I listened to this fascinating short bio on audio, which really made it come alive. Benedict Arnold is, of course, synonymous with “traitor” in the English-speaking world. The man is remembered for selling out the American Revolution. Americans despised him in his lifetime, and the British never really trusted him. But Sheinkin reveals how closely Arnold could have come to standing alongside George Washington in the nation’s historical pantheon.
So what went wrong? The easy answer is that Arnold was an impatient, foul-tempered egotist who could not handle the politics of the day. Some would say greed was his sole motivation. But Sheinkin reveals that the story is much more complicated than that. Arnold was, indeed, vain, thin-skinned, and impulsive. He was also brilliant, independent-minded, and dedicated to the American cause. He could count Washington among his many admirers, and Benedict Arnold, given the equipment and troops needed, could very well have made Ontario and Quebec part of the fledgling United States. He was so good at warfare that even the British admired him.
A series of political slights, back-stabbing by certain fellow commanders, and Arnold’s own abrasive personality combined to keep him from earning the promotion to Washington’s second-in-command that even His Excellency thought he deserved. However, rather than learning to manage the vagaries of early American politics and letting Washington work behind the scenes on his behalf, Arnold gave up in a fit of anger and approached Major John Andre about defecting, giving the British the fortress at West Point and General Washington in the deal. The plot would see Andre hung and Arnold living in exile for the rest of his life.
Sheinkin ultimately condemns Arnold for his betrayal, yet it is hard to come away from this biography without some sympathy for the man. As much blame lies with a fractured Congress, with opportunistic generals such as Ethan Allen, and even the British as it does Arnold.
You may end up still despising Arnold, yet you can’t help but understand what drove him to the dark side, loathed by both America and Britain for the remainder of his life.