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On the Edge of Spring
FROM THE SMALL TOWN green of Norwich, Connecticut, paths ran in many directions. But when Benedict Arnold was born in January 1741, deep, suffocating snow snuffed all travel, shutting down the entire state and jailing all but the most foolhardy indoors. Bitter cold gripped the whole country, and every river from Connecticut's Thames to Virginia's York froze solid. Ice crackled out from the bays and coves of the coast, permitting one reckless man to travel by sleigh from Cape Cod to New York City. Half the sheep, two-thirds of the goats, and countless cows and horses simply gave up and died, despite families risking starvation to feed their terrified livestock. "God has sealed up the hand of every man," wrote John Bissell of Bolton in near despair, noting that no one had suffered this much privation since the early settlers a century before. By March three feet of snow still sheathed the countryside, and on April 1 the rivers could still be crossed on foot.
Everyone must have been happy to see the spring through their leaded glass windows and to come out of their clapboard saltboxes into the mud. The work of the year could begin. Soon ox teams would plough up the soft earth, and the smell of baking rye bread in the house and odor of horse manure in the fields would replace burning tallow and beeswax. Built on five hills between the Yantic and Shetucket Rivers, Norwich had been granted by the Mohegan chief Uncas to the English settlers, whom he hoped would help him against his enemies, the Narragansett. Since 1667 it had grown from a few houses in a "pleasant vale" to one of the larger towns in eastern Connecticut, becoming a "half-shire town" in 1734, taking a long-desired share of the county court sessions from its neighbor New London. This required building a new jail and town house, as well as a whipping post and pillory. Well-traveled roads ran east to Providence, west to Hartford, and north along the two rivers, following old Indian trails through sandy pine forests and rocky dells.
The road south to New London was a barely widened Indian trail, just broad enough to cart goods back and forth in a half-day's walk. It was far easier to make the journey by boat. The U-shaped glacial harbor that stretched between the two towns was the best in the colony; at seven miles long, one mile wide, and six fathoms deep, it was sufficient to hold a small navy. Docks and landings dotted the length at the bottom of a series of low, sloping hills at Gale's Ferry, Groton, Smith Cove, and all the way south to the bights at New London. Once called "Pequot Plantation" or "London" by the first European settlers, it had become part of the Connecticut Colony in 1646 and, because of its protected harbor at the east end of Long Island Sound, had quickly developed into one of its largest towns.
It had one disadvantage: its land routes to other colonial population centers were dreadful. So why not sail another seven miles up the harbor and save a half day of cart work? That is one reason why Norwich began to take some, though not all, of its neighbor's shipping business. Merchants could sail a few large ships to the new docks at the Chelsea waterfront where the Yantic and Shetucket Rivers met, a mile and a half from Benedict Arnold's house. And now, with spring in the air and the harbor open, men could go to sea and make their fortune in trade.
One of those men was Benedict Arnold Sr., who served as a captain for richer men, such as Hezekiah Huntington on the ship Prudent Hannah. Arnold Sr. had come to Norwich from Rhode Island and met a widow named Hannah King, formerly Waterman. He may in fact have been one of her late husband's shipmates, but that did not stop him from marrying her. They had named their first son Benedict after his father, but the child died at the age of eight months, along with a half sister named for her mother, both on the same day. In the custom of the times, the grieving parents named their next two children the same. The first Benedict Arnold Jr. was buried on the green, by the First Church of Norwich, where the deeply religious Hannah found comfort and faith.
The previous year, the "Great Awakening" had swept across New England, revitalizing the Christian church, which had waned in influence somewhat in the early decades of the century. During high summer of 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, explicating Deuteronomy 32:35: Their foot shall slide in due time. With both reason and wrath he proclaimed that people "are liable to fall" and that "he that stands or walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weightto throw him down. ... He cannot stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost." The congregation was thrown into disarray, with "shrieks and cry" from the parishioners fearing they would go to hell. But despite the revival of Christian evangelism, this was no longer the society of the early Puritans. Other ideas were filtering into the public consciousness. A month after Arnold's birth, rivals Andrew Bradford and Benjamin Franklin published the first monthly magazines in the colonies. Franklin had already opened the first subscription library and started the first newspaper, though it would be at least another decade before the press fully reached Connecticut and thirty years before the state would open some of the first free public libraries in the country. In the meantime educated men argued in town halls and coffee shops, where this bitter drink was replacing hard apple cider or ale as the preferred refreshment at breakfast and lunch. Already in 1741 they discussed John Locke's theories of equality and the social contract between the ruler and ruled.
A young Connecticut man named Ezra Stiles demonstrated how these two apparently opposing worldviews could work in perfect harmony. In 1746 Stiles graduated from New Haven's Yale College at the age of nineteen and became a minister, while retaining a passion for intellectual liberty and reason. When he gave his master's degree oration in 1749, he said, "Tis Liberty, my friends, in the Cause of Liberty we assert — a Freedom from the Bias of a vulgar Education, and the Violence of prejudicate Opinions — a Liberty suited to the Pursuit and Enquiries after Truth — Natural and Moral. This is the Advantage of Education, and this the Emolument of the Liberal Discipline." The deeply religious Stiles saw no contradiction in also being a champion of Enlightenment values: tolerance, education, reason, and freedom.
These ideas had not always necessarily been tied to representative democracy, but, mixed with the colony's unique voting system, they were radical. In a 1662 charter the king of England gave the full citizens, or "freemen," of Connecticut elected representatives twice a year and once a year nominated and selected the governor, deputy governor, and twelve assistants. This was a much different system from colonies where the royally appointed governors had veto power and could appoint judges, lawyers, and military officers with impunity. Not wanting to give up these rights, Connecticut thwarted an attempt by a lessprogressive monarch to confiscate the document in 1687. Despite a number of grumbling "King's men" who found all this republicanism heretical, the stability it brought was very difficult to argue against. Although the relatively small Connecticut had no large port, no readily exportable product, and few imported slaves or indentured servants, the social order remained fairly secure. And the population boomed, from 38,000 in 1730 to 130,000 in 1756. Some of these were children, but more were immigrants from England and the southern states, including many Baptists, Quakers, and other dissenters.
This population growth produced one of the first land crises in the colonies. By 1750 almost the entire state had been parceled out, and settlers looked to move west. This led to the simmering Yankee– Pennamite War in what is today northeastern Pennsylvania and eventually to the settlement of the Western Reserve in northeastern Ohio, as well as various other migrations and settlements, both legal and illegal. Like all populations that prosper and exceed their boundaries, eighteenth-century Connecticut exported its greatest resource — people. These migrations also signaled that the new nation was already far more fluid and cohesive than the parent country dreamed. The inhabitants had begun to think of themselves as Americans and not just as residents of a colony or a town.
This mix of fluidity and cohesion marked Benedict Arnold's childhood. On the one hand, he was in the center of a close-knit community, with a fairly unified cultural and social life, especially for the children. They were all familiar with the sounds of long sermons in a cold church pew, sheep bleating from the hills, and the squeals of a hog butchered in the kitchen garden. They shared entertainment, like watching cats hunting mice in the corn and dogs chasing rabbits out of the grazing fields. They hunted deer and fished for trout. They pretended they were pioneers of a hundred years before, settling by "the rushing and picturesque cascade of the Yantic" under "rude ledges of towering rock." They all had the same fears too — larger children probably warned them of "savage" Indians, like the remaining Pequots, who lived nearby at the source of the Mystic River.
Though little gray-eyed Benedict was not tied to the land as much as many farming families, he would have spent his share of the days heaping stones into walls and picking apples from the orchards, while older men heaped mowed thorns with pitchforks. But at the same time, his father's position as ship captain must have seemed romantic and free, with the entire world to roam and conquer. And though his father was gone for months at a time, every day Benedict could watch cart horses pulling trucks full of salted fish and molasses past his window, struggling in the muddy ruts of the road, heading northwest to Windham or Hartford.
His mother continued to bear more children, and he would have been expected to help bring up these brothers and sisters. He had other family in Norwich too — his mother's relatives, like the Lathrops, had been there for years, and now some of his father's relatives moved in. Oliver Arnold joined his brother in Norwich by 1755 at least, with his two sons Oliver and Freegift, who looked up to their older cousin. Benedict's uncle Zion may have moved into town from Rhode Island as well; he certainly visited at least. As his father's business grew in the 1740s, they moved into a large two-chimney house on the road south of the green, a signal that they had become part of the town's elite. The Arnolds' pew at the Norwich Congregational Church was nearby the Lathrops, the Turners, and the Huntingtons. In this way, young Benedict probably met Philip Turner and Jedediah Huntington, boys less than two years older. Jedediah was the son of Jabez Huntington, the richest merchant in town and one of the leaders of the colony. Unlike the Huntingtons, though, Benedict's father wanted little part in societal governance and remained at sea every summer. He was chosen for the grand jury in 1746 but refused to serve on it. Philip Turner was the son of a father of the same name, who had moved to Norwich from Massachusetts. His parents died when he was young, and instead he was brought up by the kindly Dr. Elisha Tracy, who lived nearby. Benedict learned his Bible verses and played on Sunday afternoons with companions like these, children of the rising middle class of the eighteenth century.
When Benedict was nine, his younger brother died, leaving him the only son. Two years later, in the fall of 1752, he trudged up the north road to Canterbury, following the Shetucket River. Along the way he must have passed through forests full of wild grapes and turkeys, where men cut down the straightest white pines for ship masts. He would have passed small cornfields, with interlaced rows of beans and squash. At last he reached the Congregationalist meetinghouse of Dr. James Cogswell, originally of Lebanon, who graduated from Yale the year after Arnold was born. Benedict's schooling with Cogswell was clearly meant to prepare him for the revered teacher's alma mater.
While Benedict studied music and grammar upriver, a yellow fever epidemic paralyzed Norwich, where his mother said, "deths are multiplied all round us. ... Your uncle Zion Arnold is dead. ... John Lathrop and his son barnibus are boath dead." His mother wrote him again on August 30, 1753, saying that his sisters Hannah and Marey were very sick, and "your father is verry poor; aunt is sick, and I myself had a touch of ye distemper. ... Your groaning sisters give love to you ... but I must not have you come home for fear that should be resumption." His sister Hannah survived, but Marey died, leaving Mrs. Arnold devastated. Nevertheless, she did not forget to send her son a pound of chocolate, and the following spring sent him fifty shillings; she seems to have constantly worried about his health and welfare. He must have seemed her hope for the future.
But after only two years of school, Arnold had to return to Norwich. It could be that he was a poor student, or more likely that his parents had overextended their finances. His father's business had been deteriorating, due mostly to an increasing problem with drinking. His mother alluded to these financial and health issues in another mournful letter: "I write to let you know ye situation of our family. Your father is in a poor state of health but designs, if able, to set out for New York on August 23, and if I can, I shall journey with him, and if Providence shall permit, we shall be back by ye middle September when I shall send for you home. ... We have a very uncertain stay in this world." The teenage Arnold seems to have spent time with his father at sea during the summer months, traveling to the Caribbean. Witnessing the sordid life of hardened sailors was one thing, but quite another if one of those sailors is your father. The boy might have also had to rescue his father from drunken sprees in New London, and stories proliferated in later years about this unhappy duty. This was followed by an arrest warrant for Benedict Sr. in November 1754, for debt.
Presumably other relatives came to his rescue, because the elder Arnold was not imprisoned and remained a sea captain for the next few years. But the family was clearly in dire straits, and young Benedict's future as a college student was now impossible. Instead, his mother apprenticed him to her cousins, the Lathrops. Brothers Joshua and Daniel were the first pharmacists in the county and probably the first in Connecticut to keep "a general assortment of medicines." The Lathrops also sold fruit, wine, and miscellaneous merchandise, from painters' colors to Turkish figs. Arnold joined another boy named Solomon Smith as an apprentice and began to learn the trade. By now, Arnold had grown into a good-looking young man, strong and thin-lipped, with heavy black eyebrows and hair. He could easily walk up the dirt track past the front of the Leffingwell Inn to the Lathrop store. But he may have actually lived in the large home of Daniel and his wife, Jerusha, since his bankrupt parents probably rented out rooms in their now too-large house. The Lathrops' three sons had died and no doubt they didn't mind the company. Besides, an apprenticeship was not just a day job; it was legally indentured servitude that led to expertise in a certain field. In this case, Arnold was not really learning to be a pharmacist; he was learning to be a trader in provisions. He went on innumerable short trips, like two miles away to grind corn at the mill, where "while waiting, he amazed the miller with sundry fantastic tricks," such as holding onto "a spoke of the great mill wheel in its revolutions." The Lathrops sent him on much longer trips too, to England and the Caribbean, trusting him as supercargo for exports and imports. In the tangled web of eighteenth-century international trade, having a man or even a teenager on the spot was vital.
In the 1740s and 1750s, currency in Connecticut depreciated, and the position of farmers, shopkeepers, and merchants was kept in a strange balance, with credit a flitting hummingbird that everyone tried to follow. One of the primary concerns was the honesty of customers, and the position of middleman was potentially prosperous even before the regularization and codification of finance laws. But business could also be potentially disastrous, and the entire credit system could break down when someone in the long chain of commerce did not pay. Many merchants were also farmers and shopkeepers, to hedge their bets, and a man named Jonathan Trumbull was one of them: driving cattle herds, salting and packing meat, running a flour mill, and selling imports and local farm goods out of his Lebanon retail store.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Homegrown Terror"
Copyright © 2014 Eric D. Lehman.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents<P>Preface<BR>Acknowledgements<BR>On the Edge of Spring<BR>Flashpoint<BR>Resist Even Unto Blood<BR>The Shadow War<BR>Invasion<BR>Villainous Perfidy<BR>The Scandal of the Age<BR>A Parricide in Old Virginia<BR>William Ledyard's Last Summer<BR>The Sixth of September<BR>The Battle of Groton Heights<BR>Remember New London<BR>The Fall of Silas Deane<BR>Epilogue<BR>A Note on Sources<BR>Notes<BR>Index</P>
What People are Saying About This
“Benedict Arnold was a traitor—and a terrorist, as Eric Lehman vividly shows in his chilling account of Arnold’s savage raid on New London. At the same time, Lehman presents a new look at the psyche of a Revolutionary War general who was both a hero and a villain.”
“Eric Lehman’s Homegrown Terror is the biography of evil personified by America’s greatest antihero. It is a tour de force of research, showing that evil can draw a society—or nation—together as effectively as can good.”
“Homegrown Terror is more than the dramatic story of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of America. It is a richly textured and lively portrait of revolutionary era Connecticut. Readers interested in the American Revolution and historical New England will enjoy this book.”