Americans' Reactions to Benedict Arnold's Treason

views updated

Americans' Reactions to Benedict Arnold's Treason


"Treason of the blackest dye was …discovered. General Arnold …lost …every sense of honor, of private and public obligation…. "

George Washington

In colonial America, there were many men who were just as eager to get ahead as Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780; see earlier entries in this chapter). For a man like Benedict Arnold (1741–1801), whose father had left him no money, one of the best and fastest ways to get noticed was by advancing through the military ranks. More than a few Revolutionary-era figures first came to national attention in that way, but not many were as famous as Arnold, both before and after his betrayal of his country.

By all accounts, Arnold was an outstanding military leader. He was loved by his men and exhibited tremendous courage and daring in battle. In 1775, he nearly took Quebec (Canada) with the intention of making it a fourteenth colony. That campaign involved a terrible march through the freezing wilderness; at one point his starving men were reduced to eating boiled candles. After that failure, he went on to save America from defeat at the hands of the British on several occasions. He played an important part in the American victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. That victory marked the beginning of the end of British control of the colonies, but it left Arnold with a shattered leg from a bullet wound.

In 1780, General George Washington (1732–1799), who liked and admired Arnold, placed him in command of West Point, New York. By then, Arnold was a bitter man because he was passed up repeatedly for promotion (see sidebar entry on Arnold on p. 208). When British Major John André (1750–1780) approached him about betraying the American cause for money and a high military position in the British army, Arnold agreed to turn over West Point to the British. But André was captured by the Americans and hanged as a spy. Arnold managed to escape. News of his betrayal spread like wildfire.

What follows are various Americans' reactions to the treason of Benedict Arnold. An American officer, Lieutenant John Whiting, comments on the impressions he had of Arnold prior to learning of Arnold's betrayal of his country. General Washington's announcement of Arnold's treason is read by Nathanael Greene (1742–1786), a general in the Continental Army and, later, head of the commission that court-martialed

(tried in court for military offenses) André. An anonymous poet writes an "acrostic"—a poem in which the first letters in each line form a name or message, in this case, Benedict Arnold. And Washington summarizes the events of the Arnold affair.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from Americans' reactions to Benedict Arnold's treason:

  • Before his betrayal (discovered in 1780), Benedict Arnold was a major American hero. After Arnold was wounded in 1777, George Washington named him military governor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recently abandoned by the British. His duties were not heavy. After years of hardship, Arnold was ready to enjoy lighthearted pursuits, especially since he had recently married Peggy Shippen, a beautiful, lively, young woman, who came from a wealthy family.
  • The Arnolds had a reputation for their love of luxury and Philadelphia society; they were living far beyond their means. Meanwhile, support for the American cause was fading; the war seemed to drag on and on, and people were tired of it.

Comments of Lieutenant John Whiting on Arnold's treason

Many Persons say they were not deceived in Genl. Arnold: I confess I had a good opinion of him as an Officer in the Field, but everthought him to be ambitious and possest of a great degree of avarice and luxury. Some imagine his profuse manner of living had so involved him in debt that poverty urged him to it. Enough upon so perfidious a person. Leave him to his fate and admire the Man who bears to be honest in the worst of times. (Morpurgo, p. 171)

General George Washington's announcement to the Continental Army of Arnold's treason

Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered. General Arnold, who commanded at West Point, lost to every sense of honor, of private and public obligation, was about to deliver up that impor tant post into the hands of the enemy. Such an event must have given the American cause a dangerous, if not a fatal wound; but the treason has been timely discovered, to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it affords the most convincing proof that the liberties of America are the object of Divine protection. At the same time that the treason is to be regret ted, the general cannot help congratulating the army on the happy discovery. Our enemies, despairing of carrying their point by force, are practicing every base art to effect by bribery and corruption what they cannot accomplish in a manly way. Great honor is due to the American army that this is the first instance of treason of the kind, where many were to be expected from the nature of the dispute. The brightest ornament in the character of the American soldiers is their having been proof against all the arts and seductions of an insidious enemy. Arnold has made his escape to the enemy, but Major André …who came out as a spy, is our prisoner. (Wheeler, p. 352)

"An Acrostic—On Arnold"

Born for a curse to virtue and Mankind,
Earth's broadest realms can't show so black a mind.
Night's sable veil your crimes can never hide,
Each one's so great—they glut the historic tide.
Defunct —your memory will live.
In all the glares that infamy can give.
Curses of ages will attend your name.
Traitors alone will glory in your shame.
Almighty justice sternly waits to roll
Rivers of sulphur on your traitorous soul.
Nature looks back, with conscious error sad,
On such a tainted blot that she has made,
Let Hell receive you rivetted in chains,
Damn'd to the hottest of its flames." (Martin, p. 9)

Closing lines of George Washington's summary of the treason story

André has met his fate …with that fortitude which was to be expected from an accomplished man and a gallant officer. But I [doubt] if Arnold is suffering …the torments of a mental hell. He [lacks] feeling. From some traits of his character which have lately come to my knowledge, he seems to have been so hacknied in crime, so lost to all sense of honor and shame, that while his faculties still enable him to continue his sordid pursuits, there will be no time for remorse. (American Journey[CD-ROM])

What happened next …

The shock to the public at the news of Arnold's treason was enormous. The popular cry became: "Treason! Treason! Treason! Black as Hell." Arnold's scheme to deliver a deadly blow to the cause of American independence was a failure. People agreed that Arnold had failed because God was on the American side, and support for the cause was rekindled.

Arnold fled down the Hudson River and into the arms of the British. He was supposed to assume a position of command, but British soldiers refused to serve under him. They had all liked and respected the hanged Major André, but they considered Arnold a man without honor and they never completely trusted him. After the war ended, Arnold moved to London, England, where he was booed in public. The shipping industry he started failed, and he died in 1801, his suffering made worse by the terrible pain in his twice-wounded leg.

Did you know …

  • In 1997, Art Cohn, director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont, was using sonar equipment to scan Vermont's Lake Champlain when he made a discovery he had long hoped for: a Revolutionary War gunboat that was part of a fleet commanded by Benedict Arnold before he committed treason against his country. The gunboat was sitting upright at the bottom of Lake Champlain. It had been astonishingly well-preserved by the cold, deep water for 220 years. Cohn said that when he went down on the first dive to the ship, "There was a voice screaming in my head, 'Oh my God, this is the gunboat! Benedict Arnold probably walked on this deck!'"

Where to Learn More

Brandt, Claire. The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold. New York: Random House, 1994.

"Divers Discover Gunboat of Benedict Arnold." [Online] (accessed on April 7, 2000).

Fritz, Jean. Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1997.

King, David C. Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1998.

Martin, James Kirby. Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Morpurgo, J. E. Treason at West Point: The Arnold-André Conspiracy. New York: Mason/Charter, 1975.

"Planning Underway for Future of Newly Discovered Revolutionary War Gunboat." Lake Champlain Maritime Museum home page. [Online] (accessed on April 7, 2000).

Randall, Willard Sterne. Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Wheeler, Richard. Voices of 1776. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972.

Benedict Arnold: American Traitor

Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut, to a well-to-do merchant father, Benedict Arnold IV, and a wealthy widow, Hannah Waterman King. The Arnold family had a long and celebrated history in America; for instance, an earlier Benedict Arnold had served as governor of Rhode Island. But Benedict IV lost the family fortune and turned to drink, and young Arnold saw his dreams of higher education and a position in society turn to dust. At age fourteen, he left his comfortable home to go to a relative and learn to be a druggist. His mother died in 1759, and his father passed away two years later. By then, the elder Arnold's drinking had become a source of shame for Arnold and his sister Hannah, his only sibling. Their relatives and neighbors shunned them.

Arnold set up his own drugstore in 1761, and he supplemented his income by smuggling goods from the West Indies. In 1767, he married Margaret Mansfield, who bore him three sons in five years before she died at the age of thirty in 1776. At the time, Arnold was leading a failed march against Quebec in the early stages of the Revolution. To his personal tragedy was added the anger he felt when Congress refused to promote him to major general in 1777. In the next two years, five other soldiers were promoted to major general ahead of him, and Arnold's bitterness against Congress grew.

Arnold continued to receive public praise for his military exploits, but it never

seemed to be enough to satisfy him. He became convinced that corrupt politicians were denying him the honors he deserved. By the time he was approached by the British in 1780 about coming over to their side, he had a much younger wife (Peggy Shippen) to support. He also seemed to have concluded that the new nation was being run so poorly that it might as well be run by the British. These are some of the reasons historians have given for Arnold's decision to change sides. For years he expressed his loyalty to the American cause and proved it by giving up his business and risking his life. At some point, though, he changed his mind about the rightness of that cause, and his name has come to be a synonym for treason.

About this article

Americans' Reactions to Benedict Arnold's Treason

Updated About content Print Article