Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

From hero to traitor: Benedict Arnold’s day of infamy

September 21, 2018 by NCC Staff


On September 21, 1780, Revolutionary War hero Benedict Arnold turned his back on his country in a secret meeting with a top British official. So how did Arnold, with his patriot’s pedigree, become the most hated man in America?

Historians have several theories about why Arnold became a traitor: greed; mounting debt; resentment over other officers; a hatred of the Continental Congress; and a desire for the colonies to remain under British rule. The September 21 meeting with British Major John Andre was a disaster for both men.

Arnold was descended from a Rhode Island founding family. The major general led and served with honor at Ticonderoga, Quebec and Saratoga. But Arnold often fought with other officers and Congress. American commander George Washington understood Arnold’s shortcomings but valued his usefulness on the battlefield.

Arnold was wounded seriously at Saratoga, and Washington put Arnold in charge of the city of Philadelphia after the British ended their occupation. When Washington then asked Arnold to rejoin his Army as a top commander, Arnold instead requested command of the Hudson Valley region and the facility at West Point, New York.

Andre was a top aide to British commander Sir Henry Clinton. The young major also led the British spy network and had been in secret talks with Arnold for some time.

Within a month of their meeting, Andre was executed under orders from American commander Washington for espionage, while Arnold fled to a British side that didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms. The British, and many Americans blamed Arnold for the death of the popular Major Andre, and many people resented that it was Andre, and not Arnold, who swung from the gallows.

On September 21, with the help of a loyalist associate, Joshua Hett Smith, Arnold and Andre had met near the Hudson River at Smith’s house. The men had corresponded using coded letters. Arnold would arrange for the British to easily take over the American facility of West Point, which Arnold commanded. The price was 20,000 pounds and a British military command for Arnold.

The British believed the acquisition of West Point would give their military control of the Hudson Valley, a potentially important blow to American independence. But fate conspired against both men. The British ship HMS Vulture, which had transported Andre to the meeting, was forced from the scene by American gunfire.

Andre had to walk back to the British lines in civilian disguise, and he was confronted by three American militiamen while Andre believed he was on British territory. The Americans quickly discovered the plot and Arnold was able to flee on the same ship that carried Andre up the Hudson River.

Washington reportedly authorized kidnap plots to seize Arnold for execution, or for Arnold to be killed on sight. As a British commander, Arnold led forays into Virginia and Connecticut, and he was able to flee to Britain after the war concluded.

Later in life, Arnold failed in several business ventures in Britain and Canada, and he died in England in 1801. One Massachusetts newspaper noted his passing with one line: “In England, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, notorious throughout the world.”

In popular culture, the words “Benedict Arnold” became synonymous with treason or becoming a traitor. And at West Point, Arnold’s name was erased from a series of monuments that honor the generals of the Revolutionary War.

Back in 1781, Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Marquis De Lafayette about Arnold’s treason, after American agents seized a letter that said Arnold only received 5,000 pounds for his acts. Franklin compared Arnold to Judas and said it was “a miserable bargain especially when one considers the quantity of infamy he has acquired to himself and entailed on his family.”


Sign up for our email newsletter