Famous Dead Person of the Week: Benedict Arnold
Life: January 14, 1741 – June 14, 1801
Occupation: General, traitor, smuggler
Why He’s Famous: Became the byword for all traitor-like behavior
Fun Fact: Once shot a man in Honduras for insulting him
We’ve all got to be synonymous with something, whether the stage is grand or small. Throughout life, you hope that your big accomplishments overshadow your other outward blemishes and moments of forgettable lunacy and that you leave a great legacy among friends, family and the world at large.
Benedict Arnold could not have screwed that process up more. In fact, if you were to dig him up 200 years later and ask, I bet he wishes he had a mulligan on the whole thing.
Before Robert Hanssen, Lebron James and John Walker Lindh there was Benedict Arnold. The Revolutionary War general’s name has become synonymous with traitor-like activities. What’s unfortunate for him is he never imagined history would remember him this way; it just worked out like that.
In 1777, Arnold got into a screaming match with a superior, thereby earning himself an on-field demotion from General Horatio Gates. Hacked at his boss, he took a few risks at work (the battlefield) and got his left leg shattered for his troubles. We’ve all been there.
So now his left leg was two inches shorter than his right and he was a lame duck general after getting promoted again (he thought out of sympathy). At that point, Benedict was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. What does anybody with knowledge, a thirst for power and an axe to grind do? They become a free agent and sign with the highest bidder.
And so in 1779 Benedict Arnold started telling tales about the American efforts to the Red Coats. History (Wikipedia, at least) paints him as a very ineffective spy; much more concerned with his monetary rewards than his duties, he mostly quibbled with his handlers about his fee – a no-no in the spy world, from what I hear. He passed on a few troop positions for a few months before getting into a big disagreement about his price and negotiations ground to a halt.
They picked up in a hurry in 1780 when Arnold assumed command at West Point. The British (selfish to the end, these people) wanted it, and had a surefire way to get it if they met Arnold’s asking price: 20,000 British pounds. The Brits acquiesced and it was on.
Of course, it wasn’t because the bad guys always lose in the historical stories we’re told in school. Major John Andre, who was transporting plans for West Point back to the British from Arnold, was captured and the treachery was revealed. Arnold fled for refuge with the British, earning a commanding position but never any respect or a ton of cash for his troubles; the British didn’t seem to think he earned his 20,000 pounds based on a plan that never worked out.
And so the story went for Benedict Arnold: reviled in America, treated as a mercenary amongst the British and with nary a nickel to show for it between mountains of debt and little in the way of pensioning. The moral of this story: Don’t mess with America.