When I got the prompt this week and read that it was birthdays, I considered writing about shared ancestors with my same birthday – the 21st of September. But then decided to take a different approach and write about what happened on that date in the eighteenth-century that was important in history and directly related to one of my more infamous cousins, Benedict Arnold, most well-known for being a traitor of the American Revolution. I perceive the 21st of September as the “birthdate” of the culmination of his treasonous plans.
Although most Americans at least know his name and that he was a traitor, but many do not know the details of his life, or what led to him committing treason.
Arnold was born into a well-respected family in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1741. He apprenticed with an apothecary and established himself a business in 1762 as a pharmacist and bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut. He was a member of the militia during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Furthermore, he later became a successful trader and joined the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out between Great Britain and its 13 American colonies in 1775. (1)
At the beginning of the war, he was a captain in the Connecticut militia, a few months later he was promoted to colonel. During the war, Benedict Arnold proved himself a brave and skillful leader, helping Ethan Allen’s troops capture Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. His first wife, Margaret Mansfield, died in June 1775. He then participated in the unsuccessful attack on British Quebec later that year, which earned him a promotion to brigadier general. Arnold distinguished himself in campaigns at Lake Champlain, Ridgefield and Saratoga, and gained the support of George Washington. However, Arnold had enemies within the military and in 1777, five men of lesser rank were promoted over him. He also had conflicts with John Brown and James Easton, two lower-level officers with political connections, that resulted in ongoing suggestions of improprieties on his part. Brown was particularly vicious, publishing a handbill which claimed of Arnold, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.” Over the course of the next few years, Arnold married for a second time to Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, and he and his new wife lived a lavish lifestyle in Philadelphia, accumulating substantial debt. The debt and the resentment Arnold felt over not being promoted faster were motivating factors in his choice to become a turncoat. (1 & 2)
Historians have identified many possible factors contributing to Arnold’s treason, while some debate their relative importance. According to W. D. Wetherell, he was:
“[A]mong the hardest human beings to understand in American history. Did he become a traitor because of all the injustice he suffered, real and imagined, at the hands of the Continental Congress and his jealous fellow generals? Because of the constant agony of two battlefield wounds in an already gout-ridden leg? From psychological wounds received in his Connecticut childhood when his alcoholic father squandered the family’s fortunes? Or was it a kind of extreme midlife crisis, swerving from radical political beliefs to reactionary ones, a change accelerated by his marriage to the very young, very pretty, very Tory Peggy Shippen?”W. D. Wetherell, “On The Trail Of Benedict Arnold,” American Heritage 58 #2 April/May 2007
Wetherell says that the shortest explanation for his treason is that he “married the wrong person”. (3)
Arnold had been badly wounded twice in battle and had lost his business in Connecticut, which made him profoundly bitter. He grew resentful of several rival and younger generals who had been promoted ahead of him and given honors which he thought he deserved. Especially galling was a long feud with the civil authorities in Philadelphia which led to his court-martial. He was also convicted of two minor charges of using his authority to make a profit. General Washington gave him a light reprimand, but it merely heightened Arnold’s sense of betrayal; nonetheless, he had already opened negotiations with the British before his court martial even began. (1, 2, 3, & 4)
Early in May 1779, Arnold met with Philadelphia merchant Joseph Stansbury who then “went secretly to New York with a tender of [Arnold’s] services to Sir Henry Clinton.” Stansbury ignored instructions from Arnold to involve no one else in the plot, and he crossed the British lines and went to see Jonathan Odell in New York. Odell was a Loyalist working with William Franklin, the last colonial governor of New Jersey and the son of Benjamin Franklin. On 9 May, Franklin introduced Stansbury to Major André, who had just been named the British spy chief. This was the beginning of a secret correspondence between Arnold and André, sometimes using his wife Peggy as a willing intermediary, which culminated more than a year later with Arnold’s change of sides. (2, 3, & 5)
In 1780, Arnold was given command of West Point, an American fort on the Hudson River in New York (and future home of the U.S. military academy, established in 1802). Arnold contacted Sir Henry Clinton, head of the British forces, and proposed handing over West Point and his men. (1)
It was on September 21st in 1780 that Arnold finally met in person with British Major John Andre and made his traitorous pact. They met on this day to discuss the handing over of West Point to the British, in return for the promise of a large sum of money and a high position in the British army. However, the conspiracy was uncovered, and the plot was foiled. Andre was captured and executed. Arnold, a former American hero, became synonymous with the word “traitor.” He fled to the enemy side and went on to lead British troops in Virginia and Connecticut. (1)
Benedict Arnold attempted to justify his treasonous actions in an open letter titled “To the Inhabitants of America”, published in newspapers in October 1780. (6) He also wrote in the letter to Washington requesting safe passage for Peggy: “Love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.” (7)
He later moved to England, though he never received all of what he’d been promised by the British. He died in London on June 14, 1801. (1)
Letter to the Inhabitants of America by Benedict Arnold October 7, 1780:
“I should forfeit even in my own Opinion, the place I have so long held in yours, if I could be indifferent to your Approbation, and silent on the Motives which have induced me to join the King’s Arms.
A very few words, however, shall suffice upon a Subject so personal, for to the thousands who suffer under the tyranny of the Usurpers in the revolted Provinces, as well as to the great multitude who have long wished for its Subversion, this instance of my Conduct can want no Vindication, as to that class of Men who are Criminally protracting the War from Sinister Views, at the expense of the Public Interest, I prefer their Enmity to their applause. I am only, therefore, Concerned in this address to explain myself to such of my Countrymen as want Abilities or Opportunities to detect the Artifices by which they are duped.
Having fought by your side when the love of our Country animated our Arms, I shall expect from your Justice and Candor, what your deceivers, with more Art and less honesty, will find it inconsistent with their own Views to admit.
When I quitted Domestick happiness for the Perils of the Field, I conceived the rights of my Country in Danger, and that Duty and Honor called me to her Defence-a Redress of Grievances was my only Object and aim; however, I acquiesced in a step which I thought precipitate the Declaration of Independence; to Justify the measure many plausible reasons were urged, which could no longer exist, when Great Britain with the open arms of a Parent offered to embrace us as Children, and grant the wished for redress.
And now that her worst Enemies are in her own bosom, I should change my Principles, If I conspired with their Designs. Yourselves being Judges, was the war the less Just, because Fellow Subjects were considered as our Foes? You have felt the torture in which we raised our arms against a Brother-God Incline the Guilty protractors of these unnatural Dissentions, to resign their Ambition, and Cease from their Delusions, in Compassion to kindred blood.
I anticipate your question: was not the War a defensive one until the French Joined in the Combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, was it not afterwards necessary till the Separation of the British Empire was compleat? By no means; in Contending for the Welfare of my Country, I am free to declare my Opinion, that this End attained, all strife should have ceased.
I lamented therefore the Impolicy, tyranny, and Injustice, which with a Sovereign Contempt of the People of America, studiously neglected to take their Collective Sentiments of the British proposals of Peace, and to negotiate under a suspension of Arms, for an adjustment of differences, as a dangerous Sacrifice of the great Interest of this Country to the Partial Views of a Proud, Antient, and Crafty Foe. I had my suspicions of some imperfections in Our Councils, on Proposals prior to the Parliamentary Commission of 1778; but having then less to do in the Cabinet than the Field (I will not pronounce peremptorily as some may, and perhaps Justly, that Congress have veiled them from the Publick Eye), I continued to be guided in the negligent Confidence of a soldier. But the whole world saw, and all America confessed, the Overtures of the Second Commission exceeded our wishes and expectations. If there was any Suspicion of the National liberality, it arose from its excess.
Do any believe we were at that time really entangled by an Alliance with France? Unfortunate deception! and thus they have been duped by a virtuous Credulity, in the incautious moments of intemperate passion, to give up their fidelity to serve a Nation counting both the will and the power to protect us, and aiming at the Destruction both of the Mother Country and the Provinces. In the Plainess of Common Sense, for I pretend to no Casuistry, did the pretended Treaty with the Court of Versailles amount to more than an Overture to America? Certainly not, because no Authority had been given by the People to conclude it, nor to this very hour have they authorized its ratification-the Articles of Confederation remain still unsigned.
In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private Judgment of any Individual Citizen of this Country is as free from all Conventional Restraints since, as before the Insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain, thinking it infinitely wiser and safer to cast my Confidence upon her Justice and Generosity, than to trust a Monarchy too feeble to establish your Independency, so Perilous to her distant Dominions; the Enemy of the Protestant Faith, and fraudulently avowing an affection for the liberties of mankind, while she holds her Native Sons in Vassalage and Chains.
I affect no disguise, and therefore Frankly declare that in these Principles, I had determined to retain my arms and Command for an opportunity to surrender them to Great Britain, and in concerting the Measures for a purpose, in my Opinion, as grateful as it would have been beneficial to my Country; I was only solicitous to accomplish an event of decisive Importance, and to prevent, as much as possible in the Execution of it, the Effusion of blood.
With the highest satisfaction I bear testimony to my old Fellow Soldiers and Citizens; that I find solid Ground to rely upon the Clemency of our Sovereign, and abundant Conviction that it is the generous Intention of Great Britain, not only to have the Rights and privileges of the Colonies unimpaired, together with their perpetual exemption from taxation, but to superadd such further benefits as may consist with the Common prosperity of the Empire. In short, I fought for much less than the Parent Country is as willing to grant to her Colonies, as they can be to receive or enjoy.
Some may think I continued in the struggle of those unhappy days too long, and others that I quitted it too soon. To the first I reply, that I did not see with their Eyes, nor perhaps had so favorable a situation to look from, and that to one Common Master I am willing to stand or fall. In behalf of the Candid among the latter, some of whom I believe serve blindly but honestly in the Ranks I have left, I pray God to give them all the lights requisite to their Own Safety before it is too late; and with respect to that kind of Censurers whose Enmity to me Originates in their hatred to the Principles, by which I am now led to devote my life to the Reunion of the British Empire, as the best and only means to dry up the streams of misery that have deluged this country, they may be assured that, Conscious of the Rectitude of my Intentions, I shall treat their Malice and Calumnies with Contempt and neglect.
NEW YORK, Oct. 7th, 1780.” (8)
References and Sources:
- Benedict Arnold Commits Treason – HISTORY.com
- Benedict Arnold – Wikipedia
- Randall, Willard Sterne (1990). Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. William Morrow and Inc.
- Sheinkin, Steve (2010). “The Floating Vulture”. The Notorious Benedict Arnold (First ed.). Square Fish.
- Martin, James Kirby (1997). Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero (An American Warrior Reconsidered). New York University Press.
- Carso, Brian F (2006). “Whom Can We Trust Now?”: the Meaning of Treason in the United States, from the Revolution Through the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Arnold, Benedict (25 September 1780). “Letter, Benedict Arnold to George Washington pleading for mercy for his wife”. Library of Congress (George Washington Papers).
- Letter to the Inhabitants of America – Teaching American History
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