For a very long time, Great Britain was the master of the seas and in their attempt at building an empire they colonized what was known then as the “New World.” This region in North America was home to people of English stock. Gradually they develop their own culture but stayed true to their roots. Everything went well until the time when they realized that their country was being ruled by a tyrant thousands of miles away. American patriots decided to go to war and started the American Revolution. One of the supposed to be heroes who joined the struggle was Benedict Arnold. But then at the end, he turned traitor. This is an attempt to understand the complex life of this conflicted man.
He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth but he was a hard-working and dedicated man. He gave his best in everything that he did and when he was about thirty-three years old, “By the time the first Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia … Arnold had become a prosperous trader, merchant, and businessman with a fine New Haven home, three young sons, and a passionless, if functional marriage” (Wilson, p. 32). The historian seemed to have added so many details on this one but it is enough to give a glimpse of what was going on in his life prior to the war.
Since Arnold had already amassed wealth, has grown comfortable in his role as a businessman, then it can be argued that the prospect of war was bitter-sweet for the young man. He was finally able to restore his name and added respect and dignity to a once tarnished reputation. He was ready to increase his possessions and then the specter of a deadly war came. He had to make a decision. It would have been great to maintain the status quo. At the beginning of the war, the Continentals had a very slim chance of winning. It would have been in Arnold’s best interest to refrain from joining the war. And yet he did join, confirming the first level of judgment that he is indeed a patriot, but shall America consider him a hero?
Early in the war, Arnold led a group of soldiers, and together with another leader Ethan Allen, he took Fort Ticonderoga (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, par. 1). Then he pushed forward to destroy a considerable number of ships as well as a British Forts (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, par. 1).
Yet at the same time historians were able to detect cracks in the image of a hero and courageous revolutionary leader. According to one report, the celebrated takedown of Fort Ticonderoga did not follow a perfect script because there was friction between Arnold and Allen. Apparently, Arnold found it hard to submit under the leadership of Allen. According to one historian, “Another man might have bowed to superior organization and experience and offered his services in the spirit of cooperation but Arnold’s spirit did not encompass co-operation” (Wilson, p. 35). This could help explain why in the later stages of the war Arnold was able to defy his leaders and did something that to his estimation is the best thing to do.
It is important to honor his contributions. He had given so much for his country. He was not obliged to join the war. Many of his countrymen chose the easy way. In the pre-war social and political climate, it was difficult to predict a victory by the American revolutionaries. And yet Arnold chose to be on their side. He knew that he will lose everything if they would lose the war; moreover, his participation will put at risk his various business interests, as well as his family. He would have been part of the honor roll of heroes of the war but unfortunately, he did something that far eclipsed all his great contributions and sacrifices. He betrayed his fellow soldiers and revolutionaries, a sin that cannot be forgiven.
Based on what he has done it is safe to assume that Arnold took offense and this is the reason why he felt the need to betray the cause that he was fighting for. The first hint can be found in a historical account that in February of 1777 the Continental Congress promoted five brigadier generals ahead of Arnold (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, par. 3). It requires the mind of a soldier to understand why this is something that Arnold could not have taken lightly.
The final blow came upon the realization that the war has caused many businessmen their fortunes. Their businesses were wiped out by the protracted struggle against a ruthless and efficient enemy. This was the beginning of Arnold’s downfall. At this point, Arnold tried to hit two birds with one stone. He wanted to defeat the British while at the same time he tried to make money from the war effort. He was merely doing what a normal American should do – if there is an opportunity to make money then one should go for it. But the ideals and the fervor of war made others detest what he was doing and they considered it unpatriotic. Arnold took offense the second time.
He decided to get even. He had given his life to the Continental army and yet he was rewarded with scorn. Thinking perhaps that he was lost, he contacted the British to arrange for the surrender of West Point (Palmer, p. 359). West Point was sold for money and commission in the British army. His intention was discovered upon the capture of one of his trusted messengers. But before the Continental soldiers were able to capture him, Arnold managed to escape. At this point, he had no choice but to work with the enemy. He led a raid against Virginia and against New London (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, par. 3). This is something that Americans cannot forget and forgive.
Arnold started as a patriot. He sacrificed everything, his wealth, his thriving business, and his family in order to assure victory for the Continental army. More, importantly he led gallantly and with his skills and passion able to weaken the forces of the enemy. But he was a man with weakness in his character and obviously does not like the idea of being a loser. He was tempted to betray his country but his gamble did not pay off. This should serve as a lesson for everyone.
Palmer, Dave Richard. George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2006.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. “Benedict Arnold.”2008. Encyclopedia.com.
Wilson, Barry. Benedict Arnold. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.