What is it, exactly, that tempts someone to betray their own country? Does the root of that betrayal lie in their personality from the beginning? Is it a conscious decision influenced by the desire for money and glory?
As a history lover, I’ve long been curious to learn more about Benedict Arnold and what made him act the way he did. Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution provides quite an insight into Arnold’s character.
Arnold was a family man with two sons and a talented officer who deserved promotion, even according to his peers at the time. He had cantankerous relationships with his own officers and resented that other people were promoted past him.
I get the impression that Arnold wanted riches and status above everything else. He did publish a statement to the American people that he was frustrated with Congress and didn’t like the alliance with France, but that seems more like a smokescreen for his real motives.
Philbrick proposes that Arnold would have done better as a naval captain, running his own mini-kingdom at sea. After reading the book, I’m inclined to agree. It would have suited Arnold’s character and maybe Arnold would not have taken that final step of offering West Point to the British for money.
Arnold’s second wife, Peggy Shipton, may or may not have played a role in Arnold’s treachery. A loyalist, she hinted to someone else that she had spent considerable time convincing Arnold to surrender West Point.
The book also notes that George Washington didn’t have it easy either. He had to cobble together a group of militias and train them to fight against a much superior, professionally trained force, often with very little financial help from the Continental Congress.
Washington must have had monumental patience. Not only did Congress obstruct him, but his own subordinates were aiming for power of their own. So Washington had both internal and external battles going on.
The irony of Arnold’s treachery, Philbrick notes, is that it galvanized the Americans to take more action and be more motivated to win the war. Interesting how one person’s actions can change the course of history, isn’t it?