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Benedict Arnold the Narcissist - American History for the Modern Patriot Podcast 18

 18 AHMP: Benedict Arnold The Narcissist

In edition 17 of this podcast, we learned about a bevy of personality traits, and dare I say flaws, of Benedict Arnold. Today we will explore how those characteristics or propensities led him down the path to engage in a drama royal which involved George Washington and the Continental Congress, as well as engage in what can be viewed as either extreme acts of valor or unnecessary risk taking due to unrealistic views of the self. In Arnold’s case, that would mean viewing one’s self as having almost super human capabilities on the field of battle.

Benedict Arnold’s personality was indeed ripe with negative traits or issues. Included in those were:

Poor impulse control.

Narcissism, grandiose thinking, and other issues related to an inflated sense of self.

Anger management issues, and the willingness to physically punish and humiliate those whom were under his control.

Significant risk taking behavior which placed himself and others in peril.

Assuring personal gain to the detriment of those around him.

However, to really grasp how those traits and issues negatively impacted his life, we must study his actions at pivotal points. In particular, those moments which were either situationally stressful (such as a battle) or those which were threatening to his sense of self.

We will rejoin Benedict Arnold’s journey in the year 1777.  By that time, he had become well known for his willingness to engage the enemy, his own physical sacrifice for the cause, and unfortunately for his temper. His confrontational and combative behavior with other officers and members of Congress had already caused him to not be selected for leadership positions such as that in the primary unit of the Quebec campaign, and it would soon cause him to be “overlooked” to receive a promotion.

In February, 1777, he was not included in a list of men promoted to major general. Five men with less seniority, and certainly less notoriety, were instead honored with that title. From that moment on, the seeds of a negative spiral would be sewn which ultimately led to his defection.

The Journals of the Continental Congress noted on Wednesday, February 19, 1777:

“Congress proceeded to the election of three five majors general; and the ballots being taken, the following gentlemen were duly elected: Lord Stirling, Thomas Mifflin, Arthur St. Clair, Adam Stephen, Benjamin Lincoln.”

To make matters worse, at least in the eyes of Benedict Arnold, the Congress acted again just two days later. From Journals of the Continental Congress on February 21, 1777: “Congress proceeded to the election of brigadiers general and the ballots being taken, the following gentlemen were elected. (It being previously agreed that their rank be settled after the election is made.) Colonel Enoch Poor, Colonel J. Glover, Colonel J. Patterson, Colonel Anthony Wayne, Colonel James Mitchel Varnum, Colonel John P. De Haas, Colonel G. Weedon, Colonel P. Muhlenberg, Colonel J. Cadwalader, and Colonel W. Woodford. Resolved, That the rank of the foregoing brigadiers general, and that of Brigadier General Nash, be appointed settled to morrow.”

The number of men who had been promoted, which did not include Benedict Arnold had jumped from five to fifteen. Arnold was, needless to say, furious. Although the second group had only been promoted to Arnold’s then current level, certainly the Congress could have taken a moment to amend the promotions of the 19th, if Arnold’s name had been accidentally left of the list.

We are able to understand Arnold’s level of distress, and the accompanying drama which ensued, in no small part because of George Washington and his aide-de-camps. The staff of a general at that time was often thought of as something akin to his military family. With quill and paper in hand, they often composed the correspondence themselves, after (of course) hearing what the General wanted to include in the letter. Washington would then review the draft, make corrections and approve the draft, and then sign the final copy of the document.

A copy of that document was then hand written into Washington’s “Letter Book.” This partially explains why we have such a wealth of documents for review today. The copy also noted important references such as the original correspondence or event which caused Washington to issue a letter in response.

Documents of particular importance were often delivered personally by the aide-de-camp who had composed the letter. Not only did that assure the document would be delivered to the person for whom it was intended, but also the person who had conferenced with Washington might be able to clarify a point or answer a question from the recipient. This was not necessarily an opportunity for the aide to take a break and get a breath of fresh air. They often delivered letters in inclement weather or near battle fields. John Laurens, John Fitzgerald, and Alexander Hamilton all were wounded in the Battle of Monmouth alone!

In Washington’s case, his aides, worked tirelessly. We know that because of the thousands of written records and correspondence that remain with us today including more than one hundred letters that were exchanged between George Washington and Benedict Arnold.

The list of twenty-nine men who, at one point or another, served amongst Washington’s aides includes many well-known figures of the Revolution and the newly formed United States. They included:

John Parke Curtis: Washington’s stepson who died of camp fever after serving only one month in the position.

Alexander Hamilton: Delegate to the Constitutional Convention, primary author of the Federalist Papers, and first Secretary of the Treasury. It is Hamilton’s writing which is found on many of Washington’s letters to Benedict Arnold.

James McHenry: Secretary of War, and namesake of the Fort McHenry of “Star Spangled Banner” fame.

Thomas Mifflin: Governor of Pennsylvania, Quartermaster General, and one of the brigadier generals included in this story.

Edmund Randolph: Governor of Virginia and first U.S. Attorney General.

Joseph Reed: President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and someone who would soon become a thorn in Benedict Arnold’s side.

Tench Tilghman: Washington’s “Right Hand Man” who served from 1776 until 1783 without any financial renumeration.

Johnathan Trumbull, Jr.; Congressman, US Senator, and 11 time Governor of Connecticut.

Let’s return to the ruminations of Benedict Arnold, and the extent to which George Washington became involved in the drama which surrounded his “non-promotion.”

Washington believed the matter was nothing more than an oversight by the Congress, and cautioned Arnold to be patient. On March 3, 1777, he wrote to Arnold: “We have lately had several promotions to the rank of Major General, and I am at a loss whether you have had a preceding appointment, as the news-papers announce, or whether you have been omitted through some mistake. Should the latter be the case I beg you will not take any hasty steps in consequence of it, but allow proper time for recollection, which, I flatter myself, will remedy any error that may have been made. My endeavours to that end shall not be wanting; as I am with great respect”

Lest you think that Washington was going above and beyond what he might do for others, please remember that George Washington was not only a gentleman but had a great sense of political tactics as well. He actually wrote a bevy of letters on March 3, 1777. Let’s find out what he wrote to several of those other men who may, or may not, have been promoted.

Washington wrote a remarkably similar letter to Andrew Lewis as he had written to Arnold: “I was much disappointed at not perceiving your name in the in the list of Major Generals lately made by Congress, and most sincerely wish that the neglect may not induce you to abandon the Service. Let me beseech you to reflect, that the Period is now arrived, when our most vigorous exertions are wanted, when it is highly and indispensably necessary for Gentlemen of Abilities in any Line, but more especially the Military one, not to withhold themselves from public Employment, or suffer any small Punctilio, to persuade them to retire from their Country’s Service. This cause requires your Aid, no one more sincerely wishes it, than I do. A candid Reflection on the Rank you held in the last War, added to a decent respect for the Congress’s Resolve, ‘not to be confined, in making or promoting General Officers, to any regular Line,’ to the propriety of which all American submitted, may remove any Uneasiness arising in your mind on the Score of Neglect. Upon my honor I think it ought. A steady persevereance in promoting the public good, and regular discharge of the duties of your Office, which in my Opinion you can eminently perform, must and will in the course of the approaching Campaign, secure to you the unfeigned thanks of all good Men, and obtain from Congress that Rank, which perhaps you may think it now your undoubted right.”

Washington wrote a note to William Woodford, with a somewhat parental “I told you so” sounding tone: “Dear Sir: By some Resolves of Congress, just come to my hands, I find as I hoped and expected your name in the new appointment of Brigadiers, but perceived at the same time that you were named after Muehlenberg and Weedon; the reason assigned for this having your resigned your former rank in the service of the Continent. You may well recollect, my Dear Sir, that I strongly advised you against this resignation. I now as Strongly recommend your acceptance of the present appointment. You may feel somewhat hurt in having two Officers placed before you (though perhaps never to command you) who once were inferior, in point of rank, to you, but remember that this is a consequence of your own act, and consider what a Stake we are contending for. Trifling punctilios should have no influence upon a man’s conduct in such a cause, and at such a time as this. If smaller matters do not yield to greater, If trifles, light as Air in comparison of what we are contending for, can withdraw or withhold Gentlemen from Service, when our all is at Stake and a single case of the die may turn the tables, what are we to expect! It is not a common contest, we are engaged in, every thing valuable to us depends upon the success of it, and the success upon a Steady and Vigorous exertion. Consider twice therefore before you refuse.”

Washington wrote a happier, but also cautionary, note to Enoch Poor on March 3rd as well: “Sir: By a Resolve of the Honble., the Continental Congress, passed the 21st. Ulto. You are promoted to the Rank of Brigadier General, upon which I sincerely congratulate you…I am apprehensive that your promotion will cause Colo. Starke to resign; should you find this to be the case, let the oldest Lieutenant Colonel in the Line of your State, be appoint to the Command of his Regiment, to whom I will send a Commission as soon as it is notified to me, this should not be mentioned if my doubts prove groundless.” On March 3rd, Washington also wrote congratulatory letters to newly appointed generals Varnum and Cadwalder.

On March 6th Washington wrote a different sort of a letter. This correspondence was intended to remain private and sent to Richard Henry Lee who was the President of the Continental Congress: “SIR I am anxious to know whether General Arnold’s nonpromotion was owing to accident or design and the cause of it. Surely a more active a more spirited and sensible officer fills no department in your army Not seeing him then in the list of major generals and no mention made of him has given me uneasiness as it is not to be presumed being the Oldest brigadier that he will continue in service under such a slight I imagine you will lose two or three other very good Officers by promoting yours or any one’s over them My public letters will give you the state Of matters in this quarter and my anxiety to be informed of the reason of Arnold’s non promotion gives you the trouble of this letter.”

Although there is no record of Lee’s direct response to Washington, the General’s advocacy for Arnold does appear to have had an impact. on May 20th he wrote the following to Thomas: “One plan, now in frequent use, is to assassinate the characters of the friends of America, in every place, and by every means. At this moment they are now reading in Congress an audacious attempt of this kind against the brave General Arnold.”

We have the advantage of knowing not only the tone and content of the letters that Washington sent to others on March 3rd, but also the extent to which Washington had used his influence to advocate on Arnold’s behalf with the President of the Continental Congress. However, Arnold was operating in a vacuum. He could not have known what Washington wrote to others. He was also left to mull over the situation and the circumstances which may have caused him to be ignored, if not shunned, by members of Congress.

With a heavily bruised ego and certainly in no mood to follow Washington’s suggestion that he should not take “any hasty steps,” Arnold wrote to Washington from his camp in Providence on March 11, 1777, and tendered his resignation: “I am greatly obliged to your Excellency, for interesting yourself so much in my behalf in respect to my appointment, which I have had no advice of, and know not by what means it was announced in the papers. I believe none but the printer has a mistake to rectify. Congress undoubtedly have a right of promoting those, whom, from their abilities, and their long and arduous services, they esteem most deserving. Their promoting junior officers to the rank of major-generals, I view as a very civil way of requesting my resignation, as unqualified for the office I hold. My commission was conferred unsolicited, and received with pleasure only as a means of serving my country. With equal pleasure I resign it, when I can no longer serve my country with honor. The person, who, void of the nice feelings of honor, will tamely condescend to give up his right, and retain a commission at the expense of his reputation, I hold as a disgrace to the army, and unworthy of the glorious cause in which we are engaged. When I entered the service of my country, my character was unimpeached. I have sacrificed my interest, ease, and happiness in her cause. It is rather a misfortune, than a fault, that my exertions have not been crowned with success. I am conscious of the rectitude of my intentions. In justice, therefore, to my own character, and for the satisfaction of my friends, I must request a court of inquiry into my conduct; and, though I sensibly feel the ingratitude of my countrymen, yet every personal injury shall be buried in my zeal for the safety and happiness of my country, in whose cause I have repeatedly fought and bled, and am ready at all times to risk my life. I shall cautiously avoid any hasty step (in consequence of the appointments which have taken place), that may tend to the injury of my country.”

In light of Arnold’s statement, and given what we have learned about his personality, let’s stop for a moment and consider whether Benedict Arnold might meet the diagnostic criteria for something called “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” The term “narcissism” stems from the Greek mythical figure, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. In general, narcissists are thought to be self-loving, self-absorbed, prone to self-aggrandizement, seek constant attention and admiration from others, consider themselves to be superior to others, and firmly believe that others see them as special or superior as well. They also act without concern, or even awareness, of how their behavior might impact others. Think of them as wearing a t-shirt that says, “It’s all about me” on the front.

But let’s be a bit more clinical about how we go about labeling Arnold’s personality.

If Benedict Arnold was under the treatment of a mental health professional, be it a counselor, social worker, family therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc., he would be diagnosed subject to the American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistic  Manual of Mental Disorders otherwise known as the “DSM 5.” That manual has a set of specific diagnostic criteria which must be met in order for a diagnosis to be issued. Of course, in order to accurately diagnose someone, they must to be in treatment with the mental health professional who is issuing the diagnosis, but for our hypothetical purposes here, let’s give it a shot. Think of the diagnostic criteria as flowing like an outline. A certain number of criteria in each segment of the outline must be met in order for the diagnosis to be given. In this case there are five different focus areas, which approximate the capital letters found in an outline. The first focus area, or the capital “A”, has two subsections relating to the functional impairments of the self or personality, and the difficulties in the individual’s interpersonal functions.

In terms of the dysfunction in the self or personality, the person must have difficulties either with identity or self-direction. Benedict Arnold seems to have both. In terms of “identity,” he certainly has demonstrated an exaggerated self-appraisal, as well as emotional fluctuations which mirror the fluctuations in his self-esteem. Both of those issues are listed as examples of identity dysfunction in the manual. Note how Arnold said, “It is rather a misfortune, than a fault, that my exertions have not been crowned with success. I am conscious of the rectitude of my intentions.” He believed he was taking the moral high ground, so to speak, by resigning because he perceived himself to be slighted by the Congress. Additionally, his sense of self appears to be quite over inflated in his demand for a court of conduct in order to clear his character, as if those around him might have nothing negative to say about his past actions.

With regard to “self-direction,” he also meets the criteria of setting goals in order to gain approval from others. This, of course, was demonstrated in his goal to capture Fort Ticonderoga with an undisciplined group of militia members and assorted other members of the colony, as well as his plan to attack Quebec by marching through the wilderness of Maine. That goal, as glorious as it might have seemed, resulted in untold amounts of agony, suffering, and even death of those soldiers who were placed under his command.

In terms of difficulties in interpersonal functioning, Arnold also seems to meet both of the potential criteria, rather than just one which is necessary to form the diagnosis. The first area focuses on empathy. Certainly he has demonstrated an “impaired ability to respond to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others,” as well as “excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self.” There are a plethora of examples in which he did not attend to the feelings and needs of others beginning with the sailor whom he whipped and the soldier whose head he broke as described in the previous episode.  His attention to the reaction to others can be seen in his statement “I am greatly obliged to your Excellency, for interesting yourself so much in my behalf in respect to my appointment” as well as his belief that his nonpromotion equates to the “ingratitude of my countrymen.” We know that Washington wrote a similar letter to another soldier, but Arnold perceived that his commander had taken a special interest in him. The same could be said for his view that his nonpromotion was tantamount to “ingratitude” rather than part of the day-to-day political wranglings of the Congress or reciprocal payment for his own statements to individuals within that body.

The second subsection of the first portion, or “Capital A,” of the outline focuses on issues within the individual’s intimate relationships. Actually, think of it as in terms of the individual having superficial relationships, little interest in others, and “predominance of a need for personal gain.” It would seem that while he sometimes demonstrated a level of concern for the men whom he led, we will see in the next episode that his behavior towards the good people of Philadelphia certainly demonstrated little concern for them as well as his willingness to violate their rights and confiscate their property of in order for his own personal gain. Additionally, his demand for a court of conduct to clear his character, clearly demonstrates his lack of insight as to how those around him might perceive his actions.

Moving on to the second capital letter, or “B”, in the outline of the diagnosis. It pertains to the demonstration of the personality traits of grandiosity and attention seeking. We have learned about a plethora of circumstances in which Benedict Arnold engaged in grandiose patterns of thought, and his willingness to take extreme risks in battle could be viewed as attention seeking.

There are three other capital letters as well, but the criteria contained in each focuses on assuring that the individual has consistently behaved in the described manner across time and circumstance, as well as ruling out that the individual’s behavior is related to his developmental stage, socio-cultural environment, medical condition, or physiological condition. I think it is clear that we can diagnose Benedict as an out and out narcissist.

But I have digressed from our story. Let’s return now to March of 1777. As you now learn of Arnold’s other words and actions, look for other examples which might fit into the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

As the two men, Washington and Arnold, were in frequent correspondence regarding strategy and troop movements, Arnold again took the opportunity offer his resignation, as well as asking for a court of inquiry regarding his conduct in a letter Washington dated March 26th: “In my last I intimated to your Excellency the impossibility of my remaining in a disagreeable situation in the army. My being superseded must be viewed as an implicit impeachment of my character. I therefore requested a court of inquiry into my conduct. I believe the time is now at hand, when I can leave this department without any damage to the public interest. When that is the case, I will wait on your Excellency, not doubting my request will be granted, and that I shall be able to acquit myself of every charge, which malice or envy can bring against me.”

Washington finally answered Arnold on April 3, 1777, but his response was little more than an echo of his previous statements: “I am this day favd. with yours of the 26th last month and a few days ago with that of the 11th. It is needless for me to say much upon a subject, which must undoubtedly give you a good deal of uneasiness. I confess I was surprised when I did not see your name in the list of major-generals, and was so fully of opinion, that there was some mistake in the matter, that, I, (as you may recollect,) desired you not to take any hasty step, before the intention of Congress was fully known. The point does not now admit of a doubt, and is of so delicate a nature, that I will not even undertake to advise. Your own feelings must be your Guide. As no particular Charge is alleg’d against you, I do not see upon what Ground you can demand a Court of Inquiry. Besides, public bodies are not amenable for their Actions. They place and displace at pleasure; and all the satisfaction that an individual can obtain, when he is overlooked, is, if innocent, a consciousness that he has not deserved such treatment for his honest exertions. Your determination not to quit your present command, while any danger to the public might ensue from your leaving it, deserves my thanks, and justly entitles you to the thanks of your country.

General Greene, who has lately been at Philadelphia, took occasion to inquire upon what principle the Congress proceeded in their late promotion of general officers. He was informed, that the members from each State seemed to insist upon having a proportion of general officers, adequate to the number of men which they furnish, and that, as Connecticut had already two major-generals, it was their full share. I confess this is a strange mode of reasoning; but it may serve to show you, that a promotion, which was due to your seniority, was not overlooked for want of Merit in you. I am, dear Sir, yours, &c.”

Was the information that General Green furnished to Washington accurate? The actual records of the Continental Congress give no specific reasons why those particular men had been promoted. They most certainly did not mention why Arnold was not included amongst the chosen. However a report by Thomas Burke concerning the debates of the Congress in February, 1777 may shed some light. The following entry was noted as occurring between February 12th and February 19th: “Several days of this week were consumed in debates on the appointment of General Officers. The debates were perplexed, inconclusive and irksome. The Delegates of several States were desirous of fixing a rule of promotion, and several were offered and rejected. Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina desired that each State should recommend officers in proportion to the men they furnish: three Battalions, one Brigadier, nine, one Major General. This was rejected. It was then proposed, to promote General Officers as they stood in rank, and rejected. To all the rules a saving was added, that the Congress might deviate from any, in favour of merit eminently distinguished and generally acknowledged. North Carolina argued that some rule should be observed, and entered on the Journals.—That the Congress would be an object of very jealous apprehension, unchecked and unlimited as it is, if the officers of the army held their honor at the precarious pleasure of a majority. Officers hold their honor the most dear of anything. Setting them aside when they were entitled to promotion would wound that honor very sorely. Their attention would therefore be entirely to that authority which had so much power to wound it, or to cherish it. This policy was always observed by monarchs, and the end was to keep the army dependent on them: but such policy was unbecoming in Congress, who ought to give no room for jealousy. The rule of succession is most familiar to officers, and therefore most agreeable to them: but the proportion would give greatest satisfaction to the States, and the satisfying them was of greatest importance and ought to be adopted. At length it was proposed to resolve, that regard be had to the rank, to the quota, and to merit. It was agreed to, but no notice was taken of it in the nomination or appointments. N. Carolina did not vote for Major Generals; because the delegate found, no rule was observed, and he knew nothing of the merit of any officers in nomination, and did not choose to give a vote in Congress, for which he could give no reason.”

Needless to say, there was no mention of Benedict Arnold in that summary. Not that Arnold would have believed it if he had actually read Burke’s summary notes. Could it also have been that the delegates from states other than Connecticut carried a bit of ill will because of the occurrences at Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec? This is only speculation, but Richard Henry Lee’s letter to Jefferson certainly indicated that there were rumblings in the halls outside of the Congressional Chamber.

Unable to contain himself any longer, Arnold was determined to speak with members of Congress directly. He took leave in late April to travel to the seat of government in Philadelphia. As he traveled through Connecticut, he learned of British troop movements by General Tryon, and his two thousand men, which had come ashore at Compo. Although a few valiant militia members offered resistance, they were quickly chased off. Arnold switched courses, joined the forces of General Silliman, the Connecticut militia commander, and rode toward Fairfield where General Wooster readied his troops for a battle. It is said that along the way, they sounded the local alarms for militia members and other townspeople to join them. It seemed the two forces would collide in Danbury. The British arrived first, and there are horrible stories of their treatment of the townspeople including 4 men who had fired on the troops. They were thrown into the cellar of the house they were in, and the house was burned. However, when they heard of the looming group of colonists coming toward them, and General Tryon who seemed to have many officers who were tired or perhaps a bit too fond of spirits, decided to beat a hasty retreat. Along the way they burned the homes of patriots, destroyed provisions stored for the colonial army including 3000 barrels of pork, 1000 barrels of grain, 1700 tents, spirits, and other provisions. The colonial forces had met at Bethel which was approximately 4 miles away from the location of the British troops in Danbury. Arnold and Silliman took one group men, Wooster took another, and the new point of contact seemed to be Ridgefield. As the forces collided, Wooster (who was 67 at the time) was shot and died a few weeks later in Danbury.

There is a story of Arnold’s bravery during this battle which really demonstrates his fighting nature or his willingness to place himself in peril. Of course, the colonial forces were greatly outnumbered at this battle, and although his men had built an obstacle in front of the British forces, it was quickly over run. It was said that as Arnold ordered a retreat, the horse on which he rode was shot. Arnold was tangled in the riding stirrups, and as a British solider stood over him with a bayonet, Arnold refused to admit he had been taken prisoner. Instead, he drew his pistol, shot the man dead, and fled into a swamp as the British continued to fire upon him. The next day, Arnold and his men continued to fight. Again, the horse on which he rode was shot. This time, however, he was shot as well and injured the same leg once again.

On May 2nd, the Continental Congress recognized Arnold’s contribution in the Battle of Ridgefield: “Resolved, That a major general and a brigadier general be appointed in the army of the United States. The ballots being taken, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold was promoted to the rank of major general.”

The appointment was so significant that John Adams, who chaired the Board of War, wrote of it to his wife, Abigail, on that day: “We have promoted Arnold, one Step this day, for his Vigilance, Activity, and Bravery, in the late Affair at Connecticutt.”

For his valor at the Battle of Ridgeway, the Continental Congress also issued the following on May 20, 1777: “Resolved, That the quarter master general be directed to procure a horse, and present the same, properly caparisoned, to Major General Arnold, in the name of this Congress, as a token of their approbation of his gallant conduct in the action against the enemy in their late enterprize to Danbury, in which General Arnold had one horse killed under him, and another wounded.” The record indicated that the Congress then ordered “That the letter from General Arnold, with the paper enclosed, be referred to the Board of War, together with such complaints as have been lodged against General Arnold:”

In the next edition, we will hear about the findings of the Board of War, as well as Benedict Arnold’s attempts to rule over the quagmire that was Philadelphia in 1779.
























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