This Day in History 9/21: Benedict Arnold “Sells Out” America

HD-SN-99-01721To try to defend Benedict Arnold is a lot like being the defense lawyer at the Nuremburg trials.  Somebody has to do it, even though you know the guy’s guilty as sin.

I’m not going to sweep Arnold’s treachery under the rug–the guy did sell out the country he was defending, after all.  Yet I don’t want to paint this guy as entirely evil.  Prior to his treachery, Arnold was the most able, successful commander in the Continental Army.  Some would say he was even better than George Washington.  What Arnold did has to viewed in the lens of his times and compared to other “traitors” of the Revolution–people who’s acts do not seem that treasonous today.

Here’s the Law and Order, CSI-esque lowdown of what happened.  Since the spring of 1779, Arnold was in communication with the British forces of Sir Henry Clinton about offering his services to the Crown.  The strategic chokepoint of West Point, NY was about to be given to Arnold to command.  He gained command of the fortress on August 3, 1780, and received the offer he was negotiating for a year: the British were offering  £20,000 in exchange for the fortress.   The deal was sealed with Arnold meeting Major John Andre on Sept. 21.  However, Andre was captured two days later and the plot unraveled.  Arnold managed to slip to the British lines–even getting Washington’s permission to allow his mistress safe passage to England.  Andre was tried and hanged as a spy.  America develops a new definition for a two-timing, snake-in-the-grass son-of-a-bitch.

There’s no doubt that Arnold’s actions were a complete dick move.  West Point was the strategic point in the Hudson that opened it to Lake George, then Lake Champlain and into Canada, where British reinforcements were waiting.  His motives, too, seem to denote the whiff of an insufferable asshole.  He was pissed at being passed over for commands, and he spent his dough like a rapper at the Source Awards, which got him deep in the hole.  Yet does Arnold deserve his eternal shitpile?

Yes, but with a little less shit than was piled on before.  Also, the shit has to spread to other people.  I’m sorry, George, but you should’ve seen this coming.

The biggest charge is that Arnold committed treason against the country he defended, even suffering wounds in the service.  While I don’t doubt his brilliant service prior to the West Point affair–his actions in Saratoga saved the Revolution, for Christ’s sake–I do question his patriotism, or his commitment to the cause.  In my opinion, Arnold was never a real patriot, but rather a voraciously ambitious opportunist. 

Arnold, being a good Connecticut boy, made his living at the mercantile trade.  He made a pretty good living up until the crises of the 1760s, the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.  Arnold continued to smuggle goods in defiance of the act, even attending local Sons of Liberty meetings.  Yet it’s hard to see this as more than self-serving: Arnold was hurt in his pockets, and his subsequent actions in the Continental Army bear out his monetary concerns. 

His military career was a quest for glory–not for liberty.  He took on daring assignments to boost his resume.  Taking Fort Ticonderoga without a shot and engineering a brilliant retreat from a failed Canadian invasion in 1776 definitely add to Arnold’s skill set. 

Then came his big project, Saratoga, a job he lobbied for relentlessly.  Washington went with Horatio Gates, against the wishes of Arnold and others who saw Gates as a British-trained sissy.  The battle bore this out: Gates was playing safe with a fortified position against British, Canadian and German mercenary forces.   Arnold defied Gates by leading a headlong charge into the British lines with three regiments at a dead run, a bold move that broke the lines and bust open a gap to the Canadian and German reinforcements.  The lobsterbacks didn’t have a chance: John Burgoyne and the entire northern British army surrenders to Gates. 

So why the beef with the Continentals?  Money and glory.  Arnold was constantly getting passed over for promotions he felt he deserved–including Saratoga, which he actually did deserve.  Furthermore, he was owed money from the Continental Congress since his expeditions were paid mostly out of his own pocket–but many of the generals did the same thing, including Washington.  It also didn’t help that as military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he lived high on the hog and took on a high-maintenance mistress with Loyalist sympathies. 

If Arnold was a true patriot from the beginning, I could see the treason much clearer.  The fact is, the military victories blinded the Continental commanders to Arnold’s clear personality flaws.  He was an overachieving prick with a lust for money and power.  No one should have given him command of a pisspot, let alone West Point.  Since the 1760s, his quest was for personal fame and fortune, and he showed absolutely no inclination that the patriot cause meshed with his own philosophy.

Arnold was not the only traitor with a need for cash.  Benjamin Church was the doctor for the Massachusetts militia, later the Continental army, during the opening months of the Revolution in 1775.  During that time, and also to get out of a hole, he was sending secret information to British general Thomas Gage, including troop movements.  He was caught and managed to slip on a ship, never to be seen again. 

Robert Rogers, an American ranger who served brilliantly during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763, offered his services to the Continentals.  It didn’t help that the Congress offered him a commission and was rebuffed, stating that he was a British officer.  His drinking didn’t help, either.  Washington had him arrested rather than risk his person causing havoc.  Rogers would subsequently raise a gang of loyalist guerrillas that would capture American spy Nathan Hale in 1776, obstentsibly by pretending that Rogers was a patriot spy, too.  Even today, the US Army names its pioneer divisions Rangers, after Rogers, who worked against the Americans.

So it’s probably best to cut Arnold some slack, but not a whole lot.  His treachery succeeded not because of some inherent feeling of loyalty to Great Britain, but because the people around him could not see the amoral nature of his actions.  He was but one of many American turncoats in the Revolutionary period, and most of them were turncoats for reasons far more reasoned than Arnold.

In short, Arnold’s story teaches us that it’s good to tolerate a bastard if he’s an earner.  If he gets a little grabby, though, it’s time to cut him loose.

George Washington’s kicking himself right now.

1 Comment

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One response to “This Day in History 9/21: Benedict Arnold “Sells Out” America

  1. Al

    Hello. Thanks for sharing the interesting background information surrounding the man, his life and times, and why he may have felt compelled to make the decision that he did.

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