Tuesday, July 2, 2013
July 2, 2013: Revolutionary Realities: Benedict Arnold
[To celebrate the Fourth, a series on some of the realities behind our Revolutionary myths. This one’s a repeat of a recent but relevant post. Add your takes and Revolutionary ideas and interests for a weekend post that’s sure to set off fireworks!]
On the benefits and the limitations to remembering our most infamous traitor the way we do.
I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t remember Benedict Arnold as one of our first, and one of our most enduring, national traitors, because, well, he was. Compared to the contested and still controversial treason accusations leveled at his contemporary Aaron Burr, Arnold’s traitorous acts were far more overt and undisputed—when Major Andre was caught and Arnold’s plan to hand over the fort at West Point to British forces discovered, Arnold immediately went over to the British side and helped lead their war effort for the war’s remaining two years; after the Revolution he settled in England and lived out his remaining two decades of life in that adopted homeland.
So Arnold was a traitor to the Revolutionary army and cause, and remembering him as such is certainly accurate to the specific histories and events. Doing so is also beneficial on a broader level, as it forces us to recognize the Founding Fathers and their iconic Revolutionary peers as no less human and flawed than any other leaders or people. Arnold was one of the Revolution’s first war heroes, playing a decisive role in the early victory at Saratoga and other conflicts; yet just two short years later, politics and preferences within the Continental Army, coupled with financial difficulties (perhaps due to lending money to the Continental Army, which would be a textbook definition of irony), led Arnold to cast his lot with the same forces he had helped defeat at Saratoga.
Yet there’s at least one significant downside to remembering Arnold as a traitor, or more exactly to the collective blind spot that such memories reveal. After all, the most simple yet most commonly ignored fact of the Revolution is this: it represented an act of treason against the colonists’ Royal government, and each and every American involved in it was thus a traitor. (There was a reason why Ben Franklin worried, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, about everyone hanging separately if they did not hang together.) Awareness of that fact might not change our collective perspective on the Revolution and its leaders—but might it not at least shift our understanding of the loyalists, of those who sided (lawfully) with England during the war? As a soldier who sold out his comrades, Arnold was of course something more than just a loyalist—but the point here is that treason, during the Revolution, was a loaded and complex concept however we look at it.
Next Revolutionary reality tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary histories or stories you’d highlight?