Sunday, September 11, 2016

Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall

Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall is a comprehensive and rich biography. This is a book that goes beyond a simple life story and delves into multiple aspects of the time and place in which Arnold lived. It digs into the social, religious, philosophical, political and military issues that relate to the American Revolution. 

Born in 1741 Connecticut, Arnold was raised in a middle class family that began to run into financial difficulties as he moved through adolescence. As a young man, Arnold engaged in his own commercial endeavors and built a successful shipping business. He became active in the Patriot cause as the American Revolution loomed. At the outbreak of war, Arnold distinguished himself on the Northern Front. Rising to the rank of General, he proved himself in battles that raged from Quebec, Canada down through Northern New York State.  He gained a reputation for brilliant generalship as well as courage under fire. He was primarily responsible for the American victory at Saratoga, which is considered the turning point of the war. It was in this battle that he was seriously wounded for the second time. 

Throughout his career as a Patriot general, Arnold was hounded by political opponents. Like many American officers at the time, Arnold was involved in constant political strife. A streak of vanity and combativeness in his personality precipitated and inflamed these conflicts.  Stemming from these political machinations, Arnold’s enemies in the army and Congress initiated a never-ending series of investigations and prosecutions against him. These attacks were often, but not always, unfounded.   They generally centered around financial improprieties and often related to personal vendettas. Throughout this time, he was not paid his salary, which added to his financial difficulties.

In 1779, he married Peggy Shippen. His new wife came from a Loyalist family. During his courtship, Arnold was military governor of Philadelphia. Likely as a result of his relationship with Peggy, Arnold both socialized with and protected Loyalist families, which further antagonized his enemies. It also moved him closer to Loyalist circles and their cause.

As attacks on him intensified, through Peggy’s influence and connections, he eventually established contacts with the British and initiated negations to betray the American side. Plans were hatched in which Arnold was to surrender major American fortifications as well as betray Washington and allow the British to capture the American leader.  Had the plan worked, it might have cost the Americans the war. 

When Washington discovered the plot, Arnold managed to barley escape to the safety of British lines.  Made a General and given a command by the British, he successfully led British forces on several occasions. Arnold finished the war in their service. 

After the war Arnold and Peggy lived in both Canada and England. Arnold rebuilt his shipping Empire and continued to live an active life. He engaged in warfare as a private citizen in the Caribbean during the early Napoleonic Wars. He constantly battled those who sought to besmirch his reputation. He died in 1801.

As I alluded to above, this is a big biography that extends out in all sorts of directions. I should note that among the many other subjects covered, Randall devotes quite a few pages to military history. Battles that Arnold was involved in are described in detail, as is the inner working of the command structure that he was a part of.  Some readers might find this not to their tastes. I found it unusual that this was included in a book that also contains so much in the way of social and other types of history. Personally, I enjoyed it all. 

Randall does highlight Arnold’s flaws, including his early participation in the intimidation of loyalists, his committing of some corrupt acts, his vanity and his combativeness. With that, this work is generally sympathetic to its subject. The author paints a picture of a heroic but flawed man. It illustrates how Arnold, though combative, was wronged in many ways by his country and pernicious men who should never have been in power. 

As an individual who had done so much for the Revolution, shown physical heroism and given up much of his health and wealth for the cause, the attacks on his character were difficult for Arnold to take to. They were the main motivator for him switching sides. 

Arnold’s decision to go over to the British is an ethical question. It is true that he was unfairly hounded by his enemies. More than just annoyances, these attacks  threatened the financial well-being of his family, his reputation  and the future of his military career. Nevertheless, acting as he did from selfish motives seems unethical. However, what conclusions did Arnold draw about a Revolution that turned on one of its most competent and brave military leaders and elevated capricious people to power? Though we now have the hindsight to know that these attacks only occupy a small footnote in history, a logical conclusion could have been drawn by Arnold that the Revolution was heading into corrupt and chaotic ground. He ultimately thought it better to side with the British at that point.

With the above in mind, I still find it difficult to defend Arnold’s actions. His tendency to immerse himself in personal conflict with his peers, combined with the fact that he could have left military service instead of switching sides, adds to the case against him. In the end, he betrayed his country, his comrades and his friends. 

This is an excellent biography. I have only scratched the surface of its content above. Arnold is such an important figure in American history as well as in American mythology that his life is well worth exploring. Randall covers his subject in great detail, and he does so fairly. He expands the subject to cover many aspects of the times. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in American History or in just a great biography of this fascinating historical figure. 


  1. Excellent commentary on what sounds like a very thorough biography. While I agree with your conclusion that his decision to become a traitor and betray his country was not warranted, it is interesting that this biographer appears to have covered well the many complications he faced that led him to his betrayal.

    I am reminded of a fine play, "The General from America" by Richard Nelson, that I saw performed ten years ago. It focused on the ambiguities and difficulties that Arnold faced as he decided to "go over" to the British side. His decision remains one of the most famous and also most curious actions of the Revolutionary War.

  2. Thanks James.

    I would like to see or read the play that Nelson play. Without a doubt Arnold's decision to switch sides is really well examined in this book.

  3. This was a great review, Brian. It is different from another book about the Revolutionary war that depicts Arnold as a man who quite simply lived beyond his means and worked for the British for the money they offered.

    What he did was treacherous either way. I would now like to read several sources to get a more informed opinion.

    Your review was a great overview of this book.

  4. I was thinking I should buy this book for my dad for Christmas until I got to the bit about battle details. He doesn't really find that stuff interesting. But perhaps he'd overlook it for the rest of the info. I'll have to troll through his shelves and see if he owns it.

  5. Thanks Sharon.

    Indeed Arnold's actions were unjustified.

    This book also illustrated some very unjustified actions by his enemies.

    As we have discussed, it is good to read multiple biographies. I would be interested in reading the views expressed in the one that you are referring to.

  6. Hi Rachel.

    There was a lot battles in this book. With that, the passages are well written and interesting of anyone has any interest in this sort of thing at all.

  7. good introduction tx. i just finished "Sergeant Lamb's America"/Robert Graves. it tells the beginning of the war from the British aspect. Lamb is coerced into the service in Ireland and fought in the northern and canadian theaters. from his viewpoint Arnold, as well as many of the other officers on both sides, was as an effective leader, but avaricious and flaky; the American officers according to this book pretty much did what they pleased, regardless of orders, and some of them were capricious in the extreme. Graves gives the overall impression that the engagements and battles between the two sides happened as much by accident as they did by strategy. He definitely portrays the revolutionaries as greedy drunken crackpots, sneaky and cowardly and mainly looking out for their own interests. The Randall sounds like a good counter to Graves' book; i'll have to look for it...

  8. Hi Muddpuddle - That Graves book sounds great. This book actually does portray a lot of the chaos on the American side. It also points out of some of his flaws.

  9. I knew I knew the name, I just couldn't think why.

    What sounds like a well rounded book that gives a great sense of not only the individual but also the time and place.

  10. Hi Tracy - He is really really famous in The United States.

    This seemed like a really fair work.

  11. Oh... someday I'd like to read this book! I still feel weak enough in that era that I'm thinking I should read more about Washington and others, before I delve into our most famous traitor's story. But this narrative has a serious pull.

  12. I'd never have thought to read this biography were it not for this post! It does sound like a fascinating biography. Excellent review!

  13. Hi Unruly.

    The American Revolution has been a lifelong interest of mine. I tend to agree that there are more important personages whose lives I would explore before Arnold's. Particularly Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Paine, etc. Still, Arnold led a fascinating life.

  14. Hi Suko-

    Arnold's life often gets overlooked. Perhaps this is due to the nature of his betrayal.

  15. Does sound like a great bio. I believe that everyone has a story, and I like to hear both sides, especially for a figure like Arnold. I read a bio of him a long time ago--something from my Dad's shelves. I remember the author did not like Peggy Shippen and pretty much laid the blame for Arnold's betrayal of his country at the feet of his ambitious wife.

    Good review!

  16. Thanks Jane.

    It is very true that history is often not simple. Peggy did play a major part in influencing Arnold to switch sides. However, coming from a Loyalist family, her motives may have had a lot to do with belief and conviction.

  17. Oh, Wow Brian! What an excellent review! I'm glad to discover Arnold story - I must admit I had not heard of him - all the more, that he is an important figure in American history.

  18. Thanks so much.

    Here in the U.S. Arnold is a pretty famous, or infamous character. In a way he is enshrined in our mythology.

  19. I love your review. I just spent Friday at Mt. Vernon. What an awesome place! I've been there multiple times, and this time it was hard to think of the comparison between Washington and our current situation in American politics. I'd love to read this some day.

    My daughter was thinking of naming her son Benedict, but I think I persuaded her against that! She was thinking of Benedict Cumberbatch--but in America that's not who comes to mind. My sweet grandson is named William or "Liam" for short.

  20. Thanks Heidi.

    Benedict does indeed have bad connotations in America because of Arnold.

    I think that Liam is a great name version of William.

    Mt. Vernon is a great place to visit.

  21. And there is this commemoration at the History Channel website:

    The concept of "traitor" is complicated; it depends upon perspective (i.e., Arnold as American traitor or British hero?)

  22. Hi RT-

    I saw what the history channel had up on arnold. It is great stuff.

    Indeed, at a time when all the Patriots were considered traitors things are a little muddled.

    With that, Arnold had committed himself to the Patriot cause for years, established obligations, made friends, etc. At the very least what he seems very disloyal.

  23. BRILLIANT post, Brian!! This was fascinating reading!

    I love how nuanced your analysis is; you've been very objective about the fact of Arnold's betraying his country. Yes, he had good cause for bitterness, but to have actually switched sides like that.... It does seem reprehensible. Still, I can see that the man was a very complex personality. And I can sympathize with him to some extent, as I have been dealing with toxic criticism for most of my life. It's really too bad there weren't any psychologists or psychiatrists around at the time. I'm sure that Arnold could have benefited greatly from therapy! Then he would never have done what he did.

    You raise an excellent point: he could have left military service altogether, and immersed himself in private business, or perhaps politics. He need not have gone over to the other side. The British probably treated him like royalty, since he was so useful to them.

    Had Arnold possessed another type of temperament, he might have reacted to all the opposition with depression and perhaps even insanity. It seems, from what you've stated in the post, that he was instead a very proud and rather difficult personality who, instead, chose to be combative. Of course, as you've pointed out, he did indeed have some flaws.

    I do wonder about the inclusion of all those battle descriptions, except that perhaps they served to highlight Arnold's brilliance as a military strategist.

    i imagine this would not make for very comfortable reading for most Americans, since it's the biography of a traitor. As you pointed out, we might have lost the war if his plans had succeeded. Our history would have been very different, in such a case!

    Thanks for another very interesting post! :)

  24. Thanks so much Maria.

    You raise some very interesting points. I agreed that Arnold could have slipped into depression and despair.

    It seems that being overly proud can have its benefits.

    Had a modern psychologist treated Arnold the results would have been interesting.

  25. Interesting Brian. He seems a complex figure in history. Was Benedict Arnold the highest officer during the Revolution to switch sides? And was switching sides frequently done ? I guess Arnold's name in the U.S. has long been synonymous with treason but this biography seems to have a more balanced approach to who he was. thx for the review.

  26. Hi Susan - Arnold was the highest ranking officer to switch sides.

    Though I cannot find any statistics with a rudimentary search, I believe that it was rare for officers to change sides once they picked a side.

    One reason that I liked this book so much was that it was very balanced.

  27. Brian, FYI, Solitary Praxis has a new name and new address. I hope you will stop by every now and then.


  28. Thanks for letting me know RT. I will visit you at your new site.

  29. Sounds like you enjoyed this one. I know pretty much next to nothing about Benedict Arnold, but that his name is associated with being a snitch.
    It would be interesting to find out more about this historical figure.
    Great post as usual. Happy weekend.

  30. Thanks Naida.

    Arnold's reputation is so legendary and infamous. I think one can devout volumes of study and commentary to that subject alone.

    Have a great weekend!