Was Benedict Arnold's wife the real traitor?

What really happened.
Jan. 10 2003 12:53 PM

Love Me Two-Timer

Was Benedict Arnold's wife the real traitor?

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Aidan Quinn as Arnold: The things we do for love ...

Does Benedict Arnold get too harsh a rap in the popular imagination? The notorious Judas of the American Revolution is best-known for selling military secrets to the British. Today his name remains shorthand for betrayal: "Benedict Jeffords" was the New York Post headline the day after Sen. Jim Jeffords defected from the Republican party. But several recent biographies of Arnold present a more complex portrait of a brilliant and thin-skinned war hero, who, despite leading triumphant campaigns in Saratoga and Quebec, felt sorely underappreciated.

The latest re-evaluation is also the most sympathetic. Benedict Arnold: A Man of Honor, a dramatically plodding and historically shoddy A&E melodrama starring Aidan Quinn as Arnold and Kelsey Grammer as a chubby, red-faced George Washington, airs Monday, Jan. 13. Instead of concentrating on his battlefield exploits, the movie defends Arnold by shifting the blame onto his wife. Wouldn't you know it? A woman put him up to it.

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Snooty, beautiful, and very smart, Margaret "Peggy" Shippen, the young daughter of a Pennsylvania judge, is cast as the Lady Macbeth of the Revolution. She plants the idea of helping the British after Arnold begins feuding with Joseph Reed, a radical who disapproves of Arnold cavorting with a member of a loyalist family. (The Shippens were actually scrupulously neutral, but why quibble?) "Why do you still cleave to these charlatans who use and despise you?" Shippen demands. Innocent Arnold is shocked (shocked!) at her implication and forbids her to talk about it again. But using her bag of womanly tricks, she eventually wears him down.

Shippen also introduces Arnold to the enemy. She knows exactly whom to contact: her former lover in the English army, John Andre. (In real life, she knew Andre, but there's no evidence of an affair.) When George Washington offers him a prestigious military post, Arnold has second thoughts about his treachery. But Shippen chastises her husband and hardens his resolve. Arnold, the decisive and courageous military leader almost twice Shippen's age, is a mere man at the mercy of his libido. It's no accident that the first thing he does after passing maps to the British that would sink the Revolutionary cause is go home and make passionate love. Betrayal, apparently, is quite an aphrodisiac.

Hopeless when faced with Shippen's charms, it's clear why Arnold commits his acts of treachery. But why does she do it? There's some suggestion that she was outraged at the violent excesses of the Revolution: Loyalists were hanged for their sins. But that's hardly a satisfying explanation. And while there has been much gossip over the years about Shippen (one theory has it that she was a spy herself working for the British), little serious scholarship has been dedicated to her role in Arnold's spying. In its press materials, the film's producer and writer William Mastrosimone claims he relied on Carl Van Doren's 1941 Secret History of the American Revolution, the main source for those looking to find Shippen complicit. But even this book doesn't go anywhere near as far as A Man of Honor. "Everything in Arnold's career shows how independently he made up his mind," Van Doren writes. "However beguiling [Peggy] may have been … she could have hardly done more than confirm a powerful will like Arnold's in his own decision."

Most historians believe that Arnold grew disillusioned with the revolutionary cause before he even met Peggy Shippen. In Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered, the best of the revisionist histories, James Kirby Martin outlines how a series of disputes with Congress about money and rank soured him on his patriot colleagues. The University of Houston professor, whose book is currently being turned into a documentary called Benedict Arnold: American General, argues that Arnold already had his motivation for treason after his victorious campaigns in Quebec and Saratoga. Yet A Man of Honor includes only a few scenes of these early battles, most of which are riddled with historical errors. For instance, the movie begins with a sloppy portrayal of Arnold's attack on Quebec. The title at the bottom of the screen reads 1776; it was actually 1775. Arnold charges under a bright, clear sky, but it was really in a snowstorm before dawn. In the next few scenes, we learn that Arnold was promoted to Major General after his victory in Saratoga (false), that he was an indentured servant as a child (not true), and that his father died when he was 9 (21 is more like it).

A Man of Honor is about as faithful to history as Arnold was to the Revolution. But there is a method to its portrait of Shippen. In the logic of heroic American movies, you can be excused for any mistake if you do it for love. Think of how many times you've heard this narration in a coming attraction: One man must choose between his country and the woman he loves. Arnold may not be loyal to America, but dammit, he is to his wife. Perhaps a more suitable subtitle than A Man of Honor would be Benedict Arnold: He's a Lover, Not a Traitor.

Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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