Written by Ken Johnston for the Greenville Chautauqua’s History Alive magazine in conjunction with his performance as Benedict Arnold.

American Legends: Benedict Arnold

by Ken Johnston

In John Ford’s classic 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart’s character reveals to a newspaper reporter the surprising truth behind the legend of the event that launched him to fame and a career of public service—a revelation that is completely at variance with what the public accepts as fact. When Stewart realizes that the reporter is going with the legend over the fact, he asks him why. The reply? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. It’s a brilliant bit of dialogue, and an apt apotheosis for the way certain figures of American history are remembered, in particular the man we’re taught to love to hate, the black-hearted villain in the creation myth of America’s founding, Benedict Arnold.

We’ve all heard the story of Arnold’s treachery—motivated by personal greed he conspired to betray the Patriot cause by surrendering to the British the vital West Point fortifications. As a matter of fact in much the same way as when children we’re taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before we know what the words pledge and allegiance mean, so we are taught that the name Benedict Arnold is just another name for betrayal before we are taught, if we ever are taught, who he was, what he betrayed, and why. This is a disservice to history and to the man himself. As defined by Herodotus, the man who invented the genre, history is an inquiry into the past—and if we make the inquiry we shouldn’t shy away from what we find. And Benedict Arnold, a complex, driven man, is a real human being whose talents and virtues comingled with faults in the way it does with all humans—and if for no other reason than that he deserves to be remembered as a flesh and blood fallen hero, not as a one dimensional villain. For hero he was for the first half of the Revolutionary War, acknowledged as such by no less than George Washington. And in the ironic vagaries of fate, even Arnold’s defection from the cause of Independence (or as he saw it, returning to his true allegiance for the sake of America) ultimately ensured that cause’s success. Let’s make the inquiry into the past and see how.

Benedict Arnold’s family had been in New England for generations, his great grandfather was Governor of Rhode Island, and though Arnold’s own father had died from alcoholism a broken man, Benedict had revived the family fortunes and was an educated, prosperous merchant and ship’s Captain on the eve of the American Revolution. He was an ardent Patriot in support of the rights and liberties of America, a member of the Sons of Liberty—although his position was always one of protecting these rights and liberties within the British Empire, not as a nation independent of it. In response to the news of the so called Boston Massacre, which Arnold received while conducting business in the West Indies, he wrote he was very much shocked and wondered good God, are the Americans all asleep and tamely giving up their liberties, or are they all turned philosophers, that they don’t take immediate vengeance on such miscreants. Arnold did more than write. He was a member of the Sons of Liberty, drilled the local militia, and attended the First Continental Congress with other prominent Connecticut businessmen.

It was to the sounds of martial drums that Arnold began to distinguish himself. He conceived of the assault to take Fort Ticonderoga from British forces by surprise attack and led the small army dispatched by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety for that purpose, succeeding more despite the help of a rival force from Connecticut under Ethan Allen, that because of it. He conceived of and led the attack on Quebec through the howling wilderness of Maine and was wounded in the assault on the city. He conceived of the idea of building a fleet to oppose the British attack from Canada down Lake Champlain and though defeated at the Battle of Valcour Island he delayed the British assault from the north for a year. And when that assault did come in 1777, it was Arnold who stopped it cold in the battles at Saratoga, suffering his third and most severe combat wound that incapacitated him well into the next year. He didn’t take the field again until 1781, by which time he had become convinced the Patriot cause was lost under Congress’s leadership, married the Loyalist Peggy Shippen, and turned his coat to serve the British. Even then, his actions in Virginia ultimately were the catalyst that brought the forces of Washington and Cornwallis to Yorktown.

Print the Benedict Arnold legend if you will, but the Benedict Arnold facts are more illuminating—as the enquiry into the past always is.