A Fresh Look at Benedict Arnold’s Treason

Posted June 24, 2018 4:25 p.m. EDT

Benedict Arnold’s name might be the first that comes to mind when we think of treason not just because he was a traitor, but because he was such an unlikely one. For several years before he attempted to change the course of the American Revolution in 1780 by planning to help the British overtake West Point and capture George Washington, he had exhibited great courage and suffered serious injury for the colonies’ cause.

“Within months of accepting command of the Continental Army in June 1775, Washington had realized that Arnold was that prized rarity in an army of amateurs: a born soldier and charismatic leader of men,” Stephen Brumwell writes in his new book, “Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty.”

Arnold was a soldier after Washington’s “own heart, a tenacious fighter who refused to be discouraged by even the most unfavorable circumstances.” That Arnold betrayed his side is undoubted. But did he think of it that way? Here, Brumwell discusses how his book’s argument became much more original than he had expected, how history might have turned out differently and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A: I’ve always considered the treason of Arnold one of the most dramatic stories in American history. I was reminded of its remarkable twists and turns when I was writing my last book, which was about George Washington’s military career. A central theme to that book was the whole question of honor and what it meant to be a gentleman. And of course, the concept of honor is very central to Arnold’s career; rather ironically, given how it ended up. Until Arnold defected, Washington always had a high opinion of him. He was one of his best, hardest-fighting generals. When Arnold defected, the shock was great across the whole patriot spectrum, but especially for Washington, because here was his blue-eyed boy, if you like, doing the unthinkable. I thought: This is a story that deserves retelling.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

A: I hadn’t realized just how close Arnold’s plot had come to succeeding. We hear a lot about the effectiveness of Washington’s spy network, but none of his agents had a clue about Arnold’s plans. They were only uncovered at the very last moment, and that was only due to an extraordinary sequence of events. Many of the patriots, including Washington himself, attributed their deliverance to a kind of divine intervention.

Also, I hadn’t fully appreciated the depths to which the patriot cause had sunk by September 1780, when Arnold’s plot was uncovered. If that plot had succeeded, the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been totally different, ending in some kind of negotiated peace agreement and without an independent United States of America. Gordon Wood, who’s probably the most eminent historian of the American Revolution, contested that conclusion in his review of my book. We’ll never really know, but I would maintain that if the plot had gone ahead, it would have dealt an extremely heavy blow to the cause of liberty. It’s a scenario that’s never been properly explored because history is written by the winners.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A: It’s fair to say that the book is far more original and controversial than the one I expected to write. I signed up to revisit Arnold and his treason with the aim of retelling the whole story as vividly as possible while taking on board the recent outpouring of scholarship about colonial and revolutionary America. Knowing that the subject had been tackled by many historians, I doubted whether I would uncover any significant new evidence. Happily, that turned out to be overly pessimistic.

I found a good deal of material, including revealing letters written by Arnold himself, and that was quite a surprise. They not only added new details to the familiar narrative, but allowed me to come to grips with the central question: Why did one of the patriots’ most effective fighters, who had been crippled in the cause of American liberty, decide to change his allegiance? This allowed me to challenge the previous wisdom that Arnold had been motivated by a combination of greed and resentment. Those sources made it possible to try to build a case that Arnold believed that he acted in the best interests of his country. In delivering a knockout blow, he would save the misguided patriots from a dysfunctional congress and the horrors of a civil war that had been dragging on inconclusively. He had convinced himself he was doing the right thing. Whether he was doing the right thing is another matter.

Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

A: I’ve always loved the cinema, especially the great sweeping historical epics. As a kid I was very lucky. My dad would take me to watch classics like “Spartacus” and “Zulu” on the big screen. The films of David Lean have had a lasting impact on me: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Ryan’s Daughter,” which wasn’t an especially well-reviewed film at the time, but I’ve always liked it. As a writer of nonfiction, I’m drawn to the same kind of flawed characters that fascinated Lean — and Benedict Arnold would have offered him a perfect subject.

My books rest on extensive research, and I try very hard to make sure whatever I say or argue is based on credible foundations. But even the best evidence can be squandered unless it’s framed in a compelling story line.

Q: Persuade someone to read “Turncoat” in 50 words or less.

A: The story of Benedict Arnold’s metamorphosis, from renowned hero to reviled traitor, rivals any fiction. “Turncoat” explores his treason as part of a far broader crisis, deploying fresh evidence to contest traditional interpretations of events. Its themes of loyalty, patriotism and betrayal have never been more relevant than now.

Publication Notes:

‘Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty’

By Stephen Brumwell

Illustrated. 372 pages. Yale University Press. $30.