The Hero and the Traitor

What causes someone to commit treason? Politics? Greed? Vengeance? American history offers a few examples of those who have gone over to the other side in time of war. But what makes a fearless officer, a battlefield victor, the favorite of his commanding general, betray the cause for which he risked his life?

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In the new fascinating, fast-moving biographical history, George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots (Regnery), military historian Dave Palmer contrasts and compares the lives and careers of George Washington, America’s most famous hero, and Benedict Arnold, its most infamous traitor.

Washington’s story is easily summarized: first in war (leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War), first in peace (setting the standard for his successors as our first President) and first in the hearts of his countrymen by reason of his unswerving commitment to duty, honor and country.

Palmer skillfully sketches Benedict Arnold’s first 33 years leading up to the Revolutionary War. The oldest son of a prominent Connecticut family, Benedict found himself basically on his own at the age of 15, due to the death of both parents and the collapse of the family business. Determined to succeed financially and to restore the Arnold name, Arnold by the age of 25 was a successful merchant and ship owner. People also knew him as a deadly duelist who would brook no insult, large or small.

When Britain began raising taxes and meddling in colonial affairs in the early 1770s, Arnold saw that his hard-won wealth and independence were seriously threatened. He joined the radical Sons of Liberty and was “elected” commander of the state militia, which he proudly led into action against the British in the spring of 1775.

Gen. Washington was impressed by the bravery and self-confidence of the younger Arnold and made him one of his most trusted commanders. In the first three years of the war, Col. and then Brigadier Gen. Arnold fully justified Washington’s trust, capturing Fort Ticonderoga, invading Canada and winning the battle of Saratoga. Palmer says flatly that Washington and Arnold were primarily responsible for the early military success of the American cause. British Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender of his army after Saratoga, he writes, “sealed France’s decision to come openly to the aid of the United States.” And without France, America would not have gained independence.

However, Arnold’s leg had been badly shattered at Saratoga. During a long convalescence, the vainglorious Arnold brooded over a long list of slights, real and imagined: being passed over by men of lesser ability, insults by members of Congress, a stream of slander from jealous men, risking his life over and over to no lasting good for himself. He decided in the spring of 1778 that henceforth he “would place his interests before those of the cause.” Facing mounting debt and newly married to a beautiful young Philadelphian, Arnold’s urgent need to make money became unbridled avarice.

Depths of Treason

The slide down the slope of treason was swift. In May 1779, Arnold offered his services to the British for a price—20,000 pounds sterling. He promised the British a golden prize—Fortress West Point, of which he had been appointed commander.

The last chapters of Palmer’s book read like a novel as Arnold established a secret correspondence with British Gen. Sir Henry Clinton in New York, met with the British super spy Maj. John Andre and deliberately weakened West Point’s defenses. The fortress’s fall into British hands would have been a grievous blow to the Americans, militarily and financially stretched to the breaking point after five years of war.

But Andre was captured by alert patriots and the evidence of Arnold’s treason was discovered in Andre’s boot. A frantic Arnold fled Fortress West Point just before the arrival of Gen. Washington, who upon examining the incriminating documents said of his once favorite subordinate: “Arnold has betrayed us!”

In a brief last chapter, Palmer addresses the question of why Washington rose to the heights of heroism while Arnold sank to the depths of treason. He finds the answer in each man’s character, evaluating them in terms of the four classic virtues—fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice. George Washington possessed all four virtues and in abundance. Arnold presented a very different case.

Benedict Arnold excelled only in the virtue of fortitude—his physical and mental strength were unquestioned—but he had no self-discipline, little prudence and was an abject failure in dispensing justice. He was “ego-centered in the extreme”—determining what was right or wrong only in terms of whether it furthered his interests. He suffered from a near absence of character that resulted in a Lucifer-like fall into endless disgrace.

Washington and Arnold can be enjoyed at several different levels—as insightful biography, as engrossing history and as a reminder of the essential role of character in a leader on or off the battlefield. Whatever the year, Americans would be wise to choose those who, like George Washington, had “an absolute unwillingness to be led astray by personal gain or ideological distractions.”