Benedict Arnold: Hero to Villain
Benedict Arnold is a case study of the ways in which ideas about regionalism, social rank, and gender–and the realities of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army–played out in the Revolutionary period. Like many Americans during this time, Benedict Arnold thought that he could improve his social rank and reputation in the military, but he was unable to advance due to the Continental Congress’s policy on military promotions. Frustrated and facing mounting personal debts, he decided to aid the British in exchange for a reward. Arnold and his wife Peggy developed a plan for Arnold to smuggle American military plans to the British with the help of a young British soldier named John André. However, André was captured while smuggling Arnold’s papers and the plot quickly unraveled. In the end, Arnold fled; his wife played upon conventional stereotypes of women to avoid punishment; and André was executed but idealized in the process.
Lecture by Dr. Joanne Freeman / 03.02.2010
Professor of History and American Studies
Introduction: Complications within the Continental Congress
The Continental Congress had problems in dealing with the Continental Army, and these problems hinted at larger problems with unity between the newly created American states.
Regionalism complicated the task of organizing the Continental Army, for example things like considering how to balance positions of military command between Northerners and Southerners, or getting units from one region of the country to deal with units from another region of the country, or getting soldiers from different regions as well as individual soldiers to agree to sacrifice for the common good throughout the entire confederation of states instead of thinking about their own state or their own locality above all else.
There was also the problem of localism – a localized view of the world, or certainly a localized view of the new states, and how it worked against centralized control. So localities of all sorts had difficulty surrendering local control to some kind of a central organization like the Continental Congress, which obviously had to equip the army, and thus that raised all kinds of other complications and problems. Each state wanted to maintain control, for example, of its own militia.
Many people who would end up being strong nationalists in the 1780s and in the 1790s — people who were going to end up being at the forefront of the movement to strengthen the Articles of Confederation — many of these people gained their political beliefs and the need for some kind of a stronger centralized national government from their experiences during the Revolution, from their experiences with what often felt like what Alexander Hamilton called an imbecilic centralized government. That was his word that he applied to the Continental Congress, “imbecilic.”
So basically, looking at the army and then looking at Congress, we see regionalism and localism both working against centralized control and coordination. We see a lack of precedent for centralized governance of this kind, which led to some confusion. And certainly that made it possible for any important decision that had to do with centralized power having seemingly enough importance to make it earth-shaking — and thus seemingly trivial things ended up seeming to have huge importance because they might set a precedent, again all of this working against effectiveness.
So all of these things complicated the creation not just of a Continental Army, but also of first, colonial unity, and then American unity and — as we’re going to see in weeks to come — ultimately constitutional unity. And we’re going to see this sort of concern and confusion and these complications of centralized power will come up again and again when they get to the Articles of Confederation and people really debating about what’s the best form of government for these new states to unite under.
As I said, there were some complications inherent in how the Continental Congress handled the Continental Army. We’re going to see a very specific example of that. We’re going to see regionalism making trouble in the Continental Army. We’re going to see how serving in the army affected — in the case of today’s lecture — several people’s lives in a really direct way. And then on a broader scale, by looking at this one story — which is intertwined with the actions of the Continental Army and what it meant to this handful of lives — we’re also going to see some broader truths about American society at the time. So we’re going to see for example how the army was an outlet for personal ambition, how people maybe tried to use service in the army as a way to promote themselves, something that I’ve mentioned before. We’re going to see how living at a time of war opened paths for people that might not otherwise have existed. We’re going to see the sometimes slippery status of women during a time of war, and we’re going to see how many Americans still revered some British cultural ideals even in the midst of war against Britain.
And the story that I’m going to use, the sort of case study that’s going to help us delve into all of these things, is the story of Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen Arnold, and John André. All three of these people, in one way or another, attempted to use the war and its armies to make, or I guess maybe more accurately to unmake, themselves and their reputations. In one way or another, all of them were trying to better themselves through the opportunities of warfare.
Opportunities for Social Mobility in the American Revolution
Left: Portrait of Dr. Joseph Warren, an American physician who played a leading role in American Patriot organizations in Boston in the early days of the American Revolution, by John Singleton Copley, c.1765 / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Right: Portrait of Patrick Henry, an American attorney, planter and politician who became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia, by Thomas Sully / United States Senate
Now before we launch into that case study, I just want to talk for a moment about why warfare created such opportunities for potentially raising a person’s social status, and thus why some people were actually eager for war. Now in some of the early lectures for this course, I discussed social status in the colonies and I talked a little bit about how society in the colonies, while it certainly did have an elite sort of gentlemanly rank of people, that overall American society tended to be more middling than English society, which did have an entrenched aristocratic class. In America, if you wanted to have gentlemanly status — and in a sense it was more difficult to be born into it in the way that you could have in a European nation — there were actually a limited number of pathways that were open to you to achieve that kind of a status.
Basically, there were a handful of professions that were assumed in this period to be gentlemanly. These included medicine, the law, the ministry, the church, perhaps being a merchant that was wealthy enough that you didn’t seem to be grubbing for money — that you seemed to be living happily off of your vast sums of money, maybe someone who owned a really sizable plantation, or serving as an officer in an army. And I was sort of unsure what to do with college professors, near and dear to my heart. I decided I would not officially put them on the list, although many college professors in this period would have been in the clergy, certainly some of them would have been lawyers, so I think they would have generally fallen into the gentlemanly ranks, but I’m being unbiased here so I’m leaving college professors over here somewhere.
Okay. So of all of those positions that I’ve just named, being a military officer, serving as an officer during — in an army but particularly during a time of war, offered the greatest chance for instant glory, instant status, instant rank through bravery and displays of valor on the battlefield. For the very ambitious or for people who had a problematic social rank for one reason or another, a war could be a great opportunity for you to improve your place in the world, particularly in a place like America.
And one extreme example of this is actually Alexander Hamilton, who was born illegitimate in the West Indies — and it’s really clear from the absolute first letter of his that we know of, which was written when he was fourteen years old, that he absolutely thought that his only ticket off of the island of St. Croix was through military glory in a war. That was really the way that he saw that he was going to make something of himself, get himself off of St. Croix, earn a name, get status, get reputation, and start the process of making something of himself in the world. So as he says in this letter, and it’s written when he’s fourteen, “my Ambition is prevalent. … I wish there was a War.” Okay. [laughs] As a historian, you’re so happy — again, I said this before — when your historical subjects say the thing you want them to say that you can then quote forever after. ‘Hi. I am ambitious and I want a war so I can promote myself.’ Thank you, Alexander Hamilton, very much.
Okay. Now in a sense Hamilton was extreme, because he was very underprivileged, he was extremely ambitious and very determined, but in a sense his entire generation of young men saw the Revolution as a chance for glory, status, rank, self-promotion. And I talked about a similar idea last week when I mentioned that there were a number of Europeans who came to America during the Revolution, sometimes because they figured that they could probably impress Americans, or certainly impress the Continental Congress with their experience in formal European warfare, and then they could get a position as an officer easier than they might have been able to obtain it or purchase it back home, and — so that there were a number of Europeans coming to this country for that purpose.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull, 1806 / Washington University Law School
And I mentioned at the time that actually Hamilton, trying to do something really similar, said that watching these Europeans come and get promoted by the Congress above his head gave him what he called “pigmy-feelings,” made him feel really puny, really small in comparison with these sort of grand Europeans coming and sort of getting everything that he wanted and he wasn’t getting because he was just a puny, little American. So in a sense, in a world where there were a limited number of pathways to gentlemanly status, serving as an officer during a time of war could be kind of an escalator of rank, offering the chance to get ahead at a rapid pace. So being an officer in the Continental Army could have seemed particularly attractive to highly ambitious men who were looking for some kind of a big chance, and Benedict Arnold was one of those men.
Now I think when most Americans think about the American Revolution — And I remember I started out this course sort of talking about the same idea. I assumed that maybe people know Washington led the army, that Paul Revere rode around on a horse saying something about the British, that Jefferson had something to do with the Declaration of Independence, and I’ll add to that list, most people know Benedict Arnold was a traitor. They don’t know why, they don’t know how, but you assume the name Benedict Arnold goes along with the word “traitor.”
John Adams was pretty much right on the money when he predicted how future generations were going to see the American Revolution, and it’s right in line with what I just said. And he actually wrote in 1790 to Benjamin Rush, “The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. [laughter] That Franklin electrified [correction: electrized] him with his Rod — [laughs] and henceforth these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.” Okay. So Adams is actually probably coming pretty close to reality. People are going to look back and they’re going to say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Franklin, Washington, and the war. That was the Revolution.’
Now I always — I knew that quote. I’ve known it for a long time. I love that quote, which is why I found a reason to sort of wind it into today’s lecture, but when I went back to look it up today, for the first time I actually read the whole letter that it comes from. And I found another sentence which I actually hadn’t focused on before, and it made me so happy that I offer it to you, even though it isn’t directly related to the point I’m making, but I kind of couldn’t believe he wrote it in his letter. So he offers that quote and then he adds and says, “If this Letter should be preserved and read an hundred years hence — “. Okay. First of all, I love the fact that that comes up in his mind. Well, a hundred years from now when people are reading my letter, “if this letter should be preserved and read an hundred years hence, the Reader will say, ‘the envy of this J[ohn] A[dams] [He] could not bear to think of the Truth!'”
So in other words, a hundred years from now if people read this letter they’re going to say, ‘Yeah. Well, the fact is Adams knew he wouldn’t be remembered. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered anyway.’ So it’s like first there’s the letter where he’s like: ‘oh, no one’s going to know the truth about the Revolution and they’re never going to give me any credit. [laughter] I love the weird self-awareness of John Adams. I just — I couldn’t believe that he added that into the letter. So anyway, I think he certainly knew what he was talking about when he talked about the weird, general sort of hero-way in which people were going to be thinking about the American Revolution.
Benedict Arnold’s Early Frustrating Military Career
Engraving of Arnold, by H.B. Hall, after John Trumbull / National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland
So many Americans know certainly Benedict Arnold equals traitor. But his story is a lot more complex than that, and it’s mixed in with these other two stories, that of Peggy Shippen, who eventually becomes his wife, and John André who is a young British officer. Now Arnold started out life in many ways a sort of typical member of a modest, respectable family, and at the opening of the American Revolution he was a book-seller and a pharmacist, or what they would have called a druggist, in New Haven, Connecticut. So he’s a local boy, Benedict Arnold. He was struggling to better himself. How many of you knew actually that Benedict Arnold was a local guy? A couple people did. That was another one of those things that — I never know when I say something about New Haven. Is it like, ‘We all know this about New Haven, Professor Freeman. You are the clueless person.’ [laughter]
So anyway, he was a local boy. So book-seller, druggist, New Haven local boy struggling to better himself, and part of the way in which he’s struggling to better himself is to certainly display himself to the world as someone who’s really up and coming. So among the things that he was doing was, he apparently was building an enormous mansion for himself on Water Street, wearing very expensive clothing, taking big risks in business to try and get himself ahead quickly. He was also a captain in the local New Haven militia and so he was really active drilling at the opening of the war.
Now when gunplay broke out at Lexington and Concord, the New Haven town meeting apparently decided that they wanted to maintain neutrality, which in and of itself was kind of interesting. Right? ‘Uh oh. Something bad’s happening. I think for now we want to be neutral.’ Connecticut’s always a very conservative place so this is yet another conservative moment in Connecticut’s history. So they form a committee — The town meeting forms a committee to preserve neutrality in New Haven. Arnold was not really excited about this concept of neutrality, so apparently he stormed in to this neutrality committee, demanded the keys to the ammunition shed, and when his superior in the Connecticut militia told him the town had legally voted for neutrality, Arnold threatened to break down the ammunition shed door with his men if they didn’t hand over the keys so he could get ammunition and take his men and do something. And the committee released the keys and Arnold took them and armed his men, and ultimately he and his militia unit joined the Continental Army in Massachusetts.
So this is someone who clearly is eager to fight. Right? He sort of forced his way in. So he ends up in Massachusetts with his men. He’s soon promoted to be a colonel by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, which assigned him to be part of a group that was going to go help capture Fort Ticonderoga and he was — Arnold was part of that successful effort in May of 1775. And by October of 1776, he was a brigadier general.
Now at this point the very hierarchical system of military rank that Arnold was using to try and raise himself in the world began to work against him, because a number of his equals were promoted to major general, but Arnold wasn’t. And as I’m going to explain in a moment, the reason why he didn’t get a promotion has more to do with things like regionalism and fear of centralized authority than it actually does have anything to do with Arnold specifically.
So basically, many of the more radical members of the Continental Congress at this time were afraid that if everyone was promoted in the Continental Army just according to seniority of rank that the army would get detached from the legislature and then it would be seniority and not Congress that would be determining promotions, so Congress might end up being powerless over the army. And so the result that they feared would be maybe a military dictatorship, an aristocracy based on high military rank — that somehow or other, if the army had control of promotion everything was going to spin out of control and Congress would have no power.
So, afraid of this, Congress debated and ultimately decided that officers should be appointed not just according to seniority, but almost more important, on the basis of balancing out the numbers of officers from different states. Okay. So they figure we’re going to have regional balance. We’re going to maintain control of the promotion process and maintain regional balance in the numbers of officers. So essentially in the interest of preserving a national confederation of some kind, regional balance in the military was given priority.
As Washington — George Washington explained to Arnold when Arnold was denied his promotion, “as Connecticut had already two major-generals, it was their full share.” Okay. That’s got to be really sour grapes, like ‘What? [laughs] Connecticut doesn’t deserve any more major generals so I don’t get a promotion?’ “I confess this is a strange mode of reasoning; but it may serve to show you, that the promotion, that was due to your seniority, was not overlooked for want of merit in you.” So he’s trying to make Arnold feel better. ‘Well, you actually — I know you deserved it but I’m sorry. You really can’t have it, because Connecticut doesn’t get any more for a while.’
Okay. Arnold did not get his promotion, did not get it for want of merit. This did not make him happy. Washington’s trying to explain that there are larger principles at play, principles that show how fearful people were of centralized power in any form, and in this case they’re afraid of some kind of powerful standing army, and they’re using regional balance as a priority to sort of balance out fears of centralized power wherever they’re afraid it’s going to crop up.
As one congressman wrote at the time, Arnold’s promotion was blocked because it raised, quote, “a question of monarchical or republican principles at a most crucial time.” So you could see even this one guy’s promotion is being tied into these much larger fears and ideas. Congress felt compelled to establish its promotion policy based on fears of an independent standing army that might take power for itself. They’re trying to keep control of military promotion — so here you see fear of a standing army, fear of centralized power and regionalism all stirred up and all at play in full force.
Portrait of Henry Laurens, an American merchant and rice planter from South Carolina who became a political leader during the Revolutionary War, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1784 / Library of Congress
Now luckily for Arnold at this point, there was a military action in Connecticut. Arnold proved himself militarily — yet again he ends up getting promoted to major general — but now his rank is beneath those who had been his equals before. Right? They had been promoted ahead of him so they still have seniority over him. Arnold really wants equal rank, equal seniority with the men he had formerly been equal to. He also felt that Congress owed him money because he had been using his personal funds to supply his troops, and obviously he’s already living well beyond his means, so this question of whether or not he’s actually owed money by Congress and whether or not Congress is actually going to pay him back — for him, that’s a serious question.
The more that Arnold demanded that he be promoted to the level of his former equals, the stronger Congress dug in its heels and refused to comply, so that the whole idea clearly is becoming now a matter of principle in which the honor and authority of the Continental Congress is at stake now in addition to whatever larger issues are at play. And this might sound a little familiar if you think back to some of the logic deployed by the British Parliament as problems were growing out of questions of taxation. In addition to all of the larger problems and concerns mixed up in that question, part of what was at play was that Parliament ultimately, at some point down the road of that controversy, didn’t want to lose face by seeming to surrender the issue to its colonies.
So the honor of Parliament is involved in that issue, here the honor of the Continental Congress. They feel like that’s at issue and they can’t just back down because Arnold is being really persistent about what he wants. As South Carolina Congressman Henry Laurens put it at the time, his colleagues’ behavior in Congress was, quote, “disgusting.” Arnold was refused “not because he was deficient in merit or that his demand was not well founded but because he asked for it & that granting at such insistence would be derogatory to the honour of Congress.” Now that’s Laurens’ point of view.
Another congressman with different politics and another point of view came up with a whole different way of looking at this whole controversy — drew very different conclusions — and said that denying Arnold his promotion was a triumph of republican principles. Military rank would stay in control of the legislature; the army wouldn’t become independent and aristocratic. So you can see even again something that is seemingly not that important, which is the promotion of one guy, stirs up all of these larger issues for all kinds of people in different ways. People aren’t even united about what it means.
Arnold’s Marriage with Peggy Shippen and Plans for Spying
Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Daniel Gardner, c.1785 / Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Philadelphia
Now it was at roughly this moment — when Arnold is frustrated — he wants promotion — he doesn’t see a way to get it — he keeps getting turned down — he feels like he’s owed money in some way — he just feels basically stymied in every way — his reputation now he also feels is being attacked simply because he’s asking for promotion — this is roughly the time when he met Peggy Shippen, who was the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Philadelphia.
Now the Shippens, along with any number of Philadelphia’s other sort of best families, mingled freely with British officers when the British were in occupation of Philadelphia — when the British were not there, mingled freely with American officers. When the British had possession of Philadelphia apparently there were elaborate dances and great sorts of theatrical productions. It was a grand social scene when the British were there. When the British were not there, Americans also had entertainments. They weren’t quite as extravagant, but still enough to encourage the participation of all of the best families of Philadelphia. Peggy Shippen was certainly in the midst of all of this socializing, enjoying whatever socializing was going on with whatever group, and apparently she was very popular. She was sort of the literal belle of the ball, one of the more attractive and noteworthy young women in Philadelphia’s social scene at that time.
Now this suggests a few things about Peggy Shippen, one or two of which are significant for our story here. For one obvious thing, it suggests that she certainly was dressed at the height of fashion, that she was skilled at flirtation, that she was aggressive in social circles, but what that adds up to as far as our story is concerned, is that she was displaying ambition on one of the few stages where women could display open ambition, and that’s social events, social functions, in a sense the private world. But certainly on the social stage, that’s a place where women could successfully display and exercise ambition, and it certainly suggests that Peggy Shippen was perfectly comfortable doing that on the social scene of Philadelphia.
So Peggy married Benedict Arnold in April of 1779. He already was someone who was spending extravagantly. This just encouraged him to increase his spending, because now he had a wife to spend on, in addition to whatever he was spending on himself. And it was shortly after his marriage, when he still remained frustrated in his military hopes, his expenses are rising and rising all the time, this is the moment where he began to ponder the possibility of aiding the British. And apparently in his mind he justified his actions by assuming the British were inevitably going to win anyway, that the British — that the likelihood that the colonies were going to be victorious against the empire, in his mind, is unlikely. So given that the British are inevitably going to win, his helping them win the war is going to end bloodshed as quickly as possible, so he’s doing a good thing by somehow helping the British. Now clearly that’s a sort of self-serving way of looking at it. He has other motives too, but that was part of his logic.
So in May of 1779, he and Peggy decided to ask a local man in Philadelphia who they knew had Loyalist sympathies and who was a poet to act as a go-between with the British so they could at least open a conversation with them. And this man, whose name was Joseph Stansbury, later described Arnold’s invitation. He described what Arnold said to him at this moment:
“General Arnold sent for me and, after some general conversation, opened his political sentiments respecting the war carrying on between Great Britain and America, declaring his abhorrence of a separation of the latter from the former as a measure that would be ruinous to both. General Arnold then communicated to me, under a solemn obligation of secrecy, his intention of offering his services to the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in any way that would most effectually restore the former government and destroy the [then] usurped authority of Congress, either by immediately joining the British Army or cooperating on some concerted plan with Sir Henry Clinton” – who is the British commander-in-chief.
Portrait of John André / London Tower
Now the person who ultimately ended up facilitating communication between Arnold and Sir Henry Clinton was a young British officer named Major John André, who was a sort of favorite of Henry Clinton, was sort of his right-hand man. Apparently, Peggy Shippen knew him. They had met when the British had been in Philadelphia, and in fact they’d been a little bit flirtatious when the British were in Philadelphia, so they knew each other.
To most people who knew André — and as we’re going to see later on in this story, particularly to Americans — André was the very ideal of a gentleman. He was charming. He was well educated. He wrote poetry. He wrote plays. He was flirtatious. He drew portraits to amuse the ladies and his fellow officers. He’s supposedly very good-looking. So basically in a sense, André is sort of this gentlemanly ideal, and then he’s also this gallant soldier, so you add it all up and it’s just a package of sort of “ideal gentleman.”
Like Arnold, André had used the army as a way to better his station, although his station was already somewhat elevated. So André’s father was a wealthy merchant. André thought that trade was a little bit disreputable so he decided that the army was a better way for him to advance himself, exercise his ambition, and achieve fame and glory, again not that unlike Arnold.
So André ends up being at the center of Arnold’s plans with the British, and basically the plan was the Arnolds would send messages to the British, but they would be written by Peggy Arnold and then sent to André through Joseph Stansbury who would pick up the letters and deliver them, crossing back and forth between American and British lines, and then André could go on and speak to Henry Clinton himself.
Now Stansbury, hoping to make things a little less risky for himself, got another poet that he knew behind British lines to carry the messages from his hand to André’s hand. So Benedict Arnold’s negotiations with the British would be written out by Peggy; she’d give her letters to Stansbury; Stansbury would give them to another poet; the poet would give them to André; André would take them to Clinton.
Okay. That’s a long chain of people, but what’s really interesting about that chain of people is that when you think of the pieces and the assumptions underlying the pieces, it revealed a lot about society and some of its assumptions at the time. It was actually André who suggested that the letters should at least seem to be written by Peggy Arnold and addressed to André, because André knew that something written by a woman would never be assumed to have anything to do with politics or war.
A letter from a woman is going to assume to be private and personal. Women were basically a nonentity in public life, they didn’t exist as public figures, so, as André explained in a note to the Arnolds, “The Lady [meaning Peggy] might write to me. . . This will come by a flag of truce, every messenger remaining ignorant of what they are charged with.” These will seem like private letters. They can kind of write in code. It’ll come from a woman. No one will know what they are, and under a flag of truce, messengers will help deliver these messages and no one will know what they are, because they’re written by a woman. So their letters to each other could seem to talk about things like parties and dances and what André termed “other nonsense.” Right? They can pretend to be talking about whatever they’re talking about but they’re going to actually send coded messages. And these letters would be passed through both the American and British lines because they would supposedly have nothing to do with the war, because they were from or to a woman. Okay. So part of this whole plan of espionage is built around the simple fact that women were invisible in public life, so they were very useful agents of espionage.
It’s also interesting to note that both the Arnolds’ chosen messenger, Stansbury, and Stanbury — Stansbury’s chosen messenger to André, both of them were poets, and in a sense poets were also people who would not necessarily be assumed to be centrally involved with fighting a war. It could have been quite natural for American and British men of letters to chat, to meet, to correspond. Cultural bonds — for example an interest in the art of poetry — could easily cross political boundaries, and André himself was a poet of sorts, so that too showed something interesting about society at the time: this assumption that common cultural bonds between American and British men of letters and literature could be assumed to be above politics and war, above national bonds enough that it might help them pass back and forth between American and British lines.
Okay. So using this whole string of people, this string of poets, Arnold and the British negotiated for a time and then stopped because the British would not promise to give Arnold the huge sum of money that he demanded for his services. A year later in 1780, negotiations began again, this time focused on a specific demand by the British. The British specifically asked Arnold for his help in getting control of West Point, and Arnold felt that he could probably get command of West Point and then find a way to deliver it to the British.
Portrait of Sir Henry Clinton, British Commander in Chief during the American Revolution, by Andrea Soldi, 1782 / National Portrait Gallery, London
And in exchange for this mission Arnold wanted 30,000 pounds sterling, which is a vast sum of money at this time. I think — sterling to dollar I can’t translate, but just to give you a sense — I believe that when the government gets under way, George Washington is making a salary of $25,000 a year and that’s a big blob of money. I think Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury were making $5,000 a year maybe. So 30,000 pounds sterling is a lot of money. Plus, he wanted payment of all of his debts. So he’s not being modest. But General Clinton — communicating through André — refused to commit any money to Arnold until Arnold had actually accomplished something. Right? He doesn’t at this point even have command of West Point.
So at this point with their plan almost foiled, things go perhaps one step worse when George Washington asks to see Arnold and tries to reward him. Right? He still feels bad. The guy didn’t get the promotion he wanted. Washington says he’s going to try to reward him by giving him a better command than West Point. Right? West Point’s not really in the center of the fighting. Washington basically says, ‘You don’t really want West Point. I’ll give you something better than West Point,’ and, as Washington later recorded, Arnold had a strange reaction to this offer. Quote: “Upon this information his countenance changed and he appeared to be quite fallen; and, instead of thanking me, or expressing any pleasure at the appointment, [he] never opened his mouth” — okay, because he — Arnold’s like, ‘uh oh, [laughs] this is not what I expected.’ Right?
Peggy Arnold when informed in Philadelphia that Arnold had been promised a better command than West Point apparently burst into hysterics and then after regaining herself said she was sobbing because of the danger that this put her husband in. Okay. She’s really sobbing because their plan is about to be foiled, but her explanation again sort of took advantage of stereotypes about women, in this case capitalizing on the assumption that women were not involved in such things as military commands; they would just be worried about their husbands’ welfare. So that’s the excuse she comes up with, and we’re going to see her deploy this really successfully in just a few minutes at the sort of penultimate moment of crisis in this whole controversy.
Ultimately, that offer of another command for Arnold fell through and he was given command of West Point. And through that whole chain of letter exchanges it was quickly established that Arnold and André and Clinton were now ready to actually do business. But now at this crucial point someone had to speak with Arnold in person to make final arrangements. And here we get yet another example of how important it was for young men to gain status in the army — and actually young men of all kinds to gain status in the army — and how useful the army could be for promoting your own status and reputation, even for people who already had some social status — because in this case André’s commander in chief and friend, General Clinton, said the mission was too dangerous for his favorite right-hand man. Right? He says to André, ‘This is not for you. This is too dangerous,’ but André actually insisted on being the communicator between Clinton and Arnold because he really desperately wanted a chance to earn a promotion and he really thought that this moment of potential glory could be it, could be his big chance.
So André and Arnold met; they talked. Throughout his trip to meet with Arnold and during the visit, André claimed to be a merchant named John Anderson — right? — and he wore this sort of cloak, but it’s important to note that underneath his cloak he had on his British uniform. And this was important because if he was captured in his official uniform, he would be a prisoner of war and thus protected, even possibly traded back to the British in exchange for a high-ranking American prisoner, but if he was in plain clothes he would be a lowly spy, and a spy had only one fate waiting for him and that was death by hanging. So he’s cloaked but he does have on his British uniform.
The Unraveling of Arnold’s Plot
One of Arnold’s treason letters in cypher / New York Public Library
Complications naturally arose when a friend of Arnold’s saw André with the cloak off. Right? So the friend of Arnold says, ‘Wow. You’re chatting with a British officer. What does that mean?’ Okay. So forced to come up with some kind of an explanation — you could imagine that moment; that’s a big sort of “uh oh, I’m chatting with a British officer” — Arnold said that André was a merchant who had put on a British uniform to sneak through British lines. Right? Quick thinking on Arnold’s part, but Arnold’s friend said: ‘Oh, okay. Well, given that’ — he says to André — ‘You’d be much safer now just to dress in plain clothes, because now that you’re past British lines you shouldn’t be wearing a British uniform.’ Okay. There’s not a lot that André can say to that logic so he puts on plain clothes.
He’s carrying papers from Arnold about their plot and shoves them into his boot, and André then set off to head back to General Clinton, had just about made his way back to British-claimed territory when he was stopped by three men who questioned him, searched his clothing, and eventually found the papers in his boot. And the three men brought André to American authorities. Now, even now André thought that maybe he could claim to be a secret agent in Arnold’s service. Right? He’s — Actually, he’s wearing plain clothes and he has papers from Arnold, so he’s thinking: ‘well, there’s not actually anything to link me with the British at this moment. I could just be a lowly spy doing something for Arnold so maybe I’m still okay.’
However, the officer who he was taken to became suspicious when André was given clean clothes, and the ribbon that he removed from his hair was dusted with powder. Okay, the sneaky powder. What that meant was that he clearly was a gentleman who powdered his hair. He was not a lowly spy. So whoever this observant person was, he saw the ribbon, he saw that it was dusted with powder, and he thought: ‘I don’t think you’re some pseudo lowly spy person. I think you must be someone more important. Something fishy is going on here.’
So now, this American officer sent the captured papers on to George Washington. Washington, as luck would have it, was on his way to West Point to meet with Benedict Arnold. [laughter] Right? Talk about your sort of lucky strike. Right? So he’s riding off, heading to West Point to meet with Arnold as a friend, see how West Point is going, and now this letter from André is winging its way to Arnold’s headquarters at West Point.
When it became obvious that he was now being really held suspect, André confessed who he was, and he did so at this early point so that he could reveal that he wasn’t a lowly spy but actually was a gentleman and an officer who had been caught. And to him this really made a difference. As he explained to Washington, he wasn’t revealing his true identity for his own safety and security. As he put it, he wasn’t trying to “rescue himself from an imputation of having assumed a mean character for treacherous purposes or self-interest” — so he says, ‘I’m not revealing this because I’m hoping to plead for my life.’ Rather, he was revealing his true identity, quote, “to vindicate my fame” from any suspicion that he was a lowly spy. So basically he’s revealing who he is because he wants to be recognized as an officer and a gentleman.
And that letter — also sent on to the headquarters at West Point to wait for Washington when he arrives at West Point. Boy, Washington’s going to have fun when he arrives at West Point. Washington has not yet gotten to Arnold’s house. He sent two of his aides ahead to prepare for his arrival. They were actually eating breakfast with Benedict Arnold when letters began to arrive at headquarters. Realizing that something bad was unfolding as one after another sort of dispatch came in with these frantic letters that had to get to Washington, Arnold ran upstairs. Washington — Washington’s aides later said he looked oddly agitated. He told Peggy that they’d been caught. He ran downstairs. He told Washington that — and his aides actually, not Washington. He’s not there yet — he told Washington’s aides that he had to go prepare for a reception for Washington, and fled on horseback. “Poof,” he’s gone. And eventually he was taken aboard a British ship in the harbor.
Washington arrived shortly after this moment, reads all of these letters and messages that are waiting for him, and at this moment Peggy, who now knows that things are really exploding and she’s in big trouble, erupts into hysterics, entirely flustering all of the men present — because she’s at this point surrounded by men — right? — her husband’s aides, George Washington, George Washington’s aides. She erupts into hysterics and one of Arnold’s aides said, “I heard a shriek to me and sprang from my bed, ran upstairs, and there met the miserable lady, raving, distracted . . . with her hair disheveled and flowing about her neck. Her morning gown, with few other clothes, [laughter] remained on her, too few to be seen by a gentleman of the family, much less by many strangers.” Okay, the semi-nude Peggy Arnold. “She seized me by the hand with this, to me distressing, address, and a wild look, ‘Colonel . . . have you ordered my child to be killed?'” Okay. Peggy raving, ‘You’re going to kill my baby.’
She raved apparently for several days. Generally speaking, she could have sincerely been distressed. Right? Her husband just ran off, things are in trouble, Washington’s there, the jig is up, people know about the plot. Her seeming insanity, raving about a murdered baby, maybe not so sincere, and Washington’s aides were entirely sucked in to her distress. As Alexander Hamilton put it, and he was really sucked right in there, “one moment she raved; another she melted into tears. . . in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. . . . It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to” [laughter] — that’s on the part of Hamilton.
Okay. So here again is Peggy using prevailing assumptions about women to her advantage. She’s raving. She’s hysterical. She’s talking about her baby. She’s not wearing very much clothing, [laughter] apparently. There were many reasons for the men who were present not to suspect that she’s actually involved in the treasonous plot. So Arnold is fleeing to a British ship, André is an American prisoner, and Peggy is being doted on by half a dozen American officers. [laughter] By prolonging her hysteria, she was playing on what she knew would be their sense of gallantry to help her, and their emotional response to a distraught woman who’s sobbing and semi-nude. So eventually she went home to her family in Philadelphia.
An Example out of John Andre’ and the Fate of the Arnolds
Self portrait of John André drawn on the eve of his execution. / Yale University Gallery
André’s fate was still up for grabs. He assumed that a gentleman and officer of his rank would never be accused of being a lowly spy and he would be exchanged for an equivalent American officer. But this was not to be. But interestingly, while he was in captivity, André became much more than a British spy to the American officers who were holding him prisoner, because during his captivity Washington and his aides spent a lot of time with him and came to consider him as the very model of what a gentleman and an officer should be. All of Washington’s aides literally wanted to be André. Some of them actually said that in writing: ‘I wish I were André. [laughter] He’s so gallant. He’s so brave. He’s so — ‘ Yeah.
So André really is this ideal. He’s handsome. He’s aristocratically genteel. He’s stoic in the face of imminent death. He’s willingly sacrificing his life for his country, even if that country is England and not America. Even Washington was taken with André and called him a gallant and accomplished officer. Despite such respect for André, his request to be shot as an officer and a gentleman rather than hanged as a spy was denied. Washington couldn’t grant that request without raising doubts about André’s guilt as a spy.
So October 1, 1780, was named as the day of André’s execution. On that day André dressed with extreme care. He went out of his way to show his calm fortitude and his gentility and his dignity in the face of death. He was a true British officer to the last, because apparently as he walked to the scaffold he said, quote, “I am very much surprised to find your troops under such good discipline.” [laughter] Can you imagine? ‘I’m about to die. My, you Americans are quite disciplined, aren’t you?’ [laughter] Thank you, John André. “And your music is excellent,” he added. [laughter] Thank you very much.
He was supposedly taken aback for a moment when he saw the gallows, because up until that moment he really had been expecting a firing squad. He asked if he had to die in this manner. Told he would, he replied in a loud voice, which was remembered later by lots of people in their diaries and in letters, “I am reconciled to my fate but not to the mode.” Right? So the audience was like: ‘oh, this is moving.’ [laughter]
When asked if he had last words he said, “I have nothing more to say, gentleman” — boy, you better practice last words in this age — “I have nothing more to say, gentleman, but this: you all bear me witness that I meet my fate as a brave man.” At this, the crowd began to sob, [laughter] and then the trapdoor was released and that was the end of Major John André.
Now his death inspired engravings, songs, poems, plays for years afterward. To many Americans, he remained a sort of ideal gentleman and officer, this noble and sensitive youth, this sort of romantic hero. He was beloved by young American officers who thought he was this superior, genteel, sophisticated, cultured individual in a way that they didn’t necessarily consider themselves to be. He somehow seemed better than them, and to many this was inextricably tied up with the fact that he was a British gentleman, the best of that breed.
The extreme adoration of André in America shows how Americans still suffered from a little bit of an inferiority complex in relation to the British who still represented — at least partly in their mind — the height of culture and sophistication. Even now, in a time of war, they’re responding to André in this way.
Peggy eventually joined her husband in England, successfully playing her cards as a woman throughout to protect herself from the hatred that certainly was shown to her husband. And Arnold of all of them was really cursed forever, eternally hated largely of course because of his treason, his betrayal of the American cause, but partly in a sense also because in some ways his actions were understandable to some people in America. He was someone who was ambitious and tried to raise his status. He was someone who spent too much money, took too many risks to advance himself. He was someone who was seduced by all that the British had to offer. In a sense, he was a kind of everyman gone wrong, an example of the worst that was possible in this new somewhat more egalitarian American world. So part of the reason why Americans hated Arnold with such passion is that partly they understood that in some ways, Arnold was them.