Select Page

The Fatal Flaws of Benedict Arnold

17 QCAHMP The Fatal Flaws of Benedict Arnold

What fatal flaws of Benedict Arnold’s personality contributed to his decision to transform from an ardent patriot into our country’s most well-known traitor? We will explore this question as we travel with him from his youth through the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.

Born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1741, Benedict Arnold had all the pedigrees to be one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution. His great-great-grandfather, William Arnold, was one of the 13 original settlers of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. His grandfather, also named Benedict, was the first Governor of Rhode Island. His mother has been described as a woman with almost saintly qualities, while his father spent much of his money in local taverns. Mounting family debt, and a lack of dedication to his studies, caused his mother to remove him from a private school education which would have paved the way to a degree from Yale. Arnold sought permission to enter the provincial militia during the French and Indian War, but his mother refused. When he reached the age of 16, he was allowed to join the local militia’s plan to enter into the battle near at Fort McHenry, but his enlistment lasted only 13 days after the group learned of the French slaughter of British and colonial forces at the fort. Upon his return, Arnold found himself placed by his mother as an apprentice for her cousins Joshua and Daniel Lathrop who were apothecaries in  Norwich. Arnold was so intoxicated by the thrill of battle that he slipped away from his apprenticeship multiple times to fight in the war.  Both his lack of focus on his studies, as well as his willingness to run away from his apprenticeship could both be thought of as examples of poor impulse control. Something which would plague Arnold throughout his life. After completing his apprenticeship, Arnold opened his own apothecary at the age of 21. But soon leave that profession behind for more exciting, and risky, ventures. This is another pattern he replicated repeatedly over his lifetime. He left his sister, Hannah, to manage his business. He found a partner, and used his inheritance to became a successful trader in spices. Again, willing to engage in risk taking behavior, Arnold often captained the ships as they traded in ports from Canada to the West Indies.  Such trading, of course, was severely damaged by the Sugar and Stamp Acts.

In the 1760’s,  a contemporary described Arnold as being a favorite among the socially prominent young ladies. We will learn in future episodes that such ladies matched the description of his second wife. In 1767, Benedict Arnold married the woman described as his first love Margaret Mansfield. Margaret was daughter of the High Sheriff of the county. Like his mother, Margaret was described as in glowing and pious terms. Although I might be a bit of a cynic, but I cannot help wondering if Arnold first focused his attention on Margaret Mansfield because she was the High Sheriff’s daughter. Perhaps the sheriff might be inclined to turn a blind eye to smuggling, if the smuggler was his son-in-law.

The now married Arnold did not take kindly to the infringements upon his personal liberty, much less his pocket book, which were caused by the Sugar Act.

As his outrage continued, Arnold became a member, and soon led a chapter of, the Sons of Liberty. Note I used the word “outraged.” You can add poor anger management skills or volatility to the list of Arnold’s many issues. This is not the last time that you will hear of Arnold’s anger impacting or changing the direction of his life.

Although smuggling might have been a routine practice amongst traders, unlike others Arnold was willing to assure his control, personal gain, or wealth to the disadvantage or injury of those him even if it mean resorting to threats or physical violence. This was evidenced early on by his arrest and fine after an incident involving one of his sailors who had had publically accused him of smuggling. Was Benedict Arnold remorseful of his actions? Far from it! He posted a letter detailing it in the Connecticut Gazette. In the complete version of this edition, I read the letter which provided a detailed description of the event from his perspective.  Arnold contended that although the man had been paid and happily left his employ, he returned two days later and sought to report Arnold for smuggling. After a bit of “chastisement” to use Arnold’s words, the man agreed to sign an oath that he deserved to be punished, would make no such reports in the future, and would leave New Haven and never return. When Arnold found that the man had not left the city he tied him to the public whipping post and gave him forty lashes. Arnold was then arrested but commented that he was fined only 50 shillings because the men who heard his case felt “the fellow was not whipped too much.”

Soon unsatisfied with merely voicing his outrage, and filled with the memories of his military experience, Arnold was elected a Captain in the Connecticut militia. The day after the Battle of Lexington, Arnold summoned his company and proposed they marched to Boston. A town meeting regarding the battle was in progress. Rather than asking for a portion of the town’s munitions, he marched his company to the home where the meeting was in progress and threatened to break into the powder house if the key to its door was not produced within five minutes time. Did I mention that Arnold had issues including impulse control and grandiose thinking?

Arnold’s military reputation grew quickly, but he also quickly became unsatisfied with merely leading a militia group, He wanted more. Not just a bit more, but he wanted to grab the brass ring, as they say. This, by the way, is yet another flaw that would repeatedly cause him trouble throughout the war. Upon his arrival in Cambridge, he proposed to Joseph Warren and other members of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety that he should immediately be dispatched to attack the Fort Ticonderoga in New York in order to capture a much needed stockpile of munitions, of both powder and artillery, known to be at the fort. Imagine! That was a fairly brazen plan for colonists who were more than a year away from issuing the Declaration of Independence. It was also fairly grandiose to imagine that a conglomeration of colonial militia groups could attack and conquer a British held fortification. Nonetheless, his arguments were persuasive, and he was given permission to move forward with his plan.  The Massachusetts Committee of Safety gave him the title of “Colonel,” and as well as 400 men and £100 worth of munitions.

Although those from Massachusetts dubbed Arnold’s mission as secret, the Connecticut legislature had also been persuaded to send troops to capture the fort. Just whom was leading their charge to Fort Ticonderoga? None other than Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys who numbered approximately 270 men, and who had been given money for the venture, and were already on their way. In fact, they were 50 miles ahead of him. He rode ahead of his men and found Allen and his troops in Vermont. Arnold sought to take charge of the entire group because he wanted the full credit for taking control of the poorly defended installation.  In another glimmer of the depth of Arnold’s temper….he described the boys as “wild people.” He and Allen jockeyed for power and glory, but Allen’s men refused to serve under Arnold. This would be the first of a series of battles for power that Arnold engaged in with other military commanders. It seems that having a sizeable ego was an issue for Arnold as well.  Ego was an issue for Allen too. Eventually, Allen and Arnold reached a compromise to uneasily share the leadership. As could be predicted, they resumed their squabble after thier success at Fort Ticonderoga.

As time went on, Arnold sought to be the dominant leader, and Allen’s forces began to dwindled. Eventually, some of those Green Mountain Boys decided it was time to go home and get back to their families and work as well. As Allen faded from the forefront, and he returned home on May 27th, Benedict Arnold declared that Allen “”had entirely given up command.” The practical nature of the reduction in forces was not Arnold’s focus, however. He chose to attribute to Allen’s poor leadership skills. He also sought to put a positive spin on the whole matter with those who had authorized the campaign. Not only would ego be an issue for Arnold, but his voracity was questionable as well. He wrote to the Massachussetts Committee of Safety that: “Mr. Allen’s party is decreasing, and the dispute between us subsiding. I am extremely sorry matters have not been transacted with more prudence and judgment. I have done everything in my power, and put up with many insults to preserve peace and serve the public. I hope soon to be properly  released from this troublesome business, that some more proper person may be appointed in my room.”

Arnold and a small group of men soon branched out from Fort Ticonderoga and took control of Fort Crown Point. In his regimental memorandum book he noted that when one man sought to go through a check point without displaying his required pass, Arnold “tooke the liberty of breaking his head,” and then kicked him very heartily” when he refused to engage in a duel. His behavior certainly paints a far different picture of Arnold than some of those who seek to portray him as an inspirational military commander or at least in a more positive light.

Control of Fort Ticonderoga was soon be taken away from Arnold. He was told he should abdicate all power to Connecticut’s Colonel Benjamin Hinman who, along with his 1000 troops, had arrived to assure continued possession of the fort. You will recall that Arnold asked to be released from that command. However, when the time for that arrived, he was not interested in relinquishing control. Instead, Arnold chose to angrily resign his commission declaring “he would not be second to any person whomsoever.”  As you might imagine, this was not the first time he would resign…at least temporarily You may have also guessed that Arnold’s anger would not only cause him to be passed over for military promotions, but the resulting frustrations thereupon would fuel his poor decisions in the future.

It is one such promotion, or rather nonpromotion, that we will learn about in the next edition.