What impelled Benedict Arnold to be Satan of the Revolution?

March 06, 1994|By Bruce Clayton

His name is synonymous with villainy of the meanest sort -- treason. During the bleakest days of the War for American Independence, Gen. Benedict Arnold turned tail and began funnelling pieces of military information to the despised British. He promised more. He would, for the right amount of cash and the prospect of high military position, abandon his beleaguered countrymen on the field of battle, making defeat inevitable.

His plan, proposed in 1779, was simple. Once he accepted his next assignment from George Washington and took command at West Point, the key to the Hudson Valley, he would betray the garrison and switch uniforms. Arnold's treachery failed, but not before he fled ignominiously, leaving his young wife to fend for herself. (The gallant General Washington allowed her to leave.) Arnold escaped aboard a British warship and spent the remainder of the conflict making war, sometimes savagely, against his own people.

What motivated this blackguard? (That he was a loathsome creature has gone without saying to virtually every historian on this side of the Atlantic.) The old books shouted money: Arnold, a high liver, was bought. But did he, as he said, act from principle, trying to end an unwinnable war? Or was he, when he made his fateful decision, driven to treason (and his 30 pieces of silver) by trumped-up charges of financial misconduct and a court-martial?

Not a bit of it, says Clare Brandt in "The Man in the Mirror," the best biography to date of the American Judas. The spendthrift Arnold needed and demanded money, but the real reasons go deeper.

Arnold's only god was self-interest, success, self-promotion. But unlike others similarly motivated -- Washington comes to mind -- Arnold lacked any other redeeming quality of character or mind. He saw only the main chance, assumed this was true of everyone else, and never understood principled people.

In battle he was courageous, utterly fearless, oblivious to danger -- qualities Ms. Brandt details in lively accounts of Arnold's leadership in various early battles of the American Revolution, from the taking of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 to his heroic actions two years later in the victory at Saratoga, where Arnold sustained serious injuries to his leg. Ms. Brandt, author of an earlier book on American social history, is an engaging military historian.

But the Patriot-Hero, as Arnold was known to admirers, fought without convictions; his bravery was always the handmaiden of ambition. He was a stranger to patriotism, or any ideology, Ms. Brandt says convincingly.

To picture this hollow man of humble Connecticut origins, Ms. Brandt employs the metaphor of the mirror. But Arnold always saw through the glass darkly. "To the end of his days," Ms. Brandt writes, "Arnold never acknowledged the greedy, self-destructive, corruptible creature that lurked behind the cellar door of his pristine mirrored house." Deep down he was shallow.

Ms. Brandt never speculates on the causes of Arnold's stubborn blindness, his inability to see himself as others did. She contents herself with stylish description, though sometimes her prose gallops away with her: "Eventually, his habitual avoidance of introspection became pathological. He would admit to no failing, take no responsibility for any of his problems. The potency of his image was thereby preserved -- but his grip on reality slipped and weakened with every passing day."

Ms. Brandt has a sure hand chronicling Arnold's marriage to young Peggy Shippen, daughter of prominent Tories in Philadelphia, and his failure to win the full confidence of Britain's military leaders. Arnold's last years in England and Canada were unhappy ones. Plagued by illness and financial insecurity and shadowed by mistrust, he failed in repeated attempts to gain an army appointment.

It's a good thing Arnold never showed his face in the United States again. He was the Satan of the demonology of the Revolution. A favorite story in the Chesapeake was that if local farmers could lay a hand on him they "would first cut off the leg wounded at Saratoga and bury it with honor, then hang the rest."

Perhaps before Arnold died in 1801, even he could see his true reflection in the mirror. A traitor's lot is not a happy one.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College.

Title: "The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold"

Author: Clare Brandt

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 360 pages, $25

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