The story behind the most famous betrayal in U.S. Background shows the complex politics that the nation’s earliest days

In 1781, Arnold ordered brother troops to burn new London, Connecticut. The publish Collector / Getty images

He was short, solidly constructed (one acquaintance remembered the “there wasn’t any type of wasted wood in him”) and also blessed with practically superhuman energy and endurance. He to be handsome and also charismatic, through black hair, gray eyes and also an aquiline nose, and also he brought himself with the lissome elegance of a natural athlete. A neighbor indigenous Connecticut remembered that Benedict Arnold was “the most achieved and graceful skater” the had ever before seen.

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He was born in 1741, a descendant the the Rhode Island tantamount of royalty. The very first Benedict Arnold had been one of the colony’s founders, and also subsequent generations had actually helped to create the Arnolds together solid and respected citizens. However Arnold’s father, that had settled in Norwich, Connecticut, confirmed to be a drunkard; just after his son relocated to brand-new Haven could he begin to free himself native the ignominy the his childhood. Through his mid-30s he had actually had sufficient success together an apothecary and a seagoing vendor to begin building one of the finest homes in town. Yet he continued to be hypersensitive to any type of slight, and also like countless gentlemen of his time he had challenged more than one guy to a duel.

From the first, he differentiated himself together one of brand-new Haven’s an ext vocal and combative patriots. On listening of the Boston Massacre, he thundered, “Good God, are the Americans every asleep and tamely providing up their glorious liberties?” once in April 1775 that learned the the skirmishes in ~ Lexington and Concord, he seized a section of new Haven’s dynamite supply and marched north v a company of volunteers. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, he convinced Dr. Joseph Warren and the Massachusetts Committee of safety and security to authorize an exploration to record Fort Ticonderoga in brand-new York State and also its 80 or an ext cannons.

As the turned out, others had the same idea, and Arnold was forced to kind an uncomfortable alliance with Ethan Allen and his eco-friendly Mountain Boys before the two leaders strode side by side into Ticonderoga. While Allen and also his men turned their attention to spend the brothers liquor supply, Arnold sailed and also rowed come St. John, at the opposite end of Lake Champlain, whereby he and a small group that men caught several British armed forces vessels and instantly offered America command that the lake.

Abrupt and also impatient through anything he reputed superfluous come the matter at hand, Arnold had actually a fatal tendency to criticize and even ridicule those v whom that disagreed. Once a couple of weeks later on a Continental military officer named James Easton dared to question the legitimacy of his authority together the self-proclaimed commodore that the American marine on Lake Champlain, Arnold proceeded to “kick him an extremely heartily.” It was an insult Easton never ever forgot, and in the year ahead, he became one the a online Greek chorus the Arnold detractors who would plague him because that the rest of his military career. And yet, if a soldier served with him throughout one that his much more heroic adventures, that soldier was likely to for him as the most inspiring officer the had ever known.


The American transformation as the actually unfolded was for this reason troubling and also strange that when the struggle was over, a generation walk its finest to remove all traces that the truth. Although it later became convenient to portray Arnold as a conniving Satan native the start, the truth is more complex and, ultimately, much more disturbing. Without the exploration of his treason in the autumn of 1780, the American civilization might never have actually been required to realize the the genuine threat to their liberties came not from without, however from within.


In that first Revolutionary feather of 1775, Arnold learned the the death of his wife, Margaret. Upon returning from Lake Champlain to brand-new Haven, he saw her grave v his 3 young sons in ~ his side. Arnold’s letter to her prior to the transformation had been filled with pleas for her to write more often, and his grief top top her death seems to have actually been nearly overpowering. And also yet, because that someone that Arnold’s restless temperament, it was inconceivable to continue to be in new Haven with his sorrow. “An idle life under my present circumstances,” that explained, “would be yet a lingering death.” After simply three weeks, Arnold left his children under the care of his sister Hannah and was top top his means back to Cambridge, where he hope to ask his anguish in what he referred to as “the windy calamity.” over the next three years—in Canada, ~ above Lake Champlain, in Rhode Island and also Connecticut and again in new York—he made self indispensable to his command in chief, George Washington, and the Revolutionary cause.

It is difficult to say as soon as 37-year-old Benedict Arnold very first met 18-year-old Peggy Shippen, yet we do recognize that ~ above September 25, 1778, he wrote her a love letter—much that it an accurate copy that one he’d sent to an additional woman six months before. Yet if the overheated rhetoric was recycled, Arnold’s passion was genuine. Discovering of “the affection girlfriend bear her amiable and also tender parents,” he had additionally written to Peggy’s loyalist-leaning father. “Our distinction in politics sentiments will, ns hope, be no bar to my happiness,” that wrote. “I flatter myself the moment is at hand when ours unhappy dispute will be in ~ an end.” He additionally assured Peggy’s father that he was wealthy sufficient “to make us both happy” and that he had actually no expectations of any type of kind the dowry.

Peggy Arnold and also daughter NYPL

Here in this letter space hints regarding the engine behind Arnold’s subsequent behavior. While lacking the social relationships of the Shippens, who were the indistinguishable of Philadelphia aristocracy, Arnold had actually had prospects of accumulating a sizable personal fortune. Now the British had actually abandoned your occupation the the revolutionaries’ capital, and also Washington, needing something because that Arnold to perform while the recuperated native a battle-shattered left thigh, had named that the city’s military governor. Having actually lost once-significant wealth, Arnold took on a project of secret, and also underhanded, schemes come re-establish himself together a thriving merchant. The end—and those means—were no uncommon among officers that the continental Army.

But in September 1778 that did not yet have actually the money he essential to keep Peggy in the format to i beg your pardon she to be accustomed. There was likewise the matter of the Shippens’ politics. They can not be outright loyalists, yet they had a determined distaste because that the radical patriots that were waging one undeclared war on Philadelphia’s upper classes currently that the British had gone. Provided Arnold’s interest in Edward Shippen’s daughter and also his lifelong desire to get the riches his bankrupt father had denied him, it is not surprising the he adopted the city’s marginalized nobility with a vengeance.

Thumbing his sleep at the pious patriots that ruled the city, he purchased an ornate carriage and entertained extravagantly in ~ his new residence, the same grand home the British general William Howe had actually occupied. He attended the theater, also though the continental Congress had advised the claims to ban such entertainments as “productive of idleness, dissipation and also general depravity.” the issued passes to doubt loyalists wanting to visit friends and also relatives in new York City, which was organized by the British. The even showed up at a sphere in a scarlet uniform, which led a young lady who father had been arrested for matching with the British to joyfully exclaim, “Heyday, i see certain animals will placed on the lion’s skin.”


One the Arnold’s misfortunes was the Joseph Reed had end up being a champion, however unlikely, of Pennsylvania’s radical patriots. A London-educated lawyer v an English wife, Reed had a reputation as among Philadelphia’s finest and most ambitious attorneys prior to the Revolution. Yet the Reeds had actually not right well right into the top echelons the Philadelphia society. Reed’s pious wife complained that one of Peggy Shippen’s relatives had actually accused she of being “sly,” claiming the “religion is often a cloak come hide poor actions.”

Reed had served top top Washington’s employee as adjutant general at the beginning, once Washington confronted the complicated task the dislodging the British native Boston in 1775. Yet by the end of the year, v the Continental military run out of brand-new York City and retreating across brand-new Jersey, he had actually lost faith in his commander. Reed was away from headquarters as soon as a letter arrived from the army’s second-ranking officer, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Suspect the letter connected to official business, Washington promptly broke the seal. The soon discovered that Reed had established his own line of interaction with Lee and also that the primary topic of their correspondence to be the failings of your commander in chief.

Joseph Reed Hulton save on computer / Getty pictures

Washington forwarded the letter to Reed through a keep in mind explaining why he had actually opened it, however otherwise let him twist in the icy emptiness that his withheld wrath. He maintained Reed on, however their intimacy had ended.

Brilliant, mercurial and outspoken, Reed had a habit the antagonizing also his the next friends and associates, and he ultimately left Washington’s employee to serve in a range of official capacities, always restless, always the smartest, many judgmental person in the room. Together a new England minister wrote to Washington, the guy was “more formed for splitting than uniting.”

In the loss of 1778, Reed stepped down as a Pennsylvania delegate to conference to aid the state’s attorney basic prosecute 23 suspected loyalists for treason. He lost 21 of those cases—there no much proof to occupational with—but the position created him as one of the city’s most zealous patriots. The November, the 2 wealthy Quakers who had been convicted were hanged.

In an evident act of protest, Arnold hosted “a windy entertainment” in ~ which he obtained “not only Tory ladies but the wives and also daughters of persons proscribed by the state” in “a really considerable number,” Reed sputtered in a letter come a friend. Possibly contributing come his ire was the reality that he and also his wife had actually recently moved right into the house next to Arnold’s and hadn’t been invite to the party.

By December Reed to be president the the state’s can be fried Executive Council, making the the most powerful man in one of the most an effective states in the country. He quickly made it clear the conservative patriots to be the enemy, together were the continental Congress and the continent Army. Together council president, that insisted that Pennsylvania prevail in any and also all disputes with the national government, regardless of what was ideal for the United says as a whole. Philadelphia to be at the vortex that an significantly rancorous battle involving nearly all the seminal worries related to producing a functioning democratic republic, worries that would not begin to be resolved until the constitutional Convention that 1787.

Amid every this upheaval, Reed launched an investigation right into the military governor’s conduct. The start of Benedict Arnold—a Washington favorite, one emblem of nationwide authority and also a girlfriend to Philadelphia’s wealthy—would it is in the pretext come flex his state’s political muscle. And it would certainly lead Arnold to doubt the cause to which he had given so much.


By so late January 1779, Arnold to be preparing to leave the military. Public representative in new York State, whereby he was hosted in high regard, had motivated him come consider coming to be a landowner top top the range of the loyalist Philip Skene, whose substantial estate at the southern guideline of Lake Champlain had actually been confiscated by the state. Arnold’s jae won dealings in Philadelphia had actually failed to yield the suspect returns. Coming to be a soil baron in new York could be the means to get the wealth and prestige the he had constantly craved and that Peggy and her family members expected.

By early on February he had chose to trip to brand-new York, avoiding to visit Washington in ~ his headquarters in new Jersey. Reed, fearing the Arnold could escape to new York before he could be lugged to justice for his sins in Philadelphia, hurriedly placed together a list of eight charges, most of them based on rumor. Given the pettiness of numerous of the fees (which had being ungracious come a militiaman and also preferring loyalists to patriots), Reed showed up to it is in embarked on much more of a smear project than a trial. That Arnold to be guilty of few of the more substantive charges (such as illegally purchasing items upon his arrival in Philadelphia) walk not change the fact that Reed lacked the evidence to do a creditable case versus him. Arnold knew as much, and also he complained the his therapy to Washington and the commander’s family of officers.

Washington had refused to take it sides in the dispute in between Philadelphia’s radicals and also conservatives. But he knew the Reed was hardly the steadfast patriot he declared to be. Because that the last year, a rumor had been circulating amongst the officers of the continental Army: Reed had remained in such despair over the state of the war in late December 1776 the he’d spent the night of Washington’s assault on Trenton at a residence in Hessian-occupied new Jersey, poised come defect come the brother in the event of one American defeat. In that light, his self-righteous beginning of Quakers and also other loyalists appeared hypocritical in the extreme. It’s likely that Washington had actually heard at the very least some variation of the claim, and just as likely that he took the charges versus Arnold v a grain of salt. Still, Reed’s place on the supreme Executive Council required that Washington accord him much more civility 보다 he more than likely deserved.

On February 8, 1779, Arnold composed to Peggy indigenous the army’s headquarters in Middlebrook, brand-new Jersey. “I am treated through the greatest politeness by basic Washington and also the police officers of the army,” he assured her. He claimed that the consensus at headquarters was that he should ignore the charges and continue ~ above to brand-new York.

Despite this advice, he had actually resolved to return to Philadelphia, not only to clean his name but due to the fact that he was so desperately lacking Peggy. “Six days’ absence without hear from my Dear Peggy is intolerable,” the wrote. “Heavens! What have to I have suffered had I continued my journey—the loss of delight for a couple of dirty acres. I can nearly bless the that oblige me to return.” In utter denial concerning his complicity in the problem he was now in, the was additionally deeply in love.

after ~ Arnold’s betrayal, Philadelphians paraded a two-faced effigy that him v the streets prior to burning it. Antiquarian culture


Back in Philadelphia, Arnold come under near-ceaseless assault from the supreme Executive Council. But because the council to be unwilling to administer the forced evidence—primarily since it walk not have any—the conference committee appointed to research the charges had no choice but to discover in Arnold’s favor. As soon as the council threatened to withhold the state militia and the large number that state-owned wagons top top which Washington’s army depended, conference tabled that committee’s report and also turned the case over to Washington for a court-martial.

More than a few Congressional delegates started to wonder what Reed to be trying come accomplish. As a patriot and a Philadelphian, Congress’s secretary Charles Thomson had once considered Reed a friend. No more. Reed’s refusal to carry forward any type of legitimate evidence, combined with his continual assaults on the authority and integrity the Congress, do Thomson wonder even if it is his former friend was trying to ruin the political body upon i beg your pardon the country’s very existence depended. Was Reed, in fact, the traitor?

The ahead summer Reed had actually received an sell of £10,000 if the would assist a British peace commission’s efforts with Congress. In a letter released in a Philadelphia newspaper, Reed claimed to have indignantly refused the overture. But had the really? among the commissioners had recently assured conference that mystery efforts to be under method to destabilize the federal government of the joined States and that these “other means” can prove more effective in finishing the battle than military attempts to defeat Washington’s army. There is no proof that Reed was undoubtedly bent on a treasonous effort to lug down Congress, yet as Thomson made clean in a letter come him, his monomaniacal search of Arnold was threatening to achieve exactly that.


In the meantime, Arnold essential money, and fast. He had promised Edward Shippen that he would bestow “a settlement” on his daughter before their marital relationship as proof that he had actually the financial resources Peggy’s dad required. For this reason in march of 1779, Arnold took out a loan for £12,000 and, v the assist of a sizable mortgage, bought mount Pleasant, a mansion on 96 acres beside the Schuylkill that john Adams had actually once claimed was “the many elegant chair in Pennsylvania.”

There to be one hitch, however. Back he had actually technically to buy Peggy a mansion, they were no going to have the ability to live in it, because Arnold required the rental payment from the house’s existing occupant to aid pay the mortgage.

Harassed by Reed, carrying a frightening burden of debt, Arnold nonetheless had the satisfaction of lastly winning Edward Shippen’s consent, and on April 8, he and Peggy were married at the Shippens’ house. Now Arnold had a young, beautiful and also adoring wife that was, the proudly report the next morning to numerous of his friends, an excellent in bed—at the very least that was the rumor the Marquis de Chastellux, a major general in the French army who to be fluent in English, heard later on when visiting Philadelphia.

However, within just a few weeks, Arnold was finding it an overwhelming to lose himself in the delights the the connubial bed. Reed had not only compelled a court-martial top top Arnold; the was currently attempting to hold-up the proceedings so that he can gather an ext evidence. Those more, the had called one that Washington’s previous aides as a witness, one even an ext disturbing development since Arnold had actually no idea what the aide knew. Arnold started to realize that he was, in fact, in severe trouble.

Aggravating the situation, his left leg was not healing as quickly as he had hoped, and his best leg became wracked by gout, making it difficult for him to walk. Arnold had remained in tight spots before, but constantly had to be able to carry out something come bring about a miraculous recovery. However now, what was there to do?

If the critical nine months had actually taught that anything, that was the the nation to which that had offered everything but his life might easily fall apart. Instead of a nationwide government, congress had become a facade behind which 13 states did everything was best for each of them. Indeed, it might be argued that Joseph Reed was now an ext influential than all of Congress combined.

What made all of this specifically galling to be the hostility the Reed— and also apparently many of the American people—held towards the continent Army. An ext and more Americans regarded police officers like Arnold together dangerous hirelings ~ above the stimulate of the Hessian mercenaries and British regulars, while regional militiamen were looked to together the patriotic ideal. In reality, plenty of of this militiamen to be employed by neighborhood officials together thuggish enforcers to terrorize local citizens whose loyalties were suspect. In this progressively toxic and volatile environment, problems of class threatened to change a cumulative quest for national self-reliance into a sordid and self-defeating polite war.

By the spring of 1779, Arnold had started to believe that the experiment in independence had actually failed. And also as far as he might tell, the British had a higher regard because that his abilities 보다 his own country did. Gen. John Burgoyne remained in London defending himself before Parliament with the insurance claim that if not for Arnold, his army would have actually won the battle of Saratoga. The February, the Royal Gazette had referred sympathetically come his plight in Philadelphia: “General Arnold heretofore had been styled one more Hannibal, but losing a leg in the organization of the Congress, the latter considering him unfit for any type of further exercise of his military talents, permit him for this reason to autumn into the unmerciful fangs that the executive, management council that Pennsylvania.” perhaps the time was ideal for him to market his solutions to the British.


Arnold is usually attributed with comes up with the idea himself, however there are reasons to think the decision to revolve traitor originated v Peggy. Definitely the timing is suspect, following so quickly after their marriage. Arnold to be bitter, yet even he had to recognize that the change had catapulted the from the edge of respectability in new Haven to the nationwide stage. Peggy, top top the other hand, concerned the transformation as a catastrophe from the start. Not only had it initially required her household to flee from Philadelphia; it had decreased her beloved father to a cringing parody the his previous self. How various life had been during those blessed month of the brother occupation, when noble gentleman-officers had actually danced v the belles the the city. Through her ever-growing attachments to Arnold fueling her outrage, she had concerned despise the revolutionary government that was currently trying to damage her husband.

By marrying Peggy, Arnold had actually attached himself to a woman who knew how to gain what she wanted. As soon as her father had initially refused to allow her to marry Arnold, she had actually used her seeming frailty—her fits, she hysteria, every little thing you wanted to contact it—to manipulate him right into agreeing to the engagement for fear that she could otherwise endure irreparable harm. Now she would acquire her means with she equally indulgent husband.

Given the ultimate food of Arnold’s life, it is basic to assume the he had fully committed self to treason by the moment he sent out his very first feelers to the british in early May 1779. Yet that was no the case. He still feeling a genuine commitment to Washington. On may 5, Arnold wrote his command what deserve to only be described as a hysterical letter. The apparent reason because that it was the hold-up of his court-martial to June 1. Yet the letter to be really around Arnold’s fear that he could actually execute as his mam suggested. “If her Excellency think me criminal,” the wrote, “for heaven’s sake, allow me be immediately tried and if discovered guilty executed.”

What Arnold wanted more than anything now was clarity. Through the court-martial and exoneration behind him, he could fend turn off Peggy’s appeals. Joseph Reed, however, to be bent top top delaying the court-martial for as long as possible. In limbo prefer this, Arnold to be dangerously at risk to see treason no as a betrayal of every he had held sacred but as a way to conserve his nation from the revolutionary federal government that to be threatening to ruin it.

In his anguish on may 5, he offered Washington a warning: “Having do every sacrifice the fortune and blood, and also become a cripple in the business of mine country, I tiny expected to fulfill the ungrateful return I have actually received of my countrymen, however as Congress have actually stamped ingratitude together a present coin I should take it. I wish your Excellency for your long and eminent services might not be payment of in the same coin.”

In the reference to money, Arnold unintentionally betrayed the actual reason he had been moved to think about this course. If he handled the negotiations correctly, transforming traitor can be incredibly lucrative. Not only would he have the ability to walk far from his existing financial obligations, he might command a number from the british that would certainly make him individually wealthy because that life.

On may 10, one emissary from Arnold got to John André, a british captain whom Peggy had involved know fine in Philadelphia. However now André to be living in brand-new York City, which would certainly become critical to the Revolution’s future in the month ahead. Arnold want to discover the possibility of defecting, but very first he needed to be assured of 2 things: were the british in this battle to stay? and how much were his solutions worth?

In the tortuous month ahead, Arnold would endure his oft-delayed court-martial with a reprimand, and Washington would regain him come command. But the emissary’s visit was the very first tentative step that led, in late summer-fall the 1780, come Arnold’s doomed effort to hand over the fortifications in ~ West allude to the enemy.

By reaching out come the British, Arnold gave his adversaries the exquisite satisfaction of having actually been best all along. Like Robert E. Lee in ~ the start of the American civil War, Arnold might have declared his adjust of heart and also simply change sides. However as he was around to make clear, he was doing this an initial and foremost for the money.

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Editor-in-chief Michael Caruso interviewed writer Nathaniel Philbrick on our on facebook page about Benedict Arnold. Clock the video clip and follow us for more great history story from Smithsonian magazine and ​