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Unraveling a Tragedy

By Colleen Kearney Rich on November 26, 2018

In her latest book, The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life (Pegasus Books, 2018), Antonin Scalia Law School professor Joyce Lee Malcolm takes a new look at the man commonly known as one of the most infamous traitors in U.S. history.

Joyce Lee Malcolm

What inspired you to write this book?

I learned about Benedict Arnold’s amazing military exploits when researching my previous book, Peter’s War. Arnold has been regarded as the best officer on either side in the Revolutionary War. In addition to risking his life on numerous battlefields, he paid his men from his personal funds when Congress failed to pay them, and he remained faithful to the cause after receiving a grievous wound and being denied credit for his great victory at Saratoga. Yet he has typically been seen as a two-dimensional character: Self-serving, greedy, and too zealous for advancement; his name a synonym for traitor. That verdict didn’t seem to make sense, and I wanted to understand the man and his time more fully and find out why he decided to switch to the British side.

Did anything in your research surprise you?

Many things surprised me. I was unaware of the bitter dissension within the patriot side, and how Congress constantly micro-managed the Continental Army, fearful a popular general would seize power. Officers were charged and court-martialed for surrendering a fort or being ambushed; foreign officers imposed on Washington at high rank. Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen, is now regarded as enticing him into committing treason. Seven books have been written about her recently, all painting her as a villain. But when I looked at the evidence I found she was innocent. My book exonerates Peggy.

You use the word “tragedy” in the title. What made you decide on that word?

I used the word “tragedy” in the title because it fits Arnold’s life perfectly . . . . . He was a great hero during the Revolution, having risen by daring and merit, responsible for winning the decisive battle at Saratoga, yet he was harassed and dishonored by his own side, and ultimately committed the crime of treason. In doing so he was forever dishonored, losing the respect of those he abandoned and never winning the respect of the British. Had he died when he was shot leading the winning charge at Saratoga, he would have been regarded as one of our greatest heroes. Had the British won, he would have been seen as saving lives by shortening the war. Instead he lived, a cripple attacked by a slew of enemies, finally making the grievous decision that lost him all honor and respect forever.

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