When it comes to naming heroes who are among the reasons we celebrate the Fourth of July, certain names are always on the list. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, of course. Patrick Henry. Betsy Ross. Ethan Allen. Alexander Hamilton. Israel Putnam. The Adams cousins—John and Sam. But there’s one name that never makes the cut.
Most folks don’t remember, or perhaps never knew, that before Benedict Arnold was branded a traitor for his actions during the American Revolution, he was a brave and well-respected officer in the Continental Army. Even those who know that about him perhaps don’t realize that, in addition to British Major John Andre, Arnold had another partner in crime—his wife Peggy.
Born in 1760, Margaret (Peggy) Shippen was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia judge. Though the family—on the surface, at least—tried to remain neutral when America declared its independence, in truth they were more in sympathy with those loyal to the crown that to those in rebellion against it. Peggy, a beautiful and headstrong young woman, reveled in the never-ending party scene that characterized the British occupation of Philadelphia. She set her romantic sights on Major Andre, a dashing playboy who did nothing to discourage her interest.
But when the Continental Army took control of Philadelphia in1778 and Andre retreated to New York, Peggy was forced to look elsewhere for a beau. She found him in General Benedict Arnold, whom George Washington had appointed military commander of the city. Twenty years her senior and crippled after being twice wounded in the leg during battle, Arnold was much more smitten with Peggy than she with him.
But she courted him anyway and, in 1779, the couple married. The rest, as they say, is history.
That history is laid out in the historical novel “The Traitor’s Wife” by Allison Pataki (Simon & Schuster, 2014), which I read just a few weeks ago. Those looking for great literature should look elsewhere; the book is so simply written that I wondered at times if its target audience was young teens rather than adults. The story is told through the eyes of a fictitious young woman named Clara Bell, who was Peggy’s personal maidservant and who—by keeping her eyes and ears open and her mouth shut—helped uncover the Arnolds’ treasonous plans.
Though the book resembles a romance novel far more than it does literary fiction, beneath its overwrought descriptions and constant repetition is a compelling true story.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that historians, studying letters exchanged between Arnold and Andre on which Peggy’s handwriting is evident, became aware of the role Peggy Shippen Arnold played in her husband’s treachery. Knowing that Arnold felt persecuted, underappreciated and disillusioned with the American cause, Peggy—hoping to win fame and fortune for both herself and her husband—helped hatch a plot to deliver West Point to the British.
It failed, of course. The plot was discovered and Major Andre was captured and hanged. Benedict Arnold eluded capture and was soon fighting openly for the British. When the war ended, he and Peggy and their children fled to England, where he again found himself underappreciated and deeply in debt. Not to mention forever marked by infamy.
He died in London in 1801, with few mourning his passing. Such is the fate of a traitor.
(July 5, 2015)