Benedict Arnold Revolutionary Hero An American Warrior Reconsidered
By James Kirby Martin
New York University Press Copyright © 2000 James Kirby Martin
All right reserved. ISBN: 0814756468
A Childhood of Legends
In the years following the American Revolution, civilians and battlefield veterans alike delighted in retelling the heroic accomplishments of their illustrious generation. Many of these aging Revolutionaries naturally embellished their own deeds while avoiding any mention of personal faintheartedness. Using their memories selectively as they spun their glorified tales, they also glossed over the knotty spots of the Revolution and ignored the debilitating internal conflicts that had nearly destroyed their cause from the inside. In so doing, they helped form a national mythology about a deeply committed citizenry rising up as one on behalf of political liberty and shattering forever the shackles of British tyranny. During eight long years of war, the old-timers insisted, zealous patriots such as themselves had suffered horribly but endured, thereby creating an independent, freedom-loving, republican polity; and because of their sacrifices, future generations would not have to face the wrenching prospect of political tyranny, as long as they stood faithfully by the ideals of the Revolution.
Looking back over theirachievements, the aging Revolutionaries dwelled on the themes of unity, commitment, and endurance. When they spoke of differences among the colonists, they focused on tories, casting aspersions on those thousands of loyalists whose allegiance to the British empire made them appear as traitors to the noble cause of American liberty. For some old-timers, the word "traitor" conjured up images of turncoat Benedict Arnold, allegedly the greatest villain of them all. Denouncing the devious, self-serving Arnold was yet another way of certifying their own credentials as virtuous, selfless patriots.
As the aging Revolutionaries gathered around warm fires on winter evenings or sat rocking on country-store porches on sunny summer days, they begot many a cracker-barrel tale about the reasons for Arnold's traitorous conduct. In their explanations they often drew on immediate posttreason assessments of the turncoat general. Some New England locals even reached into the recesses of Arnold's childhood in Norwich, Connecticut. Little Benedict, the old-timers liked to relate, was an uncontrollable boy, "hell bent" for destruction. From the moment of his birth he was a devilish lad, corrupted by some mysterious implantation of Satan's poisonous seed.
Each story functioned as a parable and implicitly warned of the dangers associated with destructive personal character traits. Just as the cherry-tree tale, an apocryphal fabrication of Washington's early biographer Parson Mason L. Weems, established young George's unflinching rectitude, the Arnold tales helped delineate little Benedict's defects. Thus one of the traitor's "earliest amusements" was allegedly "the robbing of birds' nests." A thoroughly depraved youngster, he loved "to maim and mangle young birds in sight of the old ones, that he might be diverted by their cries." Only a child so wantonly cruel could revel, when later an apprentice, in spreading sharp pieces of broken glass, "by which the children would cut their feet," along the main dirt path "in coming from the school." The stripling Benedict, then, was compulsively mean-spirited from infancy, which finally became obvious when he plotted with the British to crush the Revolution.
Still, someone had to explain Arnold's effectiveness as a military leader, since so despicable a person had gained a hero's reputation as America's Hannibal early in the Revolutionary War. Pausing to think, the old-timers quickly explained away the inconsistency by mentioning Arnold's leadership qualities in his youth--the type that caused other children to go astray. They framed Benedict's actions as those of a "dauntless ringleader" in molding youthful delinquents. Always stirring up "mischief," he was also a bullying lad, "as despotic among the boys as an absolute monarch," and therefore an archenemy of responsible behavior among his playmates.
To prove their case, the aging Revolutionaries told the story of fourteen-year-old Benedict persuading "a gang of boys" to steal tar barrels from a local shipyard. Arnold's intent, it appears, was to fuel a great bonfire on a holiday; however, the local constable caught them. Not surprisingly, the boys' obstreperous ringleader "was so enraged that he stripped off his coat upon the spot, and dared the constable, a stout and grave man, to fight." So flagrant a disregard for those in authority showed how this young ruffian would bully his way through life, even to the point of assaulting the ideals of American liberty because of his unquenchable thirst for mindless mayhem.
Just as horrifying to listeners were tales of Arnold's coldly vengeful and violent nature. During his late youth or early adulthood, he supposedly threatened the life of a foreign gentleman, often described as a French dancing master, who was courting his sister Hannah. As the story goes, Arnold took an intense disliking to the suitor, thinking him a rake. One evening he returned home to find the Frenchman again visiting Hannah. Standing in front of the house with a loaded pistol, he ordered the suitor outside. Hannah's frightened admirer fled through a side window and escaped, but apparently not before Arnold fired at least one shot. Demanding a showdown, the merciless future traitor insisted on a duel, and the Frenchman got the worst of it, nearly succumbing to his wounds. Alas, this victim of Arnold's wrath was never heard from again, one consequence of which, pronounced some storytellers, was that Hannah suffered the lamentable fate of spinsterhood.
To maintain credibility and to avoid making the flawless likes of George Washington appear injudicious for having promoted Arnold's military career, the old-timers had to admit to some meritorious characteristics. "When a boy," they pointed out, Arnold "was bold, enterprising, ambitious, active as lightning, and with a ready wit always at command." Of course, he would invariably twist these positive qualities, such as when he found some gunpowder and tried to fire a cannon--Arnold was always causing trouble, it seems, on holidays, with this particular occasion being a day of thanksgiving for a military victory over the French. For some reason, perhaps to make the tale more exciting, young Benedict supposedly pointed the barrel of the fieldpiece in a sharp upward angle to facilitate dropping home the powder and, "from his hand, a blazing firebrand." Only his agility--he was quite athletic before war wounds mangled his left leg--saved the bumptious lad from more severe burns as he jumped back from the cannon's mouth just as it belched forth its flames. This time his compatriots cheered his foolish bravery, as they would in the early years of the Revolutionary War; but listeners also appreciated that only show-offs and potential troublemakers would take such foolhardy risks.
Stories seemed to abound about young Arnold's physical agility. The old-timers remembered feats of athletic prowess, such as performances at a Norwich gristmill when the fearless lad would "astonish his playmates and alarm the lookers-on" by riding "the great waterwheel, and holding on as it made its revolutions." What such tales emphasized was Arnold's inborn recklessness in pursuit of fame, the kind of egotistical bidding for the applause of the crowd that initially fooled citizens into viewing him as a true military hero. In reality, the old-timers concluded, Arnold was a self-centered, aggrandizing person who invariably employed his natural physical and mental talents in distorted ways.
Young Benedict the consummate "daredevil" was only a short step away from the malevolent adult controlled by Satan. To solidify the connection, the aging Revolutionaries spoke of the time when teenager Benedict hollered madly and shouted obscenities at the height of a severe thunderstorm. A demon-ridden deviant virtually from the moment of his birth, Arnold was a lad, according to his first serious biographer, who, "to an innate love of mischief, ... added an obduracy of conscience, a cruelty of disposition, an irritability of temper, and a reckless indifference to the good or ill of others," all of which "left but a slender foundation upon which to erect a system of correct principles or habits."
Arnold's perverse childhood, the aging Revolutionaries sadly observed, broke the heart of his mother Hannah--they remembered her as "a pattern of piety, patience, and virtue"--and drove her to an early grave--she "was a saint on earth, and is now a saint in heaven." Benedict had received "wholesome instruction" from his persevering mother, who constantly struggled to subdue his obstinate, self-centered will. The "lamentable" product, however, was "a proud, obstinate, and unprincipled man," in glaring contrast to the old-timers of the Revolution, who had respected their parents' nurturing and consequently had become praiseworthy exemplars of selfless republican citizenship in adulthood.
As a virtuous mother, Hannah Arnold had sacrificed her health and life, but she never quit trying to instill correct habits of behavior in her little hellion. Republican mothers committed to the proper nurturing of worthy children, according to a widely read nineteenth-century author of childrearing literature, were likewise never to give up, no matter how obstinate the child. They were to model their actions on Mary Ball Washington, George's mother, who appreciated "that the first lesson to every incipient ruler should be, 'how to obey.'" In addition, they were to instruct each "infant pupil" in "kindness to all around," which they could best demonstrate "by the treatment of animals." The cruel lad Arnold, this author stressed, had "loved to destroy insects, to mutilate toads, to steal the eggs of the mourning bird, and torture quiet, domestic animals." Accordingly, mothers who stifled any instincts in their children toward viciousness were helping to protect the republic from future Benedict Arnolds, the kind of fiendish adult who "would have drained the life-blood of his endangered country."
Thus an additional purpose of the Arnold tales was to advise parents, particularly mothers, on the critical importance of nurturing children in values that resulted in responsible republican citizenship. The stories also served to warn children about what not to do--and how not to turn out. They represented guideposts about the dangers of misspent youth and the terrible penalties waiting in adulthood for youngsters who habitually behaved in a self-centered, boisterous, and defiant fashion. Children who aspired to revered status as adults were those who gained an appreciation of the value of giving to others and serving the greater good of the whole community--the core ideal of virtuous citizenship. Youngsters who behaved otherwise were potential Benedict Arnolds, despicable creatures with the potential to destroy the American republican experiment.
The Arnold tales seriously distort the realities of Benedict's childhood days and the ways in which various formative experiences affected his adult behavior. Although surviving records are scant, enough materials exist to reconstruct Arnold's early years and place him in the context of his youth in eastern Connecticut. Family and community networks and problems certainly influenced his development. So did compelling issues that shaped the contours of life in colonial British North America during the two decades surrounding the midpoint of the eighteenth century.
Arnold's New England bloodline reached back to 1635, when William Arnold (1587-1675) sailed with other Puritans to Massachusetts to escape what they were sure was the oppressive religious atmosphere of Stuart England under autocratic King Charles I. William brought along his family, including his eldest son, Benedict (1615-1678). These Arnolds soon decided the Bay Colony was too stifling in its religious conformity. In 1636 they followed dissenter Roger Williams to Rhode Island, where William and his sons purchased vast tracts of land, nearly ten thousand acres, in the Pawtuxet River region. By the 1640s they were among the wealthiest settlers in Rhode Island.
Benedict I soon gained the community's political favor. During the late 1650s, Rhode Islanders deemed him the logical successor to Roger Williams as the colony's governor. Benedict I held Rhode Island's highest office on and off for several terms until his death in 1678. His property holdings were so extensive and his social and political stature so revered that nearly one thousand mourners attended his funeral.
Of middling status in England, the Arnolds had quickly emerged as a front-rank family of elevated reputation in the more fluid social and economic milieu of mid-seventeenth-century English America. Governor Arnold's eldest son, Benedict II (1642-1727), served in the Rhode Island General Court and even became the speaker of the House of Deputies. Since his father, who designated eight heirs, practiced partible inheritance, he received only a small portion of the family estate, something over five hundred acres. Consequently, Benedict II had much less land to distribute among his own heirs. His five surviving children received rather modest inheritances. To his son Benedict III (1683-1719) he bequeathed 140 acres in the vicinity of Newport.
Despite impressive family credentials, Benedict III did not own enough property or live long enough to make a reputation for himself. He married Patience Cogswell in 1705, and they had several children, one of whom was Benedict IV (?-1761). Born in Providence and apprenticed to a cooper, this fourth Benedict Arnold grew to adulthood with the scant prospect, as a younger son of an ordinary farmer, of receiving any landed inheritance. If he wanted to distinguish himself, he would have to use his own ingenuity in stretching beyond the calling of a barrel maker.
The Arnolds, after just three generations of subdividing their land through the practice of partible inheritance, had begun to crowd themselves off the land. They were among thousands of third- and fourth-generation families in colonial New England who faced the dilemma of overcrowding as they multiplied rapidly and attempted to squeeze their numerous progeny onto relatively fixed amounts of farm acreage. Ultimately, further divisions of land would have resulted in freehold farming units too circumscribed in size to support families at even subsistence levels. As such, splitting the 140 acres of Benedict III among his six surviving children made no practical economic sense. One, most likely the eldest son, Caleb, received the whole of his father's freehold estate. The younger brothers and sisters had to accept alternate forms of inheritance. In the case of Benedict IV, his bequest was an apprenticeship, which endowed him with the capacity to earn a modest living, unless he possessed the energy and ambition to extend his range of economic opportunities.
To gain his livelihood as a cooper held scant appeal for Benedict IV, given his heritage. He intended to accomplish more with his life, even if that meant relocating away from family and friends. Around 1730 he traveled westward with his younger brother Oliver to the inland port town of Norwich in eastern Connecticut. The two brothers were looking for opportunities to tap into trade and commerce exchange. Through his own labors Benedict IV hoped to realize the day when the downwardly mobile Arnold family trajectory would again be on an ascending course.
Before long Benedict IV was flourishing in Norwich, a town originally settled in the mid-seventeenth century. The principal port village sat at a geographic point where the navigable Thames River, cutting its way some twelve miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, split into two smaller rivers that penetrated yet farther into the hilly countryside. Over the years, Norwich village had thrived as a shipbuilding and regional trading center. It easily competed with its coastal rival, New London, located at the mouth of the Thames, because of the geographic advantage of closer proximity to freehold farmers in more remote settlements. Some Norwich merchants, like those of New Haven to the west, enjoyed substantial personal prosperity by aggressively trading in ports along the American coast and in the West Indies and British Isles. Back home, their customers were mainly interior farmers who kept demanding a steady supply of luxury goods--pewter, fine linens, glassware, and books--in return for their surplus agricultural products.
Dismissing any thought of someday remolding himself as a freehold farmer in the image of his Puritan forebears, Benedict IV fully embraced the rising commercial ethos of the acquisitive, hard-driving New England Yankee trader. He first found work as a cooper but kept looking for the opportunity to become involved in Norwich's mercantile trade. Circumstances turned out to be his greatest ally. He met and won the hand of Hannah Waterman King (1706-1759), a recent widow whose first husband, Absalom King, was a respected Norwich merchant. In September 1732, while returning from a trading voyage to Ireland, King had disappeared at sea. Benedict IV may have been in King's employ at this time. After a suitable period of mourning, Hannah married Benedict in November 1733, which by law placed him in charge of her substantial estate. He likewise gained access to King's trading connections, as well as valuable bloodline ties with two influential Norwich families, the Watermans and the Lathrops. Hannah's paternal grandfather, Thomas Waterman, had been one of Norwich's original town proprietors, and her mother, Elizabeth, was from the locally prominent Lathrop clan.
Benedict IV quickly settled into his new life of mercantile respectability. He became heavily involved in trading goods along the coast of New England and back and forth to the West Indies. He purchased a handsome two-story home on five acres just outside the village, and in 1739 he took the oath as a freeman of the town. In the years ahead he accepted various town offices, including those of surveyor, constable, and selectman. From every point of view, Benedict IV was now a respected, upwardly mobile citizen of Norwich. Friends and neighbors no longer thought of him as an outsider from Rhode Island or a mere cooper. They took to calling him "Captain" Arnold, not only because he often sailed to the West Indies as master of his own trading vessels but also because he could claim association, through his marriage to Hannah, with the local elite families of Norwich.
A harmonious union, the marriage of Benedict and Hannah Arnold produced six children. In August 1738, Hannah gave birth to their first child, whom the parents proudly named Benedict; but this infant died less than a year later. Parents in mid-eighteenth-century New England, especially in heavily populated areas where contagious killer diseases spread more easily, could consider themselves among the fortunate if more than 75 to 80 percent of their progeny survived to adulthood. The Arnolds were not so lucky. They lost four of their six children during outbreaks of epidemic disease.
On January 14, 1741 (new style), Hannah, while lying-in at home, gave birth to another son. This infant, too, would bear the name Benedict. Choosing to repeat the family forename, the parents followed accepted custom dating back to the earliest Puritan settlements. In keeping alive a family forename that reached back through four generations to an ancestor of revered community standing in early Rhode Island, the Captain was also paying homage to himself. He had, after all, reversed the downward spiral in family fortunes. With proper nurturing, this new son could build on his father's achievements. With Waterman, Lathrop, and Arnold blood flowing in his veins, he might even someday attain a reputation of grand proportions, returning a once-proud New England family line to the most visible heights of community recognition. If childhood death could only be avoided, this second Benedict V had the potential to add many increments of glory to his father's noteworthy accomplishments. The baby Benedict thus represented hope for the fulfillment of the Captain's worldly ambitions--and perhaps even immortality. With a strikingly ironic twist, the Captain's hopes were to be realized.
The Arnolds presented their babe for baptism before the First Congregational Church of Norwich just eight days after his birth. The Reverend Benjamin Lord performed the ceremony. Like other Congregationalists, Arnold's parents did not believe that baptism per se would protect their son from the wrath of God and eternal damnation. Still, in dedicating him to God and His work, the parents reached out for an established blessing in the mysterious process of divine judgment--of spending eternity with God in heaven rather than with Satan in the bowels of hell. Prospects of their son someday possibly securing God's eternal grace offered them special comfort even as the Reverend Lord baptized Benedict V and as the congregants prayed together for the preservation of the baby's soul.
Born into the nest of a prospering family, Benedict V entered the world surrounded by the unconditional affection of parents, relatives, and friends. Surviving correspondence from Hannah suggests that his parents were as indulgent of his needs as they were restrictive of his behavior. The Captain and Hannah manifested a deep and abiding sense of love toward all their children, for which they paid dearly when killer diseases devastated their household in the early 1750s.
Captain Arnold functioned as the patriarchal head of his family unit, but he was no tyrant. He immersed himself in family and community activities when not attending to his local mercantile affairs or sailing back and forth to the West Indies. Hannah focused her energies on managing the family household. As the Captain's surrogate when he was away from home, she served as the primary source of daily instruction in implanting rules of acceptable behavior in her children. She nurtured them with gentle but firm instructions, such as when she counseled young Benedict to "keep a steady watch over your thoughts, words, and actions." She likewise advised him, "Be dutiful to superiors, obliging to equals, and affable to inferiors, if any such there be. Always choose that your companions be your betters, that by their good example you may learn." These admonitions reflected the deferential values of mid-eighteenth-century colonial society. His parents expected him to know his place, but they also encouraged him to aim high in seeking the favor of patrons who might recognize his merits and assist him in advancing to truly honorable stations.
As a youngster, Benedict Arnold learned about the realities of life from many different sources. Three sets of childhood experiences helped shape his views of the world around him: the incessant warfare of the eighteenth century; the religious turmoil of the first Great Awakening; and the killer epidemics that besieged portions of New England. The overall effect was to introduce Benedict to the contentious, brutal, and tragic aspects of human existence. He learned that pain and suffering were as much a part of life as the happiness and personal contentment of growing to adulthood in a mutually supportive family environment.
Arnold was born in a year when warfare was convulsing the British empire. The British parent nation, in a frenzy of anti-Spanish hysteria, had raised the battle standard in 1739--the War of Jenkins's Ear--over differences about the extent of British trading rights in the Spanish Caribbean empire. Then a royal succession crisis developed in Europe in the wake of the death of the Hapsburg emperor Charles VI of Austria. The crown passed to his daughter, Maria Theresa, but young Frederick of Prussia, later known as Frederick the Great, joined with some dissident Hapsburg males in objecting to Maria. France and Spain aligned themselves with Frederick while Britain and Holland sided with Maria Theresa in what turned into the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-1748). As was the case with European conflicts dating back to 1689, warfare spilled onto the North American continent.
The British North American colonists called the current contest King George's War, and New Englanders became heavily involved. In 1745 they mounted a major expedition against the mighty French fortress of Louisbourg that guarded the entrance to the St. Lawrence River, the major artery leading into France's Canadian empire. A virtually impregnable edifice, Louisbourg fell to forty-two hundred besieging New Englanders, including many young soldiers from Connecticut. New Englanders took great pride in this victory, but in the peace settlement the king's negotiators returned the fortress to France in exchange for territory lost in India. The message was clear. The purpose of Anglo-American contributions was to secure and advance Britain's worldwide mercantile pretensions. As for the colonists, they existed to serve the empire but not to question the elevated wisdom of the parent nation.
Only seven years old when the conflict ended, Arnold overheard many family and community discussions about King George's War. He learned to think of the French and Spanish as the traditional--and much hated--enemies of British subjects everywhere. The Spanish were malicious butchers, as epitomized in the mutilation of Robert Jenkins--he had his ear chopped off--when he was allegedly trading legally in the Caribbean. Little Benedict absorbed equally gruesome stories about French and Indian raiding parties massacring settlers along New England's frontier, and he internalized the long-felt British desire to eradicate French authority in Canada. Young Arnold also formulated impressions about the central role of warfare in deciding national differences, especially when leaders in Norwich like his father spoke of the imminence of yet more hostilities to reduce, if not destroy, the power of Britain's French and Spanish antagonists in America.
Besides identifying national enemies, King George's War helped Benedict conceptualize an embryonic sense of his own Englishness. Home government officials and British regular officers in America, he gleaned from the conversations around him, viewed the colonists as outlanders or country cousins, hardly worthy of their full respect. He listened as Norwichites denounced the return of Louisbourg to France. Still, as he heard so many times, to be a British subject, even though of secondary rank, was to have the advantage of belonging to the most powerful, enlightened, and liberty-loving empire in the world.
King George's War did not touch the Arnold family directly, except in making trade with the West Indies a more dangerous undertaking for the Captain. The contest likely forced Arnold's father to decrease or suspend his voyages to the West Indies, causing a downturn in the scale of family income. A lad as young as Benedict would not have noticed the difference. For him, the war functioned as a riveting--and frightening--kind of abstraction that likely produced childlike daydreams of martial glory and heroic achievement.
At the same time, young Benedict harbored doubts about testing his own valor in combat. Years later, during the Revolutionary War, he described himself as "a coward until he was fifteen years of age." He characterized his vaunted "courage" as an "acquired" trait. Arnold did not explain why he underwent this transformation, but the causal factor lay with a series of devastating crises that beset his family during the 1750s.
Meanwhile, reticent young Benedict would obtain a firsthand introduction to the turbulent and spiteful side of human relations. His education took root in the caustic bickering among Norwichites over matters of religious conscience and experience. At the time of Arnold's birth, the first Great Awakening was stirring up folk all over New England. Events in Norwich typified the widespread outpouring of concern over securing God's eternal grace. In the two decades before 1740, a declining number of Norwichites had petitioned for full church membership, the criterion for which included publicly testifying to evidence of having secured God's saving grace. Unsure or unconcerned about their spiritual state, most local citizens, including Benedict's parents, were only halfway church members. They could have their children baptized, but they could not participate in the sacred rite of communion.
Ministers such as Benjamin Lord, whose pastorate with the First Congregational Church dated back to 1717, wanted to reverse the pattern but could not find the means. Then itinerant preachers, among them the charismatic evangelist George Whitefield, began to proclaim the vitality of the new-birth message in communities throughout New England, prompting a sudden rush of conversions. Whereas in 1740 no Norwichite presented himself or herself for full membership, during the year of Arnold's birth, eighteen women and fourteen men sought full membership, matching in one year the total number of full church admissions in Norwich during the previous decade. In 1742, forty-five persons became full members, including Arnold's parents. The Captain and Hannah had searched their hearts and found the comforting presence of Christ. The numbers of new full members dropped off again after 1742, but in towns such as Norwich, as well in the Arnold home, a new sense of religious enthusiasm had replaced the perfunctory ceremonialism of earlier years.
Now more secure in the prospect of eternal salvation, the Captain and Hannah focused on preparing their children for God's saving grace. Each of the surviving letters by Hannah, five of which she addressed to young Benedict, stressed the need to "let your first concern be to make your peace with God, as it is of all concerns of the greatest importance." Hannah worried continuously about her son's spiritual state and repeatedly reminded him, "My dear, ... make the Lord your dwelling place and try and trust His care. We have a very uncertain stay in this world, and it stands us all in hand to see that we have an interest in Christ, without which we must be eternally miserable."
Arnold's parents also insisted on their son's instruction in vital faith as part of his formal education. When they first sent him away to school, Hannah asked the teacher "to instill the first rudiments of religion and enforce virtue and explode all manner of vice" in her son. "If you should find him backward and unteachable," she wrote, "pray don't be soon discouraged." The boy was "uncultivated" in his understanding of God's saving grace and required instruction. If necessary, corporal discipline was permissible: "Pray don't spare the rod and spoil the child," Hannah declared, since nothing was more important than checking the inborn will of human beings toward sin, which too often kept them from seeking conversion and eternal salvation.
Despite his mother's exhortations, Benedict ultimately could not bring himself to accept the Calvinist-rooted beliefs of his parents. Certainly affecting his outlook was all the turmoil that developed among Norwichites in the immediate aftermath of the Awakening. Friends and neighbors were both contentious and vile with one another, which no doubt left Benedict wondering about the benefits of holding religious beliefs that seemed to spark endless bickering rather than a sense of spiritual and communal harmony.
Congregational ministers throughout New England were genuinely grateful when their churches came back to life. Soon, however, they had second thoughts. Enthusiastic itinerant preachers had done much more than help awaken the populace. Some residents now felt called to preach and serve as witnesses of God's Word without clerical authorization. Still others demanded church facilities closer to their homes and insisted on employing only ministers who could convincingly relate their own conversion experiences and would preach the "new light" gospel.
Established Congregational clergymen found themselves under attack from their own parishioners. In Norwich, some inhabitants decried the First Church and the Reverend Lord for being too lenient in the scrutiny of parishioners who offered public testimonies of conversion. These purists, also known as Separates, balked at having just anyone partake in the hallowed privilege of full church membership, the communion service. When the Reverend Lord objected, they accused him of lacking commitment to the new-light gospel. Norwich's Separates also threatened to form their own congregation, headed by someone fully committed to correct church practices.
In 1745 a full-scale separatist revolt took place in Norwich. Refusing to attend services conducted by the Reverend Lord, one group of dissenters petitioned the Connecticut Assembly for their own society. The First Church responded by suspending these folk from communion until such time as they repented. A bitter struggle over fundamental beliefs, which included bludgeoning assaults on Lord's personal character and spiritual state, had split Norwich wide open, as was the case in so many other ostensibly well ordered New England towns.
The Captain and Hannah stood with their church pastor, but some distant relatives, including three Lathrops and three Watermans, aligned with the Separates. Benedict was four years old at the time. The young lad watched as the Separates' challenge--and resulting neighborly vindictiveness--reached full crescendo, and relatives and friends turned to snubbing and ridiculing one another. All the acrimony surely frightened him, making him wonder why adults, particularly the most significant persons in his life, had become so dreadfully contentious.
Indeed, if Benedict Arnold was the kind of troublesome youth portrayed by the Revolutionary old-timers, he received excellent instruction in the art of willful, self-righteous belligerence from the inhabitants of Norwich. At the same time, his memories of hateful squabbling over matters of religious faith, when linked with the tragedy of losing three of four younger siblings to killer diseases in the early 1750s, helped convince Arnold to reject the austere Calvinism of his parents.
Throughout the 1740s, the Captain and Hannah made the First Church a root institution in their family's life. With the Reverend Lord serving as their spiritual mentor, the family prayed and worshiped together; but piety did not spare the Arnold household from the terrible epidemics that devastated so many eighteenth-century New England families. Uncontrollable, virulent diseases swept down with unremitting regularity. Medical knowledge, fixated as it was on the science of bleeding, or phlebotomy, was a useless ally in warding off such scurrilous enemies as scarlet fever, the measles, whooping cough, the mumps, influenza, and smallpox, among a host of potent killers.
During 1739, a serious diphtheria epidemic swept through much of Connecticut. This virulent disease most likely claimed the life of the Arnolds' first Benedict. Family members watched helplessly as loved ones struggled to maintain their ability to breathe. The "throat distemper," as diphtheria was then commonly called, slowly choked its victims to death, just as surely as fevers from smallpox raised body temperatures beyond the point of human endurance.
The Arnolds' second Benedict was fortunate by comparison. He avoided the worst of these killer diseases, but three of his four younger siblings were not so favored. Arnold's siblings included Hannah, who was born in December 1742; Mary, born in June 1745; Absalom King, born in April 1747; and Elizabeth, born in November 1749. Only Hannah survived into adulthood. Absalom King succumbed to some mysterious ailment in December 1750. Mary and Elizabeth died within nineteen days of each other in the autumn of 1753. Before Benedict reached thirteen years of age, only his sister Hannah remained--along with his distraught parents.
Young Arnold was away at boarding school when his sisters Mary and Elizabeth perished during a virulent diphtheria epidemic. His mother sent him two letters during this awful period. On August 13, 1753, she reported that "deaths are multiplied all around us and more [are] daily expected." She admonished her son not to "neglect your precious soul which, once lost, can never be regained." On August 30, she gladly let Benedict know "that your poor sisters are yet in the land of the living." Mary, who had been "just stepping on the banks of time," was now "something revived," but Hannah, who did survive, was "waxing weaker and weaker." The Captain was also "very poor," and "I myself have had a touch of the distemper but through divine goodness it is past of light with me."
For Arnold's mother, firmly fixed as she was in Calvinist doctrine, the explanation for this deadly assault was self-evident: "God seems to be saying to all, children be you also ready." Hannah described the epidemic as "His servant," and she again urged her sole surviving son to "pray improve your time and beg of God to grant his spirit, or death may overtake you unprepared, for his commission seems sealed for a great many, and for ought you know you may be one of them."
As a dutiful Calvinist, Hannah defined God with an Old Testament emphasis. Her supreme being was not only omniscient but arbitrary, the kind of deity that inflicted communities with dreadful maladies to warn everyone, especially those not seeking salvation, of the eternal damnation awaiting the unsaved. Trapped between her conception of a highly judgmental, even wrathful deity and deep emotional anguish for her family, she wanted Benedict, above all else, to keep soliciting God's grace. At the same time, she could not help being an indulgent parent, sending him a pound of chocolate with the second letter. A month and a half later, both Mary and Elizabeth were dead, along with dozens of others in the Norwich region. Hannah's only solace was the survival of her husband and remaining daughter and son.
No surviving record indicates how young Arnold reacted to the deaths of his siblings. Part of a close-knit family unit, he most likely experienced deep and lasting grief, having learned at a tender age how short and tragic human existence could be. He had likewise discovered how easily contention and strife, whether over matters of religious belief or over the affairs of nations, could despoil human relationships. Even though his mother offered him solace through her Calvinist mentality, she spoke not of a God of love and hope but of a being that arbitrarily struck down innocents as a warning to others about the sinful nature of humankind. This same deity, his bereaved mother reiterated, had taken his two brothers and two sisters to warn him and everyone else about the penalties for ungodly human behavior.
In the days ahead, Hannah continued to urge her son to seek this same God's grace, but he did not. As Benedict grew to adulthood, with brothers and sisters forever left behind, he eschewed the Calvinist expression of a judgmental, angry, vengeful deity in favor of a more humane and enlightened God. Unlike his grieving mother, he would not blame himself for tragedies in life beyond his control. Even more important, he would show little tolerance for those who, like his mother's wrathful Calvinist God, expected complete obedience to their will but demonstrated little or no beneficence toward others. He would challenge arbitrary power wherever it lurked, especially when directed against his person, character, and reputation--and those whom he loved. Well before adulthood, then, Arnold would abandon a certain passivity toward life by adopting a set of personal values intolerant of anyone he deemed threatening, unjust, or repressive in any way.
Young Benedict still had more painful lessons to endure. In 1753 the Arnold family, devastated by disease, held the community's sympathy. Over the next few years, unfortunately, the Captain developed a serious drinking problem, and commiseration metamorphosed into contempt for a once-respected community figure. Historians have speculated that Benedict IV's troubles with alcohol stemmed from his failure as a merchant. He either overextended his trading activities during the 1740s or failed to weather interruptions in the West Indies trade caused by King George's War.
This causal sequence is out of kilter. Like most Anglo-Americans of his day, Captain Arnold drank regularly and heavily, but his consumption of alcohol did not begin to threaten his personal productivity or his family's financial well-being until 1754 or 1755. No evidence exists to show that his drinking got out of control until after the diphtheria epidemic of 1753 claimed the lives of Mary and Elizabeth. A loving father, the Captain found the deaths of these two daughters and the lingering threat of losing Benedict and Hannah too difficult to bear. Great quantities of alcohol dulled his senses and temporarily eased the emotional pain associated with the ongoing devastation of his family.
In 1754 there was still enough money for Benedict's schooling. On April 12, Hannah sent her son fifty shillings, and the Captain added another twenty shillings, not for tuition but for personal expenses. He was to spend the money "prudently, as you are accountable to God and your father." Four months later, Hannah reported to Benedict that "your father is in a poor state of health," so much so that the Captain was not yet sure whether he could make a trip to Newport, Rhode Island. Hannah offered no description of the ailment. Six months later the parents reluctantly withdrew Benedict from school. With the Captain unable to work on a regular basis, the Arnolds could no longer pay for their son's formal education. Soon they would be short of money for much of anything else.
Ambitious for their son, the Captain and Hannah wanted Benedict to have the benefits of a formal education. They had first enrolled him in Dr. Jewett's school in Montville, a few miles south of Norwich. Then they sent him to Canterbury, Connecticut, in 1752 to attend a school kept by the Reverend James Cogswell. Cogswell was well known as a dedicated minister, gifted logician, and demanding taskmaster who prepared his students well for further education. In Canterbury, Benedict lived with other young scholars under the tutelage of Cogswell, who drilled them in the rudiments of Greek and Latin, mathematics, and public speaking. For nearly three years he learned from such Latin texts as Cornelius Nepos. He owned the 1748 edition of this volume in which he inscribed, "Benedict Arnold, Ejus Liber [his book]."
Arnold's parents were clearly preparing their son for a college education, most likely hoping for matriculation at Yale College. Some of Cogswell's students did attend Yale; one, Naphtali Daggett, eventually became president of that institution. Then, in 1755, all of Benedict's formal schooling came to an abrupt halt. He would have to make his way in life without the immense advantage of a gentleman's education.
The Captain's ill health likewise severely restricted his capacity to offer his namesake son supervised training in the mercantile business. Fortunately for Benedict, his mother had many prominent relatives in Norwich. She approached her cousins, Daniel and Joshua Lathrop, who, besides being graduates of Yale, had prospered as partners in the apothecary and general merchandise trade. They ranked among the wealthiest citizens of Norwich. Fully aware of the Arnold family's plight, the brothers agreed to assume responsibility for Benedict's vocational education. They accepted him as an apprentice and soon came to admire his high aptitude for business.
The Captain's attempt to reverse the socioeconomic decline of his family had thus ultimately failed. His efforts had amounted only to a brief interlude of recaptured respectability. By 1756, he could offer his namesake son little more than Benedict III had given him, an apprenticeship--and this only because of the intervention of Hannah. Instead of Yale College and certification as a young Connecticut gentleman of local family rank and distinction, Benedict had to accept his apprenticeship to the apothecary's trade as his primary familial inheritance. Like the Captain, he was quick to seize the initiative and make the most of the opportunity before him.
If Benedict harbored resentment toward a father who had stirred his ambition but failed to equip him with the tools for rapid advancement or with connections to powerful patrons, he never indicated as much. As a dutiful son, young Arnold kept his feelings under disciplined control. Nor did he purge any anger or disappointment by running away from home to participate in the military campaigning in New York and French Canada associated with the worldwide Seven Years' War (1756-1763), also known in America as the French and Indian War.
One of the most persistent--and misleading--of the Arnold tales dwelled on the teenaged Benedict's alleged passion for warfare and the opportunity to profit personally from military service. The aging Revolutionaries relished in explaining how Benedict, with his pugnacious temperament and insatiable greed, became involved in a war that again pitted denizens of the British empire against the French--and eventually, the Spanish--in a decisive test of imperial strength. Arnold allegedly kept running off to New York, where the bounty moneys for enlisting were supposedly greater than in Connecticut. In 1756, according to one version, the Reverend Lord acted on the pleas of Benedict's desperate mother, intervened with officials in New York, and got her son back to Norwich, presumably with lots of bounty money lining his avaricious pockets.
Despite his indenture agreement with the Lathrops, the unreliable apprentice could not be restrained, or so claimed the old-timers. Benedict again bolted from Norwich in the spring of 1758, this time with the prospect of grabbing bounty money then being offered by the Westchester, New York, militia company of Captain Jonathan Holmes. In March 1759 he reenlisted for a second year of service, receiving yet more bonus money. On this occasion, however, young Arnold deserted, having supposedly become bored with camp life. By so doing, according to this lore, he revealed his cunning nature in what was an obvious rehearsal for his treason.
A more charitable version stated that Benedict, shortly after reenlisting, had received disturbing news from Norwich that his mother was desperately ill. He rushed home to be at her side. The understanding Lathrops, who did not seem to mind their apprentice running off for months at a time, generously allowed Benedict to return to New York for yet another enlistment term in 1760. Apparently, the military authorities in New York, also being charitable folk, overlooked the previous year's desertion and welcomed back the peripatetic youth, with nary a stripe laid on as punishment.
These stories come apart under closer inspection. The circumstances of Arnold's life after 1755 contradict the possibility that he first joined and then deserted the New York militia. There was a "Benedick" (also rendered "Bowdick" and "Benidick") Arnold who enlisted with the Westchester militia in 1758, 1759, and 1760. This young man gave his residence as Norwalk in western Connecticut, just a few miles east of Westchester County. Why young Benedict would have traveled so far--across most of Connecticut--to enlist when many companies closer to home also were short of troops has no satisfactory explanation; and the greed motive carries little weight without proof that enlistment bounties were significantly higher in New York.
The records twice describe the Benedict in question as a "weaver" and once as a "laborer," which should lead one to ask why Arnold would have lied about his place of residence and occupation while giving his real name, if he intended to hide his true identity. That this person did not change his name does not support the argument that Arnold's objective, in going so far from home, was to make sure his mother and the Lathrops could not find him. Surely he would have taken the obvious precaution of altering his name, since he was clever enough to describe himself as a laborer and a weaver from Norwalk, Connecticut.
The stories, in the end, represent a case of mistaken identity. Although the desertion description of 1759--"18 years of age, dark complexion, light eyes, and black hair"--generally fits the Norwich Arnold, the height listed for "Benidick" in 1760 was five feet nine inches, certainly above average in physical stature for a male during the late colonial era. No contemporary ever described Arnold as more than middling in height. Still, if there were some physical similarities, these could be accounted for by ties of blood. Members of the extended Arnold clan were living in Norwalk during the mid-eighteenth century, and they were distant relatives of the Norwich family. The most logical conclusion is that the Benedict who deserted in 1759 was from this Norwalk branch of the family.
Young Arnold, furthermore, was under an apprenticeship contract. The Lathrop brothers, although tolerant benefactors, were not fools who allowed their apprentices to neglect their training and whimsically wander off to war. Between 1756 and 1760, Benedict spent his days in Norwich with the Lathrops, who considered him a model apprentice. They, in turn, demonstrated their full confidence after 1760 by initially financing him as their junior business associate in New Haven. As shrewd merchants and eminent local leaders, they would not have wasted their time, energy, and working capital on Arnold, no matter how fervent his mother's pleas, had he repeatedly violated his apprenticeship by running off to war.
On one occasion, Benedict apparently mustered arms with the Norwich militia, but only briefly, during the Seven Years' War. In early August 1757, French and Indian raiders under the command of the French Canadian governor, Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, besieged and captured British-held Fort William Henry on the southern shore of Lake George. Much of western New England suddenly lay exposed to attack. Even before the fort's defenders capitulated and fell victim to a bloody massacre, Connecticut militiamen, including those of Norwich, were rallying to counter the enemy's advance. Arnold, now sixteen and just old enough for militia service, may have joined the Norwich column as it marched for Albany. However, Montcalm's force, concerned about overreaching its supply lines, quickly retreated northward, and the Connecticut units returned home before the end of August. Most likely, Arnold's short stint of service with the Norwich militia, representing his only martial experience before the Revolutionary War, along with the confusion of names, somehow combined to produce the desertion tales.
Rather than sulking over disappointments or irresponsibly rushing off to snatch up enlistment bounties, young Arnold reckoned carefully with his prospects and future. A modestly well educated person with more formal schooling than most of his New England contemporaries, he had the energy to transpose personal adversity into a wide pathway of opportunity. The key, he understood, lay with his mercantile mentors and patrons, the Lathrop brothers, and he did everything possible to impress them with his abilities.
Before Arnold's apprenticeship was over, the Lathrops were creating him like a son of their own. What they beheld in him was an intelligent, earnest, intense young man, full of ambition, willing to work hard, and determined to master every aspect of their complex trading network. Since the Lathrops had well-established mercantile connections in the Caribbean and Britain, they even sent their protege on trading voyages, first to the West Indies and then to London, where Benedict gained valuable experience in negotiating the purchase of commodities with merchants who regularly supplied the Lathrops.
Still, Arnold's apprenticeship years were anything but untroubled. Before the decade was out, his mother was dead. Mother and son surely had become more dependent on each other as they suffered through the loss of family members, as they dealt with the Captain's intensifying alcohol problem, and as they endured the shame of their collapsing financial circumstances. Arnold dearly loved his mother, but he could not ease her distress. Hannah's shattered dreams, certainly as much as some mysterious ailment, caused her death in August 1759, while she was still in her early fifties.
His mother gone, Benedict, though living away from home, had to look after his father as well as his remaining sibling, Hannah. The Captain's bouts of drinking, which grew worse after the loss of his wife, became a source of lasting embarrassment for his two children. In May 1760 a Norwich justice of the peace issued a warrant for Captain Arnold's arrest. Citizens had complained that he "was drunk" in public, "so that he was disabled in the use of his understanding and reason," based on his "speech, gesture[s], and behavior." Excessive drinking was simply unacceptable in well-ordered New England towns, most certainly in public, and the local court fined the Captain, besides warning him about further abuses of the bottle.
Members of the First Church were not so lenient. They could not abide a full church member stumbling around their community in a drunken stupor. In late June 1760, Deacon Ebenezer Huntington demanded the Captain's appearance before the congregation, to be admonished for "drunkenness in diverse instances." The elder Arnold scoffed at the invitation, thereby rejecting established church authority. Church leaders responded by sending a committee to meet with the Captain but conceded that "they had not recovered him to his duty--that he was still impertinent and refused to make a public confession" regarding his socially disruptive behavior. The full church members then "voted a public admonition which renders him incapable of communion in special circumstances." Wholly defiant, the Captain again refused to appear at the meetinghouse, to ask forgiveness, and to submit to standard church discipline.
By early 1761, some church members were whispering about the ultimate penalty: excommunication. At this juncture, the Reverend Lord intervened. He promised to write "this poor man ... a pungent letter," although that gesture failed to help. Because of "his great incapacity," the elder Arnold continued "in great disorder" of mind. Lord suspected correctly that sustained alcohol abuse had done its damage, that the Captain's health was completely broken. He asked his parishioners to show charity toward a once-respected church member, one who had stood steadfastly by him during the turbulent Separate years of the mid-1740s.
Before the end of 1761, Benedict Arnold IV was dead. For the First Church and its minister and members, there was "no more to be done." The problem of having a chronically drunk parishioner in their midst had found its own resolution.
Their father's tragic demise took a bruising toll on Benedict V and his sister Hannah. In addition to the sense of shame they experienced in daily contacts with relatives and friends, Benedict harbored feelings of indignation toward those Norwichites who looked at him sanctimoniously rather than sympathetically, as if they were measuring his worth by the failures of his namesake father. Another burden was Benedict IV's financial legacy, which amounted to nothing; to satisfy pressing creditors, the family homestead had to be sold, seemingly desecrating the memories of a once contented and loving family unit. Had the Lathrops not offered moral encouragement and financial support, the two surviving Arnolds might have entered adulthood destitute.
Thus Benedict, almost twenty-one years old in late 1761, had to reckon with his shattered sense of family honor. He would never forget his father's wretched downfall and death, nor would he forgive those Norwichites who were asking themselves, or so he suspected, whether the surviving son of Benedict IV would end his days as disreputably as had his father. He resolved to demonstrate to the folk of Norwich, at the first opportunity, that the Arnold name was as worthy of respect as any other in eastern Connecticut. He likewise made a commitment to devote his adult years to returning the Arnold name to its once lustrous heights. In doing so, he would be respectful toward his superiors and courteous toward his inferiors, as his mother had advised him; but he vowed never again to think of himself as a cowardly person but to confront anyone, however high or low in birth, who questioned his honor, reputation, or family name. Those with the temerity to do so would find him unrelenting in challenging their slurs--again and again and again.
Benedict also had to sort through his religious feelings. He would finally choose to accept a God of love, a supreme being that served as a source of light and comfort, not human misery and death. As he later wrote to his first wife after a particularly dangerous sailing voyage, "pray put up a petition of thanks that my life has been spared and pray for recovery and health." Arnold's deity would support rather than subvert his personal quest for greatness; and his God would encourage him to depend on his own intelligence, wit, and energy as he clambered up the socioeconomic ladder of secular achievement.
Looking back to late 1761, Benedict Arnold emerged from his childhood days as a person of wounded pride but determined ambition. Born to comfort, that comfort had been taken from him. Raised to magnify the family name that he bore, he had seen that name lose its community respectability. Expecting a handsome monetary inheritance on which to carry forward his father's dream, he now had none. What he did have was his sister Hannah and a treasury of once-happy childhood days--the times of contentment before everything had gone so terribly wrong.
Benedict likewise had the patronage of the Lathrop brothers. With their support he would make his initial mark as an apothecary-merchant, knowing that gaining wealth from dealings in the marketplace would bring him status and prestige. Perhaps someday, as he projected an image of his own future, he would even enter politics and become a widely admired political patriarch, in the mold of his great-great-grandfather. Such tantalizing prospects, he appreciated, lay in the far distant future for a young adult of no family influence or respectability. First and foremost, he had to succeed in commerce, and the Lathrops stood ready to finance his new beginnings. Young Benedict Arnold thus took the obvious pathway open to him, and it led directly to New Haven.
Excerpted from Benedict Arnold Revolutionary Hero by James Kirby Martin Copyright © 2000 by James Kirby Martin. Excerpted by permission.
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