Against the Rehabilitation of Benedict Arnold

I was fortunate last night to attend a presentation by independent filmmaker Tom Mercer on his soon-to-be-finished documentary, “American General: Benedict Arnold.”

The eight-minute clip shown was very well done and indicates a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to the subject.  Mr. Mercer was knowledgeable and sincere and altogether seems to be a true benefit to the upstate New York creative community.  In the course of his presentation he made two points that I want to contest here.

First, Mr. Mercer rightly noted that New York State does not seem to hold a cherished place in the commemoration of American colonial history.  Compared to Massachusetts, Virginia, and even New Jersey, he is absolutely correct.  Where I disagree with Mercer is in his diagnosis of the problem.

Mercer thinks that the treason of Benedict Arnold, the man largely responsible for the events that New York should celebrate, taints our appreciation of New York’s role in the struggle for independence.  It is a fair point.  My alternate view is that in the colonial era New York was at best ambivalent to the Patriot cause, and New York City remained a primarily Tory town.  This is more to our lasting shame, and thus tamps our willingness to tout our history.

In either case this is but a quibbling matter.   Mr. Mercer’s larger point is more significant and much more disconcerting to me.

Through “American General: Benedict Arnold” Mercer justly argues that Arnold is a titan among the founding generation.  Arnold’s extraordinary contributions to the Revolution stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries and even rival those of General Washington.  Mercer continues to suggest that since his net contributions so dramatically outweigh the effects of his treachery, Arnold on the whole is deserving of some historical rehabilitation, perhaps even celebration.   Mr. Mercer is wrong on this last point.

Without question, Benedict Arnold is among the finest battlefield commanders in American history.  It can credibly be argued that were it not for Arnold’s innovation and heroism, Americans today would be watching soccer and drinking warm beer.  Certainly, if Arnold had died at the Battle of Saratoga schools and streets would be named in his honor.

Alas, Arnold did not die in Saratoga.  He lived long enough to betray his country, commit a ghastly act of treason, become a traitor, and wear the uniform of the enemy in combat against his countrymen.

I do not wish to see Arnold rehabilitated.  Arnold personifies a lesson that every child should learn in school.  Arnold is proof that actions can bring dishonor that is remembered across generations.  A life of good deeds can be undone with an act of deliberate disloyalty and treachery.  Arnold’s life shows us that valor and honor should be pursued and practiced without regard for the accolades we may or many not receive.  The feeling of being disrespected (the accepted motivation for Arnold’s treason) provides no just cause for betrayal.

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