Colonial Williamsburg actor-interpreter Ken Johnston says “founding father” might be a more apt description than “traitor” for the man who was more loyal to his principles than his party.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Ken Johnston, and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, he’s Benedict Arnold. Not a very popular character, I would think.
Ken Johnston: (Chuckles.) Well, that depends on how you define “popular.” Just in terms of name recognition: very popular. People definitely know who he is. In terms of likeability: perhaps not so popular. Although that changes sometimes after I go one-on-one with people and actually get to do a little first-person interpretation with them. They see a little bit more than just the flashpoint of the name.
Lloyd: For one half of the Revolutionary City program, you’re a hero anyway. You were the American general who won the battles.
Ken: Precisely, precisely. Right up through 1780. He’s a great guy. As a matter of fact, one of the street scenes we do, “The News from Saratoga,” one of the little smaller scenes between the others, he’s praised highly. It’s fun to watch that scene, because that’s the first time you see the guests and the patrons sort of scratching their heads, going, “Wait, they’re praising Arnold? I thought, wait, why is he …” And then later on, of course, is the scene where I’ve turned coat, and then you know, they get a little bit more of the story.
Lloyd: Do you study Arnold?
Ken: I came into Colonial Williamsburg probably knowing as little or as much as the average person does. I threw myself, of course, into studying him once I was cast. And quite frankly, that’s one of the great things about the program I’m in, with Rev. City, is this chance to, for me, to become educated about someone that perhaps I had always heard about in American history.
So I’ve studied him quite a bit, and have cleared out our library and the William and Mary library several times. And he’s a fascinating person. It’s been very rewarding for me, just as an individual to learn about him. And then, armed with that knowledge, be able to go out and interpret to the public a figure that really no one knows anything about except the word “traitor.” And of course, it is very hard to sum any one person up with one word and have it really describe them.
Lloyd: What have you learned about him that, I guess I should say, most surprised you? Or that you didn’t expect to learn?
Ken: Well, one thing that impressed me, that I of course had no idea happened, was that in 1775, after he and Ethan Allen had taken Fort Ticonderoga, Benedict Arnold wrote a document called “The Declaration of Principles,” which was only within the last decade and a half, rediscovered. It was in the archives at Fort Ticonderoga for over 200 years and no one really found it. But he wrote a declaration of principles in 1775, this is a little over a year before the Declaration of Independence.
And in it, he stated, I am not fighting for separation from Great Britain, I am fighting only for the restoration of our rights and liberties as guaranteed under the British constitution. His officers signed it, and the 500 freeholding families around Ticonderoga signed it. So he said quite clearly in 1775, I’m not fighting for separation, I’m fighting for our rights and liberties under the British constitution. And if you want to define a traitor as someone who proves false to their principles as stated publicly, he didn’t prove false to that. He was willing to fight for Congress as long as he thought Congress was doing the right thing.
Sadly, during his tenure as military governor of Philadelphia, which General Washington appointed him to, they were actually friends, very good friends. Arnold came into contact firsthand with the way Congress was running things in Philadelphia, and came into firsthand contact with some of the radical Whigs in Pennsylvania, Joseph Reed in particular. They’re not a very likeable bunch of people. They were hanging Quakers, confiscating property, all sorts of things. Had a cabal to oust General Washington, they were not pleasant people. They were not exactly a role model of who you’d want to be fighting for liberty for. And he became very disenchanted with them. It was while he was as military governor of Philadelphia, I think, and the biographies bear this out – that’s where he became finally completely disillusioned with Congress and decided, well the British are offering us everything I said I was fighting for in 1775, I’ll fight for them.
Lloyd: Dare I say, not much has changed?
Ken: (Laughs.) Well you know, it’s funny because every time I’m able to get – there are many guests who start talking to me and they are very angry and adamant and they want to make sure that they call me traitor as many times as possible in a sentence – but if I keep working on the Congress theme, and how disenchanted with Congress he was, and what Congress was doing, it is rare that by the end of the conversation they’re not going, “Well, I don’t agree with what you did, but yeah, Congress sucks.” Invariably they say, “Well I see your point, yes.”
Lloyd: (Laughs heartily.) I have read a little bit. The little bit I have read indicates that Mrs. Arnold was as much interested in going to the British side as Benedict. Is that what you’ve found, or am I really off?
Ken: Opinion was divided back and forth on that over the years. There were two Mrs. Arnolds by the way, his first wife died while he was capturing Fort Ticonderoga, which is a sad incident. He had three children by his first wife, and four by his second wife, Peggy Shippen. Margaret Shippen. A prominent Pennsylvania Philadelphia family, exactly. Her family were reputed and known to be loyalists. Although her father sort of changed his mind secretly throughout the war because his son was treated very well by the continental forces when he was a prisoner of war. And he shifted being a patriot. You don’t hear that. But this, really, that shows you how convoluted and how complicated the whole issue of who’s a loyalist and who a patriot is. It was nowhere near as cut and dried as it’s taught in schools. It simply isn’t. We’re dealing with humans. Humans aren’t simple people.
Lloyd: It never is that simple.
Ken: Exactly. But his wife, she of course, knew Major Andre from when he had been in Philadelphia during the British occupation. And you know, I don’t want to, I sometimes jokingly refer to Arnold as the American Macbeth. In the sense that, you know, the wife pushed Macbeth to action. I don’t think anyone ever pushed Benedict Arnold into anything, but I believe that having a beautiful, 18-year-old young wife from a wealthy family who’s saying what you want to hear anyway about how ill you’re treated by Congress and how the British would probably welcome you – probably fell on very fertile ground. She certainly knew of the plot from the beginning. That has come to light in the 20th century. The latter half of the 20th century, certain letters were found that revealed actually she did know right from the beginning. She’s the one that opened the correspondence with Andre that then Arnold continued. So she knew about it from the beginning.
Lloyd: I am curious about your interpretation of that. How do you decide somebody was a traitor, who never gave up his own principles?
Ken: Well the way I portray him first-person is I simply say, “Well, I’m not a traitor. Let’s define the word traitor.” And then we define it as someone who proves false to a cause, their country, or their principles. And from Arnold’s perspective, he did not. From other people’s perspective, he did. Very, quite frankly, crucial to me for the way I interpret it was finding, and I believe it’s in the William Randal Stern [Willard Sterne Randall] biography, he was the first person to actually publish excerpts from the “Declaration of Principles” at Fort Ticonderoga, reading that, you really realize, well no, this man stated what he was fighting for. He’s still fighting for it. He may have betrayed the Continental Congress, but he didn’t betray what he said he was fighting for in 1775.
Lloyd: Actually, he wasn’t the only one who was fighting for that, for treatment …
Ken: (Interrupts.) Well, precisely.
Lloyd: … under the British constitution.
Ken: Arguably, most of the continental Congress through ’75 were fighting for that. And oddly enough, things like Arnold seizing Fort Ticonderoga sort of pushed them in the other direction. And you know, an irony here – Ethan Allen, who has gone down as one of our revered patriot generals when in fact he was really a bully-boy from the Vermont mountains – in 1779, ’80, and ’81, he was openly negotiating with the British governor general of Canada to give him Vermont.
Lloyd: Don’t hear about that as often.
Ken: No you don’t, you don’t hear about that. And Aaron Burr was on the Ticonderoga expedition. No, I’m sorry, he was not on the Ticonderoga but he was with the march to Quebec that Arnold did. So something about that Northern theater, that Northern campaign, seemed to later have people involved in treason. Aaron Burr, of course, was acquitted before he shot Mr. Hamilton.
Lloyd: The other part to it is, when you’re cold like that, you might as well conspire. Build up a little warmth.
Ken: (Laughs.) Right.But you know it’s interesting. In my view, and not just mine, it’s interesting the more recent biographies come out, are gradually acknowledging Benedict Arnold was a founding father. What he did by seizing Fort Ticonderoga, which gave the continental forces the artillery to get the British out of Boston, invasion of Canada in ’75 which forestalled them invading, his siege of Quebec which delayed them even further, his campaign on Lake Champlain at Valcour Island when he stopped the British Navy coming down the lake – his fleet was destroyed but he delayed them long enough that they couldn’t invade that year.
And then Saratoga, he stopped them again. Five times, there are five times he forestalled the British moving down the Hudson Valley. And each of those things led directly to: time for more supplies, time for more men, time for the revolution to ripen and mature a little bit, and time for French recognition, which came two days after the French heard about his victory at Saratoga. When they got the news two days later, they joined us.
Lloyd: You see my problem with this is …
Ken: (Interrupts.) Now he fell from grace, but he was still a founding father.
Lloyd: You’re making it difficult for yourself by trying to show everybody that Benedict Arnold was not this one-dimensional character. So now you’ve got to learn all these things. Before, you could just play him as a traitor.
Ken: Precisely, precisely. You know that’s an interesting thing though. I come to Colonial Williamsburg with a background equally in history and theater. I’m one of the few that came in that way. I’ve been doing living history since the late 70s and acting since the late 70s. And the preparation you do for a historical interpretation and the preparation you do for an actor interpretation on stage are quite frankly, very similar.
Arguably, with a historic interpretation your main focus is a documented truth. A historical truth, if you will. Where, as the actor, you’re going after an emotional truth. But you’re still going after a character truth. Something that’s true to the way that person felt, and lived, and breathed, and died. And for me, it’s very natural to combine the two, because they’re so similar to begin with. You know, you take, combine Herodotus and “Hamlet’s Advice to the Players,” and you’ve got the recipe.
Lloyd: I don’t. You may, I don’t.
Ken: (Laughs heartily.) I do, I do.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.