Even by Victorian standards Great Massingham, Norfolk was a sleepy hamlet. Though it had been a settled community since Norman times, in 1880 it comprised little more than a few farms, an inn and a handsome medieval church. Local humour had it that there were more ducks in the village pond than there were people. But it was here, in the parish rectory, that a remarkable document was unearthed. It was a manuscript that threw new light on its author but refuted too the commonly held belief that the American war was considered over with the surrender at Yorktown.
The owner of this document was the Right Rev. Edward Gladwin Arnold. Its author was his grandfather the notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold.
By 1880 there had been little attempt to re-evaluate the reputation of Arnold. To Americans, he remained the personification of betrayal. George Cannings Hill had recently published his influential biography on Arnold with the preface, “of true manhood, lofty purpose and persevering effort … Benedict Arnold offers no such example. On the contrary, his memory shall be detested as long as time shall help to keep it alive.” In Britain on the other hand, his name was all but forgotten, a dishonourable and embarrassing coda to a lost war.
It would have been easy then for this document to have been either destroyed or mislaid but fortunately for historians, the vicar doggedly preserved it, and in 1880 it was published as an appendix to a more sympathetic biography by Congressman and distant relative Isaac N Arnold.
The paper “Thoughts on the American War” comprised nine handwritten pages that were never intended for public view. They contained remarkably prescient observations on the failure of the British cause in America. Arnold being the man he was, they also presented his proposed remedies for those deficiencies. Though it was framed just months after the capitulation at Yorktown, the work reasoned a plan of action that in no part acknowledged defeat as inevitable.
Written at the behest of the George III, it was well received by both the sovereign and his ministry. As such it gives a vital snapshot into the thinking of the British and Loyalist “Ultras” who even at this late stage of the war believed victory, or at least honourable reconciliation, was worth pursuing. Perhaps most remarkably the document was not one that emphasised military solutions to the conflict but civil and political ones. The solutions offered are sophisticated and thoughtful and show Arnold in a fresh light from the blustering headstrong soldier of tradition.
I break down here the central assertions of Arnold for the purposes of clarity and debate. The actual document features no such breaks. Arnold’s style is, as one may suppose, both forthright and emphatic, though some of his points are repetitive. I have tidied up his grammar and spelling, and have left out some of his more pedestrian points, but other than that the paper is as written.
Some of his contentions are undoubtedly wrong. Many are extraordinarily accurate and insightful. Like the man himself, it is a paper that will split opinions. The judgments under Arnold’s narrative are the author’s own and are not intended to be conclusive, rather a starting point for debate. It is for JAR readers to decide how different the war may have been if the British had had had time to engage Arnold’s plan in full, but there is no doubt that as a summary of British policy failings in America it stands up to rigorous scrutiny.
Great Britain was deceived at the commencement of the American troubles when she trusted to what some wrote: that the discontents were confined to a small faction. Her measures thus became inadequate to her ends.
Correct. And a bold assertion with which to begin the paper, for it was commissioned by George III who was the leading proponent of the opinion that the rebellion was the work of a few cynical individuals and not a populist uprising. The British military response to a widespread rebellion was therefore never likely to be adequate. Even at its height, the crown had upwards of 22,000 British regular troops at its disposal in North America to combat the rebellion, supplemented by several thousand German auxiliaries. An additional 25,000 Loyalists, faithful to Great Britain, participated in the conflict as well. What Arnold didn’t mention is that this insufficiency was as much a failure of logistics as it was a political blunder. The British simply didn’t have the capability to put more troops into the field. More importantly, they didn’t expect they would need too. Arnold is probably referencing the American secretary Lord Dartmouth who believed that limited coercion would “prevent bloodshed by overwhelming the radical leaders of the mob” while at the same time, strengthening the determination of those elements variously described as the “better sort” or the “right thinking” colonists. Dartmouth’s view was undoubtedly the prevailing one in Britain at the beginning of the war.
There are those who now allege that she has few or no friends in America; and if they are believed, she will be a second time and more fatally deluded. Such accounts should be listened to with great jealousy, because they proceed from Ignorance or bad design, and lead to despair; and the severance of the Empire will be the ruin of it, and of every part of it.
Correct. The Loyalist communities in the colonies remained remarkably consistent in their support for the crown throughout the war’s long course. Indeed it could be argued that their attachment to a military solution was almost as firm as the King’s himself. There is little evidence that this position faltered substantially after Yorktown. Arnold is wrong however in proclaiming that the loss of the American colonies would lead to the overall destruction of the nascent British Empire. It has been long accepted that the defeat in America was actually the making of the empire; merely moving Britain’s focus from the west to the east.
That a great Majority of the Americans are averse to the separation is a truth supported by every kind of proof of which the subject is capable.
Incorrect. Arnold was presumably hoping to curry favour with the King through this statement. As a senior Continental commander who had operated in many of the colonies, he was undoubtedly aware that even in those states with sizable Loyalist communities such as New York, Georgia and Jersey they were never in a “great majority.” Tellingly he offers no examples of his “every kind of proof.”
It is a Demonstration that the friends of the restoration are most numerous if the fact be admitted that the elections are everywhere attended by a minority, and this has been the case ever since the overtures of 1778. If it was not believed to be so, how should we account for the resort of so many thousands to the King’s lines? What induces them to quit their estates, families and friends, and risk their own lives? It would be the greatest of all paradoxes to find them staking everything dear to them, upon their preference of the royal cause to the Congressional protection, if they knew the latter to be supported by the general voice.
Confused. Though Arnold was correct to point out the sacrifices of the Loyalists as proof of their sustained and earnest support, the conclusion he reached is debatable. His assertion that “elections are everywhere attended by a minority” to back up his argument that this “de facto” signified a lack of support in Congress and the rebellion is tenuous at best.
It was because … the multitude … were not consulted on the propriety of declaring Independence in 1776, nor on the confederation to authorise foreign alliances in 1777, nor on the rejection of the British overtures in 1778. Every one of these events actually made accessions to the number of the Loyalists and frittered down the Independent Party, … the minority increased in cruelty as they lessened in numbers.. the barbarities begot by their fears, disgusting others, and working with general calamities … The zealots … for protracting the war, are really … a very small proportion of the continent.”
Incorrect. This is perhaps the most personal part of the paper. Arnold’s use of the words “barbarities,” “disgust,” “cruelty,” “calamities” and “zealots” illustrates the angry state of mind that encouraged his rejection of the Patriot cause. His passion, however, seems to have coloured his logic. His claim that “the multitude” were not consulted is both naive and disingenuous. Congress did debate all of these issues and insofar as they were able to make democratic decisions in an age before universal suffrage, did so.
If it is thought … that the Rebels are everywhere an inveterate majority, and the Loyalists few and timid … I reply that this timidity should be called diffidence and arises from causes easily to be removed by a change in the Conduct of the War, which the American Loyalists have all along disapproved.
Debatable. Arnold’s contention here is a direct contradiction to the one most famously voiced by Charles Earl Cornwallis who regarded the Loyalists mainly as “quiet men.” Indeed Cornwallis went so far as to directly blame his failure in North Carolina as “not (from) a want of force to protect a rising of our friends. But by their timidity and unwillingness to take a useful and active part.” Arnold clearly took the opposite view. In defence of Cornwallis, the “diffidence” Arnold relates undoubtedly revealed itself at crucial times during the war when a lack of confidence and organisation from the king’s advocates compared poorly with the zeal and action of the Patriots. However, though Arnold believed this outlook could be transformed by a change of conduct in the war (presumably to a more aggressive one) he gives no explanation as to how this was to be accomplished “easily.”
It would be a tedious and invidious task to indulge in particular remarks, upon the Inactivity and misdirection of the King’s arms; I leave it to others.
Cynical. Arnold was both a patron of, and friend to Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis and was naturally averse to criticising them by name. Despite this he couldn’t help bringing to the king’s attention the army’s “inactivity” (Clinton) and “misdirection” (Cornwallis), the unwritten conclusion being, of course, that he could lead it better.
Has any attempt been made to set up the civil authority in any part of America, where the usurpation was beaten down? Certainly not and till this is attended to, the Loyalists, in general, will not, nor indeed can give any essential assistance to the royal arms.
Correct. This is Arnold’s most telling criticism of British policy in America. In just one paragraph he isolates the fundamental failing of her strategy during the war. The British sought a military solution to a political problem. British generals were essentially given overarching powers in any state under British military control akin to those that Union generals later possessed in the postbellum Confederate south. This was a massively inefficient and tedious way to maintain control, and Arnold was correct in pointing out it dampened the enthusiasm of Loyalists while concentrating Patriot and neutral sentiment against the crown.
He has … no objection to serve in the militia within his own colony, under officers who are of it … and to assist in supporting its government and defending himself in it and may perhaps pursue the Rebel out of it … But for this purpose, the Civil Authority … must first be set up, and without it, Great Britain can neither be benefited by his councils, his purse, nor his arms.
Correct. Once again Arnold was exact in his censure of British policy. His particular reference to Loyalists not being governed or led by men of their own state may have been self-serving, but it was also accurate. Britain’s failure to fully trust the Loyalists to administer or lead themselves in arms was in retrospect the biggest failing of the war. As Arnold points out, Loyalists didn’t have confidence in the British army to protect them while concurrently administering the laws of the land.
Is there a county in England, that thus circumstanced, would act otherwise, and be … under the direction of an army? … of an army too, addicted to plunder, and often willing to suppose a friend to be a Rebel, for the sake of what he has got, or they have seized?
Correct. This is a vicious though valid criticism of both the army and British strategy. He pointed out, astutely, that no Englishman would ever stand for such a military occupation at home. Especially one that not infrequently resorted to plunder or arbitrary decree. Is it, therefore, any wonder that Loyalists were subdued and Whigs incensed?
Congress took advantage of our folly in leaving that Province to a military police … (but) wholly inadequate to a Province. Left to a state of nature, the soldiery began to insult … Robberies sprang up. The injured under the late usurpation avenged themselves upon their oppressors. The slaves left their masters, and the whole Province was prepared to resign all hope of Government for the common protection before the Congressional troops, arrived to increase the Confusion … If South Carolina is not lost, it is ruined; so that the only advantage we draw from all our operations in that quarter is the lesson it teaches … of consulting their salvation from destruction by a timely reconciliation with the mother country.
Correct. Not only was much of South Carolina governed by what Arnold deemed a “military police,” there were not even enough of them! He touches on the vicious civil war that sprang up as a result; a state of affairs that managed to both alienate her friends and offer succour to the rebels. His forthright plea for the British to consult with the local population and allow it to govern itself in order to seek a political reconciliation was never acted on.
The Congress is utterly become bankrupt not a bill of theirs now has any credit, and the only currency is hard money. This must be set down to the distrust began and propagated by the Loyalists; for the depreciation commenced in 1777. “Old money old price”, was the vulgar cantatum of the friends of government, from the first moment of the paper emission in 1775.”
Exaggerated. This is a thought-provoking aside from Arnold. The near worthlessness of American currency he put down to the refusal of Loyalists to accept it as specie. However, this seems far too sophisticated and organised a resistance, principally because Continental money was distrusted by Patriots as much as everyone else. Though there were Loyalist attempts to undermine its value by counterfeiting, there is no evidence it was ever a concerted Loyalist tactic aimed at undermining Congress.
The difficulty of forcing the militia into the field; the sanguinary laws of the usurpers; the mutiny and desertion of their regular troops; and various other topics might be mentioned as proofs of the declension of the Party, with decisive confessions in the intercepted letters of the Rebels. In a word, but for the late French aid, the Rebellion had sunk under its own weakness.
Exaggerated. Though all of the problems Arnold lists were genuine concerns for Washington and Congress, it would be hard to conclude that the rebellion was “sunk” – even without vital French aid.
I say nothing upon the delicate enquiry which the disaster in Virginia will lead to. It is material, however, to remark, that if the rebels deserve any advantage from it, “twill be as it shall affect the Councils of Great Britain this Winter.
Interesting. Arnold is suggesting here that militarily the Americans would gain little from the surrender at Yorktown. His contention that it would be much more likely that the defeat would affect the political will of Parliament turned out to be accurate. However, his contemptuous dismissal that an entire British army’s surrender would not materially alter the ground war is more than a little dissembling.
It is impossible for Washington to detach to Green, a force sufficient for the reduction of Charlestown; though he may and doubtless is in strength to ruin his friends as well as ours in the Southern Country.
Correct. Charleston remained in British hands throughout the rest of the war and was never seriously challenged. However, Washington placed less emphasis on the southern theatre and after Yorktown realised he possessed the luxury of time; merely having to maintain the status quo for victory to inevitably follow.
By the complete detachment of Vermont from the rebel interest, and the reduction of the Highland forts early in the spring, much may be expected in the next campaign; especially since the New Yorkers in general, and a very great proportion of the country between them and the Connecticut River, are known to be very favorably inclined to the reunion.
Optimistic. Few commanders would have had a better knowledge of the tactical importance of the Highland forts. He also had first-hand experience of the politically volatile situation in Vermont where the British had sent military incursions and conducted secret negotiations with the Vermonters to re-join the British Empire. Arnold was additionally correct in his assessment that much of Lower New York and Westchester was sympathetic to the British.
However, his assurance that Vermont could be won over politically or that the Highlands could be reduced militarily when neither had happened in the preceding six years, seems both naive and overconfident.
To authorize the Crown to appoint commissioners to come to a final agreement with the Colonies, or either of them … new peace commissioners should have every power of the crown for the appointment of officers, from Governors downwards, such guardians have been heretofore wanting. If they have a council, as I think they should have, to prevent the indelicacy of altercation, regard should be had to their tempers, standing and friendships in this country, as well as to their address and knowledge of its affairs.”
Deluded. This passage exemplifies some of the worst traits in Arnold’s personality. There is no doubt that he was lobbying to be appointed as one of the “commissioners,” noting that they should be men who had “standing” in the colonies as well as “knowledge of its affairs.” His personal self-seeking went further in attempting to persuade the crown to grant these individuals almost unlimited powers, not just to negotiate with the States as a unit or singularly (a shrewd political suggestion incidentally) but also to allow them absolute patronage to appoint officers at every level. Though he suggested there should be a council, this clearly would be little more than a sinecure under the control of the said “commissioners.”
The proposal is deluded on two fronts. Firstly Congress would have had little truck in negotiating anything with such a heinous traitor, let alone a peace settlement. More importantly, Great Britain was a constitutional democracy wherein the powers for reconciliation and patronage were held solely by Parliament. Early in the war, during the first attempted peace negotiations, the Howe brothers were constrained on what they could and could not negotiate with Congress. This limited authority made it a virtual certainty that nothing would come of their convention. This was true later of Lord Carlisle’s commission. So hamstrung was Carlisle that he bitterly declared his negotiations “a mixture of ridicule, nullity, and embarrassments.”
It would be highly unlikely then, that the King or Lord North would grant almost autocratic powers to a handful of Loyalists. Though Arnold teasingly calls these new appointees “guardians,” free from governmental restraint they would have inevitably become dictators – and wasn’t that in good part what the rebellion had been all about in the first place?
It cannot be worth the pains of stating arguments against the flimsy proposal of some for evacuating New York, the common centre, by means of the Hudson, of the British, Canadian and Indian interests in America … Nor against the wilder scheme … for yielding independence to all the continent, to the northward and eastward of a line of forts from the head of Elk River to Delaware, weakly relying upon a bargain, for the quick possession and retention of the Southern Provinces; for the produce of the latter, can be no equivalent for the loss of that commerce of the former.. to say nothing of the insecurity of the tenure … those districts would acquire very soon after Great Britain’s acquiescence in the impairing of that monopoly by which she has been aggrandized.”
Fascinating. This is the most interesting “what if” of the paper. There were many in Britain who argued that her forces should abandon New York and retreat to hold a line from Quebec to Halifax. She would then reinforce the southern provinces where Lord Germaine had been convinced enough Loyalists remained for them to govern successfully. Arnold rightly ridiculed this proposal. His argument that the retention of the southern colonies, if her northern neighbours were lost, would be pointless and counterproductive is a shrewd one. Not only would they be permanently in thrall economically, but they would also be militarily insecure with the British merely postponing troubles for future generations to deal with.
His “all or nothing” guidance was actually the one the British eventually took. Unfortunately for Arnold’s proposal, however, the Treaty of Paris acknowledged not the “all” of his paper but the “nothing” he dreaded.
 George Canning Hill, Benedict Arnold: a biography (Boston: E.O. Libby & Co., 1858), 14.
 Issac N Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1880).
 Ibid., 419.
 Author Don N. Hagist podcast, Ben Franklin’s World episode 47.
 Kenneth Coleman, “On Lord Dartmouth and the American Revolution,” Georgia Review, Spring 1968.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 419.
 There have been numerous recent publications on the effect the loss of the American colonies had on the British Empire. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (London Harper Collins, 2011).
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 419.
 Ibid., 420.
 “That the people wait for us to lead the way … That they are in favour of the measure, tho’ the instructions given by some of their representatives are not.” Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, 7 June to 1 August 1776.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 420.
 The National Archives Kew London holds the Cornwallis Papers. He is scornful of the Loyalists in much of his private correspondence. Wynnsborough to Balfour, November 17, 1780, appreciates his help; various comment on the situation, scornful remarks about loyalists, PRO 30/11/82/55-56.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 420.
 Ibid., 421.
 Ibid., 422.
 The continental currency depreciated badly during the war, giving rise to the famous phrase “not worth a continental.” A primary problem was that monetary policy was not coordinated between Congress and the states, which continued to issue bills of credit.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 422.
 Ibid., 423.
 Ibid., 424
 Ibid., 426.
 William Willcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (New York: Alfred A Knop, 1964), 230.
 Ibid., 427.