Two great patriots. Two giants of the battlefield. Yet one became our greatest hero, and one became our most notorious traitor.
In this new dual biography, “George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots,” military historian and former superintendent of West Point Dave R. Palmer documents how and why George Washington became the father of our country while Benedict Arnold became a man without a country.
It was a surprising turn of events. No man was more ardent for the patriot cause and more recklessly brave on the battlefield than Benedict Arnold.
After the first three years of the Revolutionary War, every patriot recognized as our two greatest warriors George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, and twice battle-wounded Benedict Arnold, captor of Fort Ticonderoga, invader of Canada, and victor at the battle of Saratoga. Washington and Arnold admired each other. Washington saw Arnold as a true fighting soldier whose merits were unjustly neglected by his superiors and the Continental Congress. Arnold respected Washington as a worthy commander in chief.
They even shared enemies—both men were subject to jealous conspiracies against them from plotting generals and petty politicians (including, in Washington’s case, John Adams). But while Washington rose above his enemies, Arnold became embittered by them. With a character less stoic than Washington’s, in pain from his battlefield wounds, and with slow twists of mind, heart, character, and decision, Arnold, in charge of Fortress West Point, finally committed himself to betraying the cause that he had previously served so well.
Palmer, in his new book, unveils this chapter of American history. The following are Palmer’s thoughts about the book and the two men he writes about.
What inspired you to write the book?
There had been so many instances in recent years of senior leaders (politicians, businessmen, etc) who failed, who crashed and burned, sometimes even going to jail. An element present always in their fall was a lack of character. I knew that this tale from history would illuminate the need for strength of character in our leaders.
Why did you pair Benedict Arnold with George Washington?
Because what happened to them was so dramatic. They were once on parallel paths as the Revolutionary War’s two greatest heroes. Then those paths diverged, leading one to become the father of his country while the other became a man without a country.
What reputation did Arnold have before the treason?
He was noted as the best battlefield commander the Americans had. Sort of like Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War or George Patton in World War II. He was a true celebrity of his time.
You say that the lives of the two men followed parallel trajectories until Arnold’s treason. How so?
They had similar family backgrounds, experienced similar childhoods, were both successful “self-made” men, neither had the advantage of being able to complete his schooling, they were natural leaders in battle—and they suffered setbacks, criticism, and plots against them.
Almost everyone knows that Arnold was a traitor. But other Americans sided with the British. What exactly did Arnold do that made his particular defection so awful?
He was not just a turncoat, but a celebrity who, for self-serving reasons, tried to bring about the defeat of the Revolution.
Why do you think he turned against his fellow patriots?
Political and personal attacks made him bitter, driving him to seek vindication; when he failed to gain vindication he turned to avarice, and finally began to seek vengeance.
Washington suffered similar or even greater adversity than Arnold—defeats, slights, criticism, attempts to remove him—yet he remained steadfast. Why?
He had great strength of character. The unfairness of personal attacks hurt, even angered him, but he persevered, never becoming embittered and always keeping his eyes on the larger goal of winning the war.
How do you define character?
Knowing the difference between right and wrong, and having the moral courage to take the harder right instead of the easier wrong.
Character may have been important in the 18th century. But is it still essential for senior leaders in the 21st century?
Absolutely. Leaders must possess both competence and character. That has always been so. Requirements for competence obviously differ from era to era, and leaders must be adept at meeting those requirements. But character is the unchanging ingredient of leadership—it is an essential for senior leaders in business, the military, religion, government, education. … It is the very basis of leadership, that on which all else rests.
Is this a book with a great story, or one with a great moral?
Both. The tale of the two supreme warriors is itself a fascinating story, while the description of why one went on to fame and the other to infamy has a paramount moral message. Character matters. It is not merely leaders that America needs, but leaders of character.