Book Review: Turncoat. Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty by Stephen Brumwell (Yale University Press, 2018)
For a century after his death in 1801, Benedict Arnold was portrayed as a Judas who betrayed his country from that basest of all motives: greed. His was a personality of “innate evil,”the manifestations of which bubbled to the surface in a corruption of arrogance, vanity, and self-interest. There was an almost comforting moral certainty behind his treachery and few historians troubled themselves to debate it.
Then along came Sigmund Freud who started a fashion for analyzing the motivations of bygone characters such as Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, and even Moses. Suddenly the moral pedantry that had mummified historical figures for centuries was torn loose. Benedict Arnold was one of the ignominious “villains” who benefited most from this more nuanced approach to history, and over the course of the following century, he became the subject of an ever-increasing number of biographies. The vast majority of these appraised him in a more sympathetic and morally ambiguous light.
So author Stephen Brumwell is on heavily trampled territory, as the book’s exhaustive bibliography makes clear. Yet even in this crowded market Turncoat is the most radical reassessment of Arnold to date. Brumwell argues that Arnold’s treason was not motivated by the “alluring jingle of English guineas,” but instead was inspired by a sincere and profound change of heart that had his country’s wellbeing at heart. More controversially still, he argues his defection should be viewed not as an isolated act but rather as a symptom of a far more widespread malaise that affected the Patriot cause. “A true crisis of American Liberty.” It is a beautifully written and immaculately researched book. But does its central premise reach too far?
The remarkable thing about Turncoat is that it is not strictly a biography of Arnold at all. His life prior to the Revolution is dealt with in an unremarkable opening that covers just a handful of pages, whilst his meandering, complex, and ultimately tragic post-Yorktown career is recorded in an even more cursory manner. Additionally, there are numerous lengthy sections where Arnold does not figure at all, which would be irrelevant in a strict biography of the man. But this is not to the detriment of the book. By streamlining his portrait of Arnold from Quebec to Fort Griswold, Brumwell allows himself space to chronicle in detail colonial politics, society, and warfare. This gives the reader a far more rewarding and authentic insight into revolutionary America.This is undoubtedly the book’s strength. Brumwell is a captivating storyteller. Chapters on Quebec, Valcour Island, Saratoga, and Philadelphia are dealt with almost as separate mini-novels, each episode emphasizing Arnold’s achievements and unquestionable service to the Patriot cause. All contain material that is both revealing and perceptive.
By far the best chapter is the thrilling denouement “Treason of the blackest die,” which traces Arnold’s secret negotiations and eventual clandestine meeting with John Andre. This reads more like a John Le Carre spy novel than a historical biography and highlights just how unfortunate Andre was to be captured and how charmed Arnold was in his escape. The spy networks of both the British and American armies are dealt with in fascinating detail helping clarify why this was a plot doomed to failure, not as Washington concluded from some “Providential intervention,” but from the more mundane coupling of wilful disobedience of orders and sheer bad luck.
Pen portraits of both major and peripheral figures bring the backdrop for Arnold’s defection to life. Describing Arnold’s athletic physique,veteran Samuel Downing quips,“there wasn’t any waste timber on him.” The inept British Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot is “a pompous weathercock” the “only constants in his character (being a) slowness to take responsibility and quickness to take alarm.” Whilst the Loyalist Governor of New York, James Robertson, is deliciously described as “‘The laughing stock of the citizens’ a 61-year-old chasing after teenage strumpets and ‘waddling about town’ with a brace of ‘pretty little misses’ on each arm.'”
The text is riddled with the manners, colloquialisms, and attitudes of Georgian America. Before the siege of Quebec, one of Arnold’s starving men recalled: “Our Company was obliged to kill a dog and eat it for breakfast and in the course of the day I killed an owl and two of my messmates and myself fared in the repast.” Patriot seamen and marines at Valcour Island were a “wretched and motley crew. The refuse of every regiment … few were ever wet with salt water.”
Though meticulously researched the book does not fall into the trap of being pompous or overly academic. Brumwell is not afraid to be humorous and lighthearted. His chapter on the execution of John Andre ends sardonically: “the unlucky major might have got back to New York safely were it not for his penchant for fancy and eye-catching white-topped boots.”
Though Brumwell uses contemporary assessments of the major characters in the war, some of the most perceptive are his own. His single paragraph portrayal of the incredibly complex British Commander Sir Henry Clinton issingularly astute.
Turncoat is a well written and engrossing book, but it does have one weakness. Unfortunately, that weakness is the books central assertion.
If Brumwell is contending that Arnold had convinced himself that the underlying motives for his defection were entirely without self-interest, this is hardly the iconoclastic statement his publishers believe it to be. A major part of Arnold’s personal makeup was his incredible self-absorption and attachment to his personal reputation. That he believed himself to be acting out of principle in joining the British is nothing new. This is different, however, from trying to convince everyone else that his actions were ideological or without self-interest. Certainly most American and even British contemporaries were not convinced his actions were principled or honorable.
It is even more of a stretch to suggest that in some way Arnold’s defection was a bell weather moment that signified a cataclysmic crisis in the Patriot cause and that his treachery could have tipped the Patriots into submission.While it’s true that 1780 saw a significant dip in the morale of the Americans—both politically and militarily—the level of peril Brumwell portrays is perhaps overstated.
Indeed much of the book is excellent in unearthing contemporary sources that directly contradict these arguments. Brumwell provides ample evidence of Arnold’s almost insatiable love of money. The most prophetic quote comes from Arnold’s implacable enemy Col. John Brown who long before his defection had handbills printed in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts alleging, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.” There is little evidence that Arnold had ideological or principled objections to the American cause before his defection even though Brumwell argues this very point.
He also provides consistent evidence that ultimately Arnold’s betrayal made little difference militarily.The Hudson forts and West Point were not lost, and most tellingly of all the “American Legion” Arnold boasted of filling with deserters from the Patriot cause had just “eight officers and thirty-two men” some months later. He quotes the London Courant as complaining “not one man has come over with General Arnold to the British Standard.” This hardly equates to a widespread crisis of American liberty.
In sum, far from casting Arnold’s motivation for his treachery in a new light, it goes a good way in confirming old ones.While greed may not have been his primary motivation Brumwell provides overwhelming evidence that he had become a resentful, frustrated, demoted, maimed, vitriolic mercenary who was full of grudges. He also concludes that Arnold’s personality was headstrong, arrogant, and insensitive, leading to his “fostering resentments that ultimately contributed to his decision to forsake it.” It was surely these failings allied to his “stubborn single-minded faith in his own rectitude” that caused him to step aboard HMS Vulture—not any lofty crisis of principle.
The book provides enough of a case for the reader to decide whether “Arnold’s desire for a rapprochement between crown and colonies was a deeply held conviction” or whether it was “concocted retrospectively to bolster his own persistent financial claims on the British Government.” But either way, this is a splendid, intelligent, articulate book that casual readers and Arnold scholars alike will enjoy.