What I love about history is that the more you study, read, and consider, the more of what we think we know becomes unclear, unknown, and unsatisfactory. The myths and one-sided explanations just don’t cut it anymore.
My friend Mary was visiting, spurred initially by the genealogy she’s been researching. She’s been tracking three branches of her family back into the 1600s, and she stops before crossing the pond to the “old country” of Wales, Scotland, or England. I was fascinated. As she told me the migration patterns and professions, I started to ask a lot of questions. I wanted to know why. I could easily fill in the blanks with all kinds of stories and suppositions. Mary just answered, “I don’t know.”
Here was a person well recorded, in all his faults. Perhaps the most hated American ever (maybe next to McCarthy after the fact), Arnold was known to have betrayed his mentor George Washington, and hence his country. Indeed, the good people of Norwich dug up the headstones of all the Benedict Arnolds and tossed them into the Niantic River.
Yes, all the Benedict Arnolds. Our Arnold was the 5th. He had an older brother who died before him, with the name Benedict Arnold. That boy and his father were buried in the graveyard when the headstones were flung out after our Arnold’s disgrace. Our Arnold’s name was changed to Benedict after his brother died. So imagine what it may have been like in the 1740s to have a long line of ancestors, with a burden of a ‘name’ to carry.
How one responds to that burden says something about character. Franklin Roosevelt banked on his name, but also revered his fifth cousin Theodore, who served as his political model (as we all learned in the excellent Ken Burns, exhaustive documentary this past week). Eleanor Roosevelt initially responded differently to family and societal pressures, with fear, until, through her own adversity, found her voice and began enacting the Roosevelt values of serving the greater good. They are one stellar family.
But our Arnold’s father responded to life’s mountains and valleys by becoming a drunk.
As we learned on our walking tour, several taverns for “tobacco and news … and rum” lined the Norwich Green. And as a young boy, our Arnold went into the relevant tavern to drag his profligate father home. Our Arnold became a lifelong teetotaler.
So a man with that type of steady conviction annihilates the heroic stereotype by waffling on a key issue. Where did his loyalty lie? Or was that choice quite so simple? The war could have gone either way, for quite awhile. The colonies were brutally split in their attitudes toward king and country.
Our Arnold’s second wife was a Loyalist, and she palled around with an officer in the British Army. Her ambition and ability to fed upon our Arnold’s insecurities are one common source pointed to for his betrayal. “Surely, dear, you would do better under the British. These rebels keep passing you over for promotion to General. And you’ve been wounded twice for their hapless cause!” I can hear her saying. “Life in London would be divine.” Except when it wasn’t, as was the case for the Arnold’s.
But again is the story just that simple? The nagging wife, the unfed ego? As Mary would say quite forthrightly, “I don’t know.”