November 15, 2007


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The Real Benedict Arnold, by Jim Murphy (Clarion Books, 2007, 264 pages)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons

It was all Horatio Gates’ fault.

He got credit for defeating the British at Saratoga, even though Benedict Arnold did all the real work.

It was also Congress’ fault. They never got around to paying Arnold his wages, and they spent so much time in petty political squabbles that they nearly lost the war. Meanwhile the soldiers were going without food and pay. This kind of thing got under B.A.’s skin.

And of course it was Arnold’s fault. Couldn’t he have retired into country life when he got disgusted with the leaders of the Revolution? But his temperament and upbringing apparently drove him to seek honor and stature, and material success, for himself and his family, not to mention his country.

There’s more to the story, though the historical record is incomplete. And there are different perspectives on Arnold now just as there were among his contemporaries.

Jim Murphy, author of many children’s books, including 2003’s Newbery Honor Book An American Plague, portrays Benedict in a sympathetic light.

The book begins with a brief look at Arnold’s family history and his young adulthood, then shows how he came to join the revolution — he was a merchant and felt the taxes were burdensome. His military involvement in the war is detailed in subsequent chapters — his trip to Ticonderoga (where we first hear of his clashing with other officers); his expedition through Maine to Quebec; his strategy at the Battle of Valcour Island and then his time at Saratoga. Throughout, we see how the slights, the bosses’ incompetence, the vendettas and politics pile up on him. We see that Gates was a wimp and Ethan Allen an overgrown adolescent. It was during his recuperation from wounds inflicted at Saratoga, Murphy says, that “Benedict seems to have changed … wondering what good it would do to replace one unfair government with another.”

It isn’t until chapter 19 (of 21) that Murphy gets to the big climax of Benedict’s story. “We will never know how many weeks or even months of thought went into Benedict Arnold’s decision to forsake the American Revolution,” he writes. “We don’t know whether he agonized over it, or whom … he might have consulted.” The final three chapters document Arnold’s overtures to the British and planning to give them West Point, the Americans’ discovery of the plot, and the execution of Arnold’s partner, British Major John André. We get a quick rundown of the rest of Arnold’s life: he took up commerce in Canada and later moved to England, where he died at age 60.

In Murphy’s telling, Arnold wasn’t generally asking for more than was his due; he was truly wronged. “Benedict had been away from his family for months at a time, spent his own money to supply his troops, and been severely wounded twice,” and Congress’ not paying him and refusing him promotions and questioning his decisions despite his military bravery and success “was almost too much to bear.”

In other reports, Arnold was mainly an arrogant and selfish prig who happened to perform well in the Patriot army. Alan Axelrod, for instance, in his new book The Real History of the American Revolution, calls Arnold “a prima donna” who “felt obliged to maintain an elegant way of life well beyond his means [and thus] was chronically short of cash.”

Murphy tells us Arnold was maintaining only the elegance required of him as commandant of Philadelphia, forced to use his own funds to entertain dignitaries and the like. Murphy does acknowledge Arnold’s abrasiveness and acquisitiveness, but for him those qualities aren’t deal-breakers.

Reading various sources on Arnold, one might conclude that the sympathizers and the detractors are both right. Arnold was out to insure himself honor and success above all — and he did passionately embrace whatever system (the British or the American) he believed would fairly enable him, and others, to do so. It wasn’t a matter of money-grubbing, maybe, so much as a certain materialistic sense of honor. Murphy, in his closing words, might have found the bulls-eye: “In many ways Benedict was a very modern American capitalist, possibly too modern for an era … where the aggressive pursuit of business and self-advancement was carefully concealed behind a very proper and reserved demeanor.”

Filled with pictures, primary source material and extensive references, The Real Benedict Arnold is a thoughtful, in-depth addition to the Arnold history. The publisher is marketing it as “Juvenile Nonfiction,” but (while it’s certainly suitable for an interested young historian) it doesn’t strike me as really juvenile reading. A