Benedict Arnold: Triumph & Treason

By Justin Barr

The names Marcus Brutus, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Guy Fawkes, and Benedict Arnold were all famous for the act of betrayal. Brutus to Caesar, the Rosenbergs to America, Fawkes to James I of England, and of course Arnold to America. Benedict Arnold was a trusted man to George Washington and helped the American cause during the Revolution, at first, but so was Brutus to Julius Caesar. Arnold should not get a free pass because he helped America get the momentum: if his plan had worked, then the British would have taken back control of the war and more than likely been victorious, It was, and still is, fair the way Arnold was looked down upon by America as well as Great Britain because he was a traitor by every definition.

The life and career of Benedict Arnold was documented in the Biography show Benedict Arnold: Triumph and Treason. It was released on DVD in July of 1995 and was a production of A&E Home Video and Greystone Communications for the television program Biography. The biography was a fifty minute historical documentation produced by Eric Lindstrom and hosted by Peter Graves with other historical scholars adding their own research and beliefs.

The film tried to portray Arnold as a sympathetic figure to the viewer, which he is not. Arnold did help the American colonies win major battles during the Revolution, like the Battle of Saratoga, Battle of Saratoga Map but his pride and debt problems could have given the British victory. Arnold's plan was to allow British forces to take control of West Point, which was located on the Hudson River. If the plan had worked the British would take over the Hudson River and been able to divide the northern and southern colonies; this would have enabled the British to smother the American plans for freedom. Arnold's pride led him to switch to the British side because he felt he was not promoted quick enough and was not getting the credit he deserved. Also just as much as his pride led him to switch sides, so did his money problems. Arnold incurred much debt while he recuperated from his leg wound and if the plan at West Point been successful Arnold would have been paid nicely for his treachery.

The film showed the conspiracy plan, but downplayed the significance. The film attempted to depict Arnold as a tragic hero who was treated badly and disgraced by his peers. The only monument to Benedict Arnold was that of a leg for the battle at Saratoga in which his leg was shattered, but his name was nowhere on it. The film thought this to be a dishonor to Arnold for all he gave for American independence, but had Arnold's plan worked and the British won, then Arnold would be shown not as a tragic hero but as a disloyal traitor. The film also claimed that had Arnold been killed at the Battle of Saratoga, instead of wounded, there would be parks and cities named after him, even his face appearing on U.S. money. This would be true, Arnold would have been an American hero, but he did not die at Saratoga and he did try to help the British. General George Armstrong Custer is a legend in western history because of the way he died, but if he had not been killed at Little Bighorn he would be looked at as just another person running the Native Americans off their lands and essentially a villain. The film was interesting and easy to watch because the viewer watched Benedict Arnold grow from a child with an alcoholic dad to an adult general. The film was well done and was factual, but just seemed to press for Arnold's exoneration, which does not make sense.

Amazon had two reviews of the film with one critic giving two stars out of five and the other awarding four stars. One review argued that the film was excellent in quality, but agreed that the positive spin the commentators gave to the character of Arnold was appalling since he is the most despised traitor in American history. The review also suggested that the film gave all the credit to Arnold for the victories won early and no credit to the other soldiers. Arnold was always jealous of someone else and the reason he did not get credit for Saratoga was because he was in the hospital for his leg wound, received while disobeying orders, which is not credit worthy. Arnold had a problem serving under a superior and that jealousy led him to betraying Washington and America, not his new Loyalist wife. The other reviewer thought the biography was more informative than apologetic. The writer agreed that Arnold was a traitor and should not be portrayed as a hero, but felt that the commentators just gave the evidence and left it to the viewers to decide if Arnold should get credit for his part. Arnold was trusted and respected by Washington, but eventually turned on him as all traitors do. Arnold could have been a hero, but he threw it away by letting his pride get the better of him. This reviewer saw the film as a way to see what Arnold could have been, but also how pathetic his life was. Both reviews summed up the major issue of the film: to present Benedict Arnold not as a hero but as a despicable traitor who looked out for himself. Whether the commentators tried to persuade the viewer or not is for viewers to determine in their own minds.

Another film about Benedict Arnold is Benedict Arnold: Question of Honor. This film was an actual movie released in 2003 starring Kelsey Grammer as Washington and Aidan Quinn as the notorious Benedict Arnold. This film again tried to put the blame on other officers instead of Arnold; also it suggests that Arnold switched sides because of his love for his wife, Peggy. In reality, by the time Arnold met and married Peggy, he had already established in his mind that he was about to betray the Continental Army. After he was wounded at Saratoga, Arnold did not see much action but his jealousy continued to grow. The Battle at Saratoga was in 1777; Arnold married Peggy in 1779 two years later, which gave Arnold a lot of time to decide in his own mind what he was going to do. If Arnold was still anti-British he would not have married a pro-British woman: clearly he had already switched sides by the time he met Peggy in 1778. Back to the movie itself, it was not very good from the point of view of acting and the director rushed through too much. It was like watching different clips instead of one movie.

The Biography film Benedict Arnold: Triumph and Treason was a much better production because it was historically accurate while the Kelsey Grammer movie was made more for entertainment. Both films, for a historian anyway, brought out why the name Benedict Arnold has become synonymous for traitor in America, the biography film more of course. Question of Honor could have done a better job portraying the true Benedict Arnold as well as the events that took place throughout the war.
Benedict Arnold

Before Benedict Arnold traded his colonial uniform for the redcoat, he was trusted and respected by Americans, but just not as much as he felt he deserved. George Washington held him in high regard too, which told a lot since the leader of the American army believed in him. Once Arnold stabbed Washington in the back by switching sides, Washington immediately had his name wiped out of the military records. Benedict Arnold's name is not engraved on the monument at Saratoga because of Washington's removal of the name years ago, and rightly so. Washington, like everyone else, was extremely bitter toward Arnold and his reaction was that Arnold was a misguided traitor and absolutely evil. Arnold betrayed the American people, whom he bravely fought for, to satisfy his own selfish reasons and as soon as the truth spread his name quickly became associated with Satan's. Almost one hundred years later, during the Civil War, there was a poster with Satan and Jefferson Davis pictured in Hell, but right beside them was Benedict Arnold. The old line that "time heals everything" does not stand true in the case of Benedict Arnold. One legend said when Arnold captured an American officer he asked him what the Americans would do to him if he was caught. The officer replied "Cut off your right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet." Whether this was true or not, it showed how everyone felt about Arnold after he committed treason. The actual story cannot be proven, but if Arnold had been caught the prediction would have been fulfilled. Arnold later wrote a letter to America as to why he betrayed them, titled "The Inhabitants of America". In the letter he explained what he saw as corruption and dishonesty of the American Congress, but also how he did not agree with America's alliance with France. Arnold did not ever like the French from the start of the war. A person can make just as good an argument that without the help of France the British would have eventually won, most likely a better argument than if Benedict Arnold had always been on the British side. In the letter Arnold had no credit in speaking of dishonesty after the disloyalty he himself demonstrated. Arnold's letter did not help him win over anyone in America, but probably did hurt him in the eyes of the British people.

Benedict Arnold was not accepted well by the British either, in part because they witnessed what took place. Arnold was not trusted because he turned on America: what would keep him from turning on Britain if the right price came along. Other patriots turned back to loyalist for a number of reasons, but Arnold had proven that he was a man with no integrity who could be bought if the price was right. Arnold served in the British army but was not trusted, the British elites did not want to see Arnold as a leader because the highest position was for someone with true honor and many men held that honor with more dignity than Arnold. When Arnold first returned back to London after the war, he was received affectionately by the King and Queen. The whole ruling party treated the Arnolds with respect and prestige; however that would not last long. Arnold supported the pro-war party because he wanted to go back to America and finish the war; he felt he could win the war for England but that did not sound like something an American hero would do. However, most British people did not support the costly war and as soon as the Whig party took over, they attacked Arnold. Arnold's warm reception was no more; Arnold was, in the British eyes, an American living in London. Arnold tried to trade with the East India Company, but was never successful. In the next few years he requested money for compensation for his actions as promised by Andre, but eventually he gave up. It was always money that Arnold wanted most of all, along with being praised. Arnold was forever rejected by both sides he helped during the American Revolution. He found peace for a short time in Canada between 1786-92 as a West Indian merchant, but a depression ended it quickly and he returned to London; he could not go back to America because a hangman's noose was all that awaited him there. Once back in London, Arnold continued to profit during any time of war and even went privateering for a short time, and was successful. When he died in 1801 in London, he died as a man without a country. Trust is a hard thing to win during any time period, and once someone proves to be untrustworthy then he loses all creditability that he might have had.

There were many books written about Benedict Arnold with the most popular being The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John Andre by James Thomas Flexner published in 1953. Although this book was written over half a century ago many people still believe it to be the best book about Arnold. Reviews claimed it to be well researched and that it did not make excuses for Arnold, but simply gave the facts as they were. The book revealed Arnold in his three major flaws, his ego, need for money, and uneasiness. The book also went into much detail about the life and character of Arnold's partner in crime John Andre. The drawback to this book was that it did not have endnotes included in the book: the reader had to request them from the publisher, but still other researchers claimed that Flexner was well recognized for many of his books. Another book that reviewers seem to acknowledge as more positive towards Arnold than negative was Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall in 2003. This book laid some blame on the U.S. Congress for not repaying Arnold for the money he used, from his own pocket, to furnish his troops with needs and building boats. It also illustrated just how close Arnold's plan of handing West Point over to the British came to being successful. Peggy was another important factor in persuading Arnold to betray America too. A third book that was much shorter than the first two, but also with good reviews was The Real Benedict Arnold by Jim Murphy in 2007. In most books about Benedict Arnold, as well as the biography film, Arnold was portrayed as a brave combatant on both sides he fought for, which was not questioned, but depicted overall as a traitor, which was true. The question brought up by all of the different accounts, film included, was should Arnold be let off the hook by America because of his part in U.S. independence? The answer is no, Arnold should not be made into an American hero because if he had it his way America would have stayed under the authority of the British Crown.

The fact that Benedict Arnold fought and won major battles for America was not denied, but he came closer to handing the British the war than people realize today. America and England despised Arnold for what he did to help the other side win the war. He could have been a hero on either side if he had stayed with America or if he had never been a part of the American cause and just helped the British. Benedict Arnold was not mistreated or disrespected by Americans after the Revolution, he mistreated and disrespected the Americans. The name Benedict Arnold will always be remembered as the most notorious traitor in United States history; perhaps nobody can ever surpass him. The ironic fact in the whole debate over Arnold and which side he really supported, is that two hundred twenty-five years later the United States' number one ally is Great Britain and has been for decades, but neither claims Benedict Arnold as their own.