 followed by his father in 1761. When Arnold moved to New Haven with his sister Hannah in 1762, he never forgot the shame and ridicule that plagued his family’s image, and he stood determined to restore honor to his name.
Arnold excelled in New Haven as a prominent businessman. Armed with the knowledge and know-how imparted to him by his apprenticeship with his mother’s cousins, Dr. Daniel and Joshua Lathrop, he set up his own store just a short walk from the campus of Yale College.
Though he never would attend Yale as a student, he no doubt enjoyed reaping profits off students and others alike. The fear hidden in Arnold’s mind never quite subsided, and the by the outbreak of the American Revolution, he was determined to prove himself in a new way – by taking command in the Continental Army to defeat the invading British forces.
Though naturally talented as a commander and strategist, Arnold had several character weaknesses that caused him to earn many enemies early on in the war effort. He was impetuous, hot-headed, and lacked any diplomatic charisma, which led to early conflicts with Ethan Allen and his counterparts including John Brown, Moses Hazen, and James Easton.
John Brown’s attacks were particularly scathing and resulted in a court-martial for Arnold. What Arnold learned very early on in the war was that politics and bureaucracy were no friends to self-starters like him.
Though a decorated hero, Arnold’s stubbornness and unorthodox methods earned the ire of Congress and fellow commanders; he and other senior commanders were infamously passed over for promotion to Major General in 1777. Yet it wasn’t until after the Battle of Saratoga, and his appointment to become military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, that his integrity really began to unravel.
Washington had every best intention of appointing Arnold to this position in Philadelphia, but the decision was a grave mistake. Arnold’s reputation had preceded him, and Pennsylvania’s Executive Council headed by Joseph Reed had no intention of cooperating with Arnold, who they essentially regarded as an interloper.
Arnold’s orders were clear that he was to keep the peace as the city transitioned back to American control after the British evacuated the city earlier in June 1778, but Joseph Reed and his cohorts were more interested in revenge against any remaining Tories within the city. This type of rule stood in stark contrast to Arnold’s mandate of protecting the rights of the citizens.
Seeing him as a threat to their agenda, Reed and the Executive Council levied several criminal charges against Arnold in February 1779. The bulk of the trouble lay with an incident in which Arnold used government-owned wagons to transport goods from Egg Harbor in exchange for protecting merchant vessels that were attacked by British ships. For his efforts, Arnold stipulated that he personally would receive a share of the proceeds from the sale of the goods.
This was one of many unorthodox and unethical business transactions that he was known for.
Aside from his political rivalries, money was indeed the bane of Arnold’s existence. Though an experienced businessman, he lacked proper accounting skills, and spent lavishly on a lifestyle far beyond his means.
His marriage to Peggy Shippen, the most eligible and elegant maiden of Philadelphia, certainly didn’t help either. His self-conscious desire to please his new wife and protect his image as a noble and well-healed gentleman came at too great an expense.
His tenure in Philadelphia ended in disaster as the Executive Council delayed his court martial and trial until January 1780. Desperate, Arnold wrote to General Washington where he famously stated, “Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen."
Washington was one of few men who genuinely believed in Arnold’s good faith and in many ways acted as a father figure to him. When Washington formally reprimanded him in the aftermath of his trial, it was as if Arnold lost the only ally he had left.
As Arnold agonized, watching the walls close in around him, the political state of Philadelphia further deteriorated, which caused him to question the true integrity of the Revolution and the motivations of those who claimed to be fighting for it. Arnold was not exactly alone as Philadelphia radicals, enabled by the Executive Council, deliberately targeted known Tories and moderates without regard to an individual’s rights and freedoms.
Unfortunately for Arnold, his fear and growing anxiety ultimately got the best of him. He made his choice purely for self-preservation; the promise of a tidy sum, commission in the British Army, and a clear goal of bringing peace and stability back to the Colonies was reason enough.
But no matter what “good” intentions he may have had in wanting to bring the war to an end, his decision was made out of fear, and he chose wrongly. Arnold’s story came to life Sept. 17 at the Leffingwell House Museum’s event “Benedict Arnold Returns.”
Dayne Rugh is director of the Slater Memorial Museum and president of the Society of the Founders of Norwich.