The reputation of Benedict Arnold



Even in 2015, some two hundred and fourteen years after his death, the name Benedict Arnold can inspìre in thinking Americans either an adverse or admiring reaction. “Traitor!’ “Outcast!” some will cry, curling the lip as if he were something disgusting: whereas some will say, “Brave man!” or “Good fellow!”. It seems to be automatic reaction, not necessarily based on fact.

Benedict Arnold was born in 1741; when the American Revolution(q.v.) broke out he chose to fight for the colonists against the British, and at the siege of Quebec distinguished himself for his courage and tenacity in battle. His reward was promotion to Brigadier-General – an essentially American army rank which means a field officer in command of a brigade.

With this rank Benedict went on to show remarkable distinction at the battles of Ridgefield and Saratoga. He became commander of military forces in Philadelphia, but this was not quite enough for him, and his friends noticed his resentment at what he called ‘passing me over for promotion’. It rankled so much, that after his marriage to a woman of obviously royalist sympathies, who may have an accelerating effect on Benedict, he entered into a conspiracy with John André and others; they wanted to hand West Point – town and military academy – over to the British! This strange action is the root of Arnold’s unpopularity with his own countrymen.

The plot was detected, and John André captured, but Benedict managed to cross the lines to join the British, who promptly gave him a command in the Royal forces. When this dubious war of independence was over, Benedict found himself in London, where he was generally ignored; certainly he did not flower in British society, which had been his aspiration, so perhaps the British too saw him as merely a traitor. His life was not happy, but he died with his boots off in almost complete obcurity, in 1801 at the age of sixty.

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