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This Day In History: Bendict Arnold Commits Treason Against the Americans (1779)
Arnold&rsquos HQ at West Point
During the American War of Independence on this day in 1780, the American General Benedict Arnold meets with the British. The American wanted to turn over to the enemy the strategic position of West Point. Arnold agrees to turn West Point over to the British in return for money and a commission in the British army. However, luckily for the Americans, the plot was detected and this meant that Arnold&rsquos plot was foiled.
Arnold was born to a prominent family in Norwich, Connecticut. He was initially apprenticed as an apothecary (pharmacist) and while an apprentice he joined the local militia. As a young man, he took part in the French and Indian War and he served with some distinction. After serving he became a merchant and he became quite successful. When the American colonists began their war of Independence, Arnold became an officer in the Continental Army. Initially, Arnold was a very good soldier and served the Patriot cause with great distinction. He played a leading role in the successful Patriot attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. He was promoted to the rank of the Brigadier General. He went on to lead troops in several important campaigns such as Lake Champlain and Saratoga and he earned the respect of the Continental Army&rsquos high command and even the respect of George Washington. However, he was not universally popular and was not as well connected as several other officers. He was passed over for promotion repeatedly and this made him very bitter with the Patriot party and he probably began to think about changing sides. It must be remembered that many American colonists were neutral or pro-British during the Revolution.
Then he married again and his second wife loved luxury and soon the couple were in debt. This and resentment at not being promoted and his growing debts persuaded him that he needed to do something. If he was unable to pay his debts he would be declared a bankrupt and would be disgraced and lose his position in the army. Arnold decided to betray his country to the British. He appears to have had secret negotiations with the British and was tried by a court martial for treason, but he was cleared.
In 1780 he was entrusted with the command of the strategic West Point located on the Hudson River. Here Arnold contacted his British counterpart and he offered to hand over West Point and his garrison. However, the plot was detected and Arnold fled to the British. He was later to be given command of British troops in Virginia and New England. His became notorious for the burning down of two towns and many farms in Connecticut in 1781. However, he received little of the financial assistance that he had demanded. Arnold left America for good in the aftermath of the American Independence and lived in London and he died in 1801. He is remembered to this day as the most infamous traitor in American history.
Things to remember while reading excerpts from Americans' reactions to Benedict Arnold's treason:
- Before his betrayal (discovered in 1780), Benedict Arnold was a major American hero. After Arnold was wounded in 1777, George Washington named him military governor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recently abandoned by the British. His duties were not heavy. After years of hardship, Arnold was ready to enjoy lighthearted pursuits, especially since he had recently married Peggy Shippen, a beautiful, lively, young woman, who came from a wealthy family.
- The Arnolds had a reputation for their love of luxury and Philadelphia society they were living far beyond their means. Meanwhile, support for the American cause was fading the war seemed to drag on and on, and people were tired of it.
Virtue Across the Curriculum
Below are corresponding literature and film suggestions to help you teach this virtue across the curriculum. Sample prompts have been provided for the key corresponding works. For the other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
Compare and contrast the actions of Sirius Black with those of Peter Pettigrew. What virtues does Black embody? Why is Pettigrew so loathed? Does Severus Snape act with integrity, or with honor? Can an act of betrayal ever be virtuous? Note: Also a 2004 film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, rated PG.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Was Brutus’s decision to join the conspirators an act of treason, or was he a man of integrity, acting to protect the republic from a would-be dictator? Did all of the conspirators have the same motivation? Could some have been acting out of virtue while others were not? Are there any principles so important to you that you would “betray” a friend for those ideals?
Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power directed by Michael Pack
Why might integrity have been of particular importance to Admiral Rickover? How was he perceived by some who worked with him? Can imperfect people still have virtues that benefit society?
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) directed by David Lean
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Houston and James D. Houston
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) directed by Frank Capra
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) directed by John Frankenheimer
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
4. He built one of the first American naval fleets.
During their retreat from Canada in the summer of 1776, the Continentals learned that British General Sir Guy Carleton planned to use prefabricated ships to sail his forces down Lake Champlain and rendezvous with an army of redcoats out of New York City. Arnold immediately devised a plan to stop the advance. Drawing on his experience as a sea trader, he used an army of shipbuilders and carpenters to cobble together 15 schooners, sloops and gunboats. In October 1776, his makeshift fleet clashed with 25 British vessels on Lake Champlain at the Battle of Valcour Island. Arnold’s outgunned squadron suffered heavy losses𠅊ll but a few of his ships were lost or scuttled𠅋ut he delayed the British long enough that they were forced to change their plans and seek winter quarters. The battle was one of the first engagements fought by an American naval fleet, and many historians have since credited it with having saved the revolution.
The escape of American Revolutionary general and traitor Benedict Arnold onto the British ship Vulture.
(Credit: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Thus, in 1780, Benedict Arnold made the decision to covertly contact British General Henry Clinton, with the intentions of surrendering the Patriot fort at West Point along the Hudson River, for which he was assigned command. From the start, Arnold's actions at the fort were suspicious. He never ordered important repairs to the fort and he also weakened its defenses by sending away weapons. Some of his subordinate officers believed he was selling the weapons on the black market for his personal gain. Negotiations for the surrender occurred between Arnold and a popular British operative named John Andrè. Among other things, Arnold would receive 20,000 Pounds and a commission as an officer in the British army. Andrè, however, would be captured carrying the plans for West Point, and would be summarily hanged. Andrè's capture made it immediately clear that Arnold was a traitor, and he narrowly escaped capture himself - saved only by a dramatic "breakdown" by his wife, Peggy, that succeeded in stalling Washington and Hamilton long enough to allow Arnold to escape to the British side. Washington, who was a chief supporter of Arnold, was said to have been devastated.
Arnold returned to his headquarters on the banks of the Hudson. Two days later, he sat down to breakfast with Capt. Samuel Shaw and Maj. James McHenry.
They had been traveling with Washington and arrived in advance of the general’s expected visit that day. Washington had told them to go on ahead while he inspected redoubts along the way. But his entourage — including Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette – stayed with Washington.
Arnold invited Shaw and McHenry to have breakfast with him while Peggy stayed upstairs with the baby. Then Lt. Solomon Allen arrived with a message for Arnold from Continental Army Col. John Jameson.
West Point from Phillipstown, 1831
Jameson wrote he found incriminating papers in the stocking of a suspicious person claiming to be John Anderson. He had sent the papers to Washington. Arnold realized they had captured Andre – “John Anderson” – and he would soon be unmasked.
As Arnold read the message he showed a moment of distress but quickly regained his composure. He excused himself and went outside to tell his servant to get a horse and alert his bargemen. Then he went upstairs to tell his wife he had to leave immediately to join the British. She fainted on the bed. Just then one of Washington’s light horsemen knocked on the bedroom door and told him Washington would arrive momentarily.
Arnold then told his breakfast companions he had to go across the river to the fort to prepare for Washington’s visit. His horse didn’t await him, so he took the messenger’s horse. He galloped down to the river, where oarsmen waited to take him up the river to the fort. Or so they presumed.
Arnold ordered them downriver instead, offering them two gallons of rum each if they would row with all their might. When they approached the Vulture, he held up a white handkerchief. Arnold and the oarsmen boarded the vessel, and Arnold told them they were now prisoners. The men protested, but they were paroled when they arrived in New York.
Benedict Arnold’s 1780 treason and the execution of John Andre recalled, 1823
During the American Revolution, the discovery of General Benedict Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point to the British was a deeply shocking revelation. In a memoir written some forty years after the war, William North, an aide-de-camp to General Baron Von Steuben, recalled how the news of the plot was broken to the Army:
It was midnight, Horses were saddling officers going from tent to tent, ordering their men, in a suppressed voice, to turn out & parade no drum beat– the troops formed in silence & in darkness – I may well say, in consternation, for who in such an hour, & called together in such a manner, & in total ignorance of the cause, but must have felt, & feared the near approach of some tremendous shock –
John Andre, aide-de-camp of the British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, was General Benedict Arnold’s contact. Andre was taken by the American forces and hanged as a spy in Tappan, New York, on October 2, 1780. Although many on both sides felt Arnold should have been the one to die for treason, Washington determined that he had no choice but to execute the captured British officer. William North wrote of the execution:
I was at Tappan with the army when Andre was executed, but I did not attend his execution, nor as I have always believed did an great number of spectaters go to witness the
executionexit of that unfortunate gentleman- You must remember that no one rejoicedall mourned his fate though fully convinced of its Justice & propriety. . . . after the execution, it was asked if Major Andre’s request to be shot could not have been complied with– No, answer d the Baron He was a spy & in no army was any other death than by the gibbet awarded to a spy–
I was at Tappan with the army when Andre was executed, but I did not attend his execution, nor as I have always believed, did an great number of spectaters go to witness the
execution exit of that unfortunate Gentleman– You must remember that no one rejoiced all mourned his fate though fully convinced of its Justice & propriety– When Baron Steuben came from the house in which the court had been holden– I remarked to him that the tryal had not taken so long a time as I had expected– No, said The Baron, gave us no The unhappy prisoner gave us no trouble in calling witnesses. He confessed everything. after the execution, it was asked if Major Andre’s request to be shot could not have been complied with– No, answer d the Baron He was a spy & in no army was any other death than by the gibbet awarded to a spy– I have thought that Andre’s request to those around him, to witness "that He died like a brave man", ought not to have been made. with respect to The story told in Lees memory history of the Southern War, respecting the attempt to take Arnold, in which it is said, or hinted, that another General Officer, was suspected by the Com dr in Chief all I can say is, that I never heared the remotest suspicion attaching to any one, of being concerned or in any Way implicated in Arnolds treason – It is true, it was a moment of alarm & fear, & doubt how far the treason might have extended but to have Suspicion to have allighted on anyone, much more a General Officer, I can not bring my mind to believe it– I remember the dark moment well in which the defection of Arnold was announced in [strikeout] pers, It was midnight, Horses were saddling officers going from tent to tent, ordering their men, in a suppressed voice, to turn out & parade no drum beat– the troops formed in silence & in darkness – I may well say, in consternation, for who in such an hour, & called together in such a manner, & in total ignorance of the cause, but must have felt, & feared the near approach of some tremendous shock –
A brief history of treason in the United States
"What makes treason here?" asks Ferdinand in Love's Labour's Lost. Unless you have been living under a rock in Outer Mongolia, you might be asking yourself the same question. On Monday, President Trump accused his critics of treason. Many of them have responded in kind, including Bill Weld, an ostensible challenger to the Republican presidential nomination. Both men are participating in a rhetorical tradition that is as old as the American republic.
The history of actual treason, in the sense of federal criminal prosecutions for the concept defined in the Constitution and adopted almost immediately as a federal offense, is remarkably short. Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, there have been only 40 federal treason cases, and far fewer convictions. (John Adams secured the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in part because the constitutional definition of treason was too narrow.) Even the most famous "traitors" in American history were not technically guilty of treason. Benedict Arnold might plausibly have argued that it was those on the side he betrayed who were guilty of treason Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were actually convicted of conspiracy to engage in espionage.
Otherwise the record is remarkably sparse. In 1794 Philip Vigol and John Mitchell were convicted of treason for their part in the Whiskey Rebellion and sentenced to death. Both were pardoned by President George Washington. Six years later, John Fries, the leader of the eponymous rebellion, was convicted of the same offense he also received a pardon, from John Adams. Aaron Burr was rather famously acquitted in 1807. In April of 1862, William Bruce Mumford was found guilty of treason after removing an American flag planted by Union Marines atop a mint in New Orleans. Mumford was hanged. During this period, the states also occasionally secured convictions for treason. John Brown was executed in 1859 for crimes against the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the United States. Joseph Smith was charged with treason by the governments of both Missouri and Illinois he was killed by a mob in 1844.
In the 20th century, not a single person was put to death for the crime defined as "War against [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Walter Allen was convicted of treason in 1922 for his part in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the climax of the West Virginia coal wars. He was given a sentence of 10 years and fined, but would later disappear while out on bail pending an appeal before the Supreme Court. Two decades later several German Americans were convicted for assisting a German sabouteur Martin James Monti, an Air Force pilot, defected to the S.S. in 1944 and was subsequently sentenced to 25 years before receiving parole in 1960. Tokyo Rose was convicted in 1949, as was Axis Sally the former was pardoned by Gerald Ford, the latter served 12 years. Tomoya Kawakita was sentenced to death in 1952 for abusing American POWs in Japan during the war but would be deported by the Kennedy administration. The Nazi propagandists Herbert John Burgman and Robert Henry Best both died in the same Springfield, Missouri, prison. In 1990, the death penalty for treason was formally abolished. In 2015, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the Oregon-born al Qaeda hype man, was killed by a drone in Pakistan.
This more or less exhausts the legal history of treason. Its rhetorical vein is much richer, and there is good reason to think it will never be exhausted. Washington and Alexander Hamilton repeatedly accused their critics of treason. Thomas Jefferson insisted in 1791 that anyone who had business with the newly established Bank of the United States was guilty of treason and should "be adjudged guilty of high treason and suffer death accordingly." This did not happen, and after 1803 such accusations became infrequent. After the Civil War there were frequent calls for the leaders of the Confederacy to be charged with treason, but the precedent established by Grant's blanket amnesty at Appomattox was honored at subsequent surrenders, and enshrined in law by Andrew Johnson in 1869.
The modern rhetorical history of treason really begins in the middle of the 20th century. It is here that we see a revival of treason as a kind of catch-all for one's partisan opponents, which is how it had been deployed in the struggles between Federalists and Republicans in the early history of the republic. In 1954, Joseph McCarthy accused the entire Democratic party of "20 years of treason." He was met with raucous applause by a crowd of 6,200 supporters. By the time that Ann Coulter (a future biographer of the Wisconsin senator) published her eponymous bestseller, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, in 2003, treason had already become the watchword of George W. Bush's opponents on the fringes of the left.
With the inauguration of Barack Obama all bets were off — or rather, they were all in, at any odds, on the action that he had committed treason. When Obama bowed to the emperor of Japan, it was treason. In 2014 Ted Cruz bungled Cicero in an attempt to accuse Obama of being "openly desirous to [sic] destroy the Constitution and this Republic," which is treason without the word. The same year, a GOP candidate in Florida called for Obama's execution for treason. Nor was Obama himself the only member of his administration with whom the word would become synonymous among Republicans. Hillary Clinton was repeatedly accused of treason both during and long after her tenure as secretary of state. One New Hampshire lawmaker (and sometime adviser to our current president) even suggested that she should be executed by firing squad. In 2011, George Duff, who maintained that Obama was guilty of treason against the United States despite not believing that the president was a citizen of this country, was convicted in a terrorist plot to seize a courthouse in Tennessee.
Republicans were not alone in this activity. By the end of the administration it had become common for the president's supporters to accuse GOP senators who disagreed with, for example, the administration's Iranian policy of brushing up against treason. There were even meta-debates about whether wishing for Obama's failure in fact constituted treason. (Around the same time there was also a great deal of talk among liberals about the necessity of making the impeachment process much more difficult.) By the end of Obama's second term even Republican senators' refusal to push forward Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court was "tantamount to treason."
But all of this pales in comparison with the Trump era, during which I doubt a single week has gone by without a discussion of treason either by or from Trump and his supporters appearing in a major media outlet. In the halcyon days of June 2016, it was still possible for The Washington Post to ask in a headline "Is Donald Trump suggesting that Barack Obama committed treason?" I think it is fair to assume that the columnist's query has since been answered — "answered" in the double sense that it is both clear beyond any doubt that Trump has indeed accused Obama, Clinton, and numerous other opponents of treason and obvious that his own critics are just as willing to level the same charge against him for virtually everything, including making jokes during press conferences.
This has continued well after Trump's inauguration and kept pace ever since. By 2017 some observers were detecting a whiff of treason in Washington for others the "smell of treason in the air" was general, diffuse, all-pervading. It was asked whether there is a proper emoji for treason. It was even suggested by a flag-throwing protestor that in some kind of bizarre ontological sense that "Trump is treason." A non-exhaustive list of persons other than Trump himself who accused of treason before, during, or after the special counsel's Russia investigation includes Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Jr. (including by his father's former vice-presidential rival Tim Kaine among others), and Jared Kushner.
What explains the popularity of this unusually precise legal term as a partisan epithet? The fact that it places one's enemies outside the bounds of whatever is supposed to constitute normal American political discourse. The terms of the conflict change. The quarrel is no longer a prudential disagreement about the best means of securing the common good, but a noble struggle to extirpate an alien element from the body politic. A traitor cannot argue for or explain away his actions he can have no recourse to questions about his motivations. It is not difficult to see why the tool would be wielded frequently and enthusiastically by both of our major political parties.
A more important question is whether these accusations of treason are dangerous. In one sense the answer, I think, is obviously no. Any word whose currency has been so thoroughly debased is all but meaningless. It might be argued that a would-be contest of ideas — you know, the whole democracy thing — between two factions who each insist that the other has forfeited its right to take part at all is not one that is likely to inspire confidence or good faith, much less safeguard the common good. But this, I think, would mean confusing a symptom for a cause.
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‘Judas sold only one man, Arnold three Millions’: Infamous Traitors in American History
American Revolutionary War hero turned traitor, Benedict Arnold.
May 17, 2021
4. Mildred Gillars, AKA “Axis Sally”
Born in Portland, Maine, Mildred Gillars left for France at the age of 29 hoping to become an actress but becoming a Parisian fashion model instead. There she met and eventually married Max Otto Koischwitz, director and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda during World War II. Moving to Berlin, she became a disc jockey under her husband’s broadcast channel. Known to Allied soldiers as the “Bitch of Berlin,” Gillars became popular among American troops. “Her accent and her sweet, sexy voice and because she played the latest hits, interspersed with crude propaganda (Why fight for the communists? Why fight for the Jews? Etc.) that gave the men a laugh,” writes Stephen Ambrose.
However, because of the Double Cross System, “Axis Sally” also interspersed her commentary with facts that could be chilling to the men. Sgt. Gordon Carson of the U.S. 101st, stationed in Aldbourne, England, recalls one such incident in which Axis Sally remarked “Hello to the men of Company E, 506th PIR, 101st A/B in Aldbourne. Hope you boys enjoyed your passes to London last weekend. Oh, by the way, please tell the town officials that the clock on the church is three minutes slow.” Designed to inspire homesickness and fear, Gillars’ grisly broadcasts eventually got her convicted for treason.
Serving 12 years in a West Virginia federal reformatory, Gillars was released in 1961 and went on to teach music in Columbus, Ohio. She died at the age of 87 in 1988.
3. Aldrich Ames
Aldrich Ames, a counterintelligence officer in the CIA’s Soviet division, has earned the dubious distinction of perpetrating the most expensive security breach in CIA history.
Despite being deemed mediocre by his superiors, Ames was nonetheless an overachiever by Moscow standards. From 1985, until he was caught nine years later, Ames sold some of the CIA’s deepest secrets to the KGB, continuing even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During his traitorous run, Ames betrayed 12 secret agents “working for the United States from within the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc during the 1980’s,” writes the New York Times. “All were jailed and most were executed.”
“They died because this warped, murdering traitor wanted a bigger house and a Jaguar,” R. James Woolsey, the then Director of Central Intelligence, later stated.
A 31-year veteran of the CIA, Ames provided the Soviets with highly classified details about state-of-the-art technology used to count nuclear warheads and fiber optic cables that allowed to U.S. to hear communication connected to Moscow’s space facility, according to PBS.
Although the FBI caught on to Ames’ schemes in late 1992, it wasn’t until 1994 that the traitor was apprehended— one day before he was supposed to travel to Moscow on official CIA business.
Ames is currently serving a life sentence for espionage without the possibility of parole, telling CNN in 1988 that his motivations were simply “personal, banal, and amounted really to greed and folly.”
2. Harold “Jim” Nicholson
Rising rapidly through the ranks of the CIA, Harold “Jim” Nicholson was first posted to Manila, then Bangkok and Bucharest, and then finally to Kuala Lumpur, where he served as deputy station chief. It was there in 1994, in Kuala Lumpur, that Nicholson was recruited to work with the Soviet spy service, the SVR. He began to supply the Soviets with information shortly after starting his new post as an instructor at the CIA’s training facility, known as “the Farm.” For two years Nicholson leaked the bios of over 300 CIA trainees, many of whom were training for covert missions overseas. In addition, he sold to the Soviets assignment information for new CIA officers headed overseas for their first assignment. Michael Rochford, a former chief of the FBI’s counterespionage section, stated that “There are CIA officers who cannot be posted overseas in hostile environments even today because Nicholson gave up these people’s identities.”
Flags were raised in 1995 after Nicholson failed three polygraphs as part of his routine security update. According to the FBI affidavit, a computerized review indicated a .97 (out of 1.0) probability of deception on the following two questions: (1) Are you hiding involvement with a Foreign Intelligence Service? And (2) Have you had unauthorized contact with a Foreign Intelligence Service? In the affidavit, it was noted that during his third polygraph, the CIA examiner observed that Nicholson seemed to be trying to “manipulate the test by taking deep breaths on the control questions.” Nicholson was arrested in 1996, as he was boarding a plane to South Africa and Rome on a counterterrorism assignment. He was convicted of selling US intelligence to the Soviet Union and was sentenced to prison for 23 years and seven months.
Yet even after his conviction of treason, James was not finished. In 2011, the former CIA officer was once again charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Nicholson recruited his youngest son, Nathaniel to collect approximately $47,000 from Russian officials in Mexico, Peru, and Cyprus for his father’s previous spy work. Eight years were added on to his original 23-year prison sentence.
1. Benedict Arnold
His name has become synonymous with treachery in the American lexicon, and for good reason. Benedict Arnold, an American war hero and general, switched sides in the Revolutionary War in early 1779. Passed over for promotion, slowly going bankrupt (he lent his own personal fortune to Congress), and pessimistic about America’s chance of victory, Arnold began plotting to switch sides.
As the commander of West Point, Arnold gave the plans of the fortifications to Major John André and agreed to surrender the defenses in exchange for £20,000 (approximately $3 million today). When André was captured by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, he retained damning evidence of Arnold’s treachery. Arnold escaped along the Hudson on the HMS Vulture.
By the winter of 1780 Arnold was a brigadier general in the British army and leading raids through Virginia and Connecticut. Not only had he betrayed his fellow soldiers, Arnold was now leading British forces against the men he had once commanded. Ben Franklin famously penned that “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three Millions.”
Arnold was exiled to England after the British defeat, where he remained until his death in 1801.