A Conversation With Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold

What would Benedict Arnold have to say for himself? Interpreter Ken Johnston gives listeners a taste.

Learn more: Benedict Arnold


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. Were we in the present, I would be talking to Ken Johnston, who interprets Benedict Arnold at Colonial Williamsburg. Today, however, we are definitely in the past.

I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and I’m talking to Benedict Arnold, the American general, the hero of Saratoga, who is now a British brigadier general, and fights in the Revolutionary War on the British side. This is 1781, after he captured Richmond and Williamsburg – without much of a fight – late last year, early this year. Welcome to our program. The question anyone would ask, I suppose, is: Why did you, an American general, decide to be a British general?

Ken Johnston as Benedict Arnold:  Mr. Dobyns, thank you for having me. Before I answer that question, I must needs address something you said earlier: Why would I now be fighting for the British? I am still fighting for American liberties. I may have changed the color of my coat, but what I stated I was fighting for, back when I took Ticonderoga in 1775, is what I’m still fighting for now. 

Lloyd:  And what was that?

Arnold:  American liberties, as guaranteed under the British constitution. In 1775, after having taken Ticonderoga, I wrote “A Declaration of Principles.” This is one year before Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I signed this, my officers signed this, and the freeholding families in the Ticonderodga area signed this, and we stated, 1775, we were not fighting for separation from Britain, we were fighting for our rights as guaranteed under the British constitution. So, I am still fighting for those, and, since Britain has guaranteed those, and Congress seems to have forgotten them, I am still fighting for American liberties.

Lloyd: Patrick Henry once said he was fighting for his rights under the British constitution. Things have changed since then, have they not?

Arnold: I suppose, in a sense, they have, in that the people who are now transgressing upon our liberties are Congress, and not parliament.

Lloyd: Do you think George Washington would agree with you?

Arnold: I would not presume to speak for the general. I think that perhaps you should put that question to him yourself. I have nothing but respect for General Washington. I think that he has been treated most shabbily by the Continental Congress whom he serves. The Conway cabal, Gate’s cabal is against him, Joseph Reed – that reprehensible fellow from Pennsylvania who plotted with General Charles Lee to oust him – he has not been treated with his due. I would hope that he comes to see that, and embraces the true espousers of our liberty as well as I have.

Lloyd:  Something tells me that he will not.

Arnold:   Perhaps.

Lloyd:  Basically, because he has said so. So I am assuming that we must take him at his word, until he changes.

Arnold:  I would agree with you on that.

Lloyd:  I have nothing against the Ticonderoga declaration in 1775, and your statement of principles, which you still support. I am somewhat concerned in your dealings with Major André, that you seem terribly concerned with money, more than principle.

Arnold: That seems to be the attitude and motivation ascribed to me, and bandied about, by, say, the congressional press, we’ll call it. Point of fact, the amount that I asked for in my negotiations with the British tallies nicely, exactly, with the amount that I am owed by Congress for six years’ service without pay, for the expenditures I have made out of my own pocket -- to feed, and clothe, and arm my men, -- because Congress would not. And the loss of my personal property: two ships of my own that I sacrificed at Quebec as fire ships, in trying to destroy some of the British shipping there.

So, I’m hardly making a profit. I am simply asking for what, basically, I am owed by Congress. Enough to provide for my family, since Congress has amply demonstrated it does not provide for the families of its soldiers and its veterans. The case of Dr. Joseph Warren illustrates this perfectly. You, of course, perhaps, are familiar with Dr. Joseph Warren, he fell in the fighting at Bunker Hill, has a wife and children. Repeatedly, Congress voted not to give them a pension. I raised and donated the money that now supports them.

Lloyd:  That’s admirable. One of your fellow generals, whose name slips my mind, said that your taking of Richmond and Williamsburg and this section of Virginia had, in fact, made you, and I’m quoting, “rich as a nabob.”

Arnold:  (Laughs.)Firstly, I don’t know too many rich nabobs, personally speaking. I would be keen to know which general said that, for I have not profited handsomely by this action. This has been a military operation. First off, we did not take Richmond. We occupied it, we destroyed stores, and then left. We did not take Williamsburg. Williamsburg merely has been a gateway for us to pass through on our way to destroying the shipyards on the Chickahominy, and we are now currently returning back to our base at Gloucester.

An interesting side note, since we are speaking of Williamsburg, a Continental army veteran, a fellow veteran like myself, John J. Carter of Williamsburg, who was with Washington at Trenton, who knows how Congress treats the Continental army, who did not reenlist when his enlistment expired, guided us to the Chickahominy shipyards of his own free will. Twenty local militiamen defected to our cause this week as we passed through. We did not coerce them, we did not impress them – they joined us of their own volition. William Hunter, a former printer here in Williamsburg, has been in communication with us all spring, slipping from Williamsburg down to Gloucester. These are men who recognize the futility of fighting under the auspices of Congress.

Lloyd:  I don’t think you would find anybody in the colonies who would say a kind word about Congress.
Arnold:   (Laughs.) That has been my experience.

Lloyd: So that takes care of that. They have not equipped the army in the field, they have not paid the troops in the field. The Congress either hasn’t an ability, or doesn’t know how to raise money, and give Washington the troops he needs.

Arnold:  Indeed. Well, I will speak to this. I attended the first Continental Congress in 1774. I was not a delegate, but as a prominent merchant and businessman, I accompanied our delegation to that Congress. I met the Virginians, I met General Washington for the first time there, met various and sundry other men. The men who attended those first Continental Congresses in ’74, ’75, even into ’76 – even those who were present for the independence session – these were men who I would characterize as men of the first rank, men who have undoubted ability, undoubted intellect, undoubted talent. They have dispersed.

The men who now serve in Congress are not up to the same caliber as those initial men were. The fellows who were in those first sessions have now gone on to be ambassadors somewhere, or have returned to their native colonies or states to assume positions in governments there. So you have had leadership of Congress devolve to the second, and third tier of men, and that is why we’re in the predicament we’re in. I think that perhaps, if more of the original members of the ’74 and ’75 had stayed, it would be a much different matter. But they have not, and so it has devolved upon lesser men, and we see what they are capable of doing, which is nothing.

Lloyd:  No one would argue with you on that point. Let me switch gears.

Arnold:   Indeed.

Lloyd:  The British, historically, have not liked people who fought on one side, and then changed, and fought on the other side. Are you having any trouble being accepted by your fellow general officers?

Arnold:   I have a very good working relationship with all of the officers. Dundas and Simcoe, the two colonels underneath me, have served quite capably, and I, in fact, am now under the authority of the overall commander, General Phillip, who I work with quite well. This is another rumor, another base slander, another scurrilous report that is bandied about: that I am reluctant to work with others.

If you will look at the record, people’s letters, public documents, before 1780, before everyone decided to taint their memory, you will find that, actually, I enjoyed, by general acknowledgement, a close working relationship with those who respected what I had to offer. I have had no problems serving under General Montgomery, General Schuyler, etcetera, and under Gates, until he showed his true colors at Saratoga.

During the Lake Champlain campaign, when I built our first navy, General Gates was an able administrator, and facilitated, as best he could, the sending of supplies forward so we could build that fleet that stopped Carlton from coming down the lake and preserved our chances that year. Of course, at Saratoga, we found out that he should have stayed an administrator and should never have been given a command at the field, and I believe that Camden races have proved that point as well, on Granny Gates’ count.

Lloyd: You have the reputation of being probably the best field commander on either side.

Arnold: Being a gentleman, I won’t disagree with you. 

Lloyd:  (Laughs.) Now, knowing that you were wounded at Saratoga – you weren’t in the field for quite a while.

Arnold: Several months, although I did report to General Washington at Valley Forge, still on crutches, and in a litter, to offer my services to him.

Lloyd:  And he wisely turned you down, because it would have been very difficult.

Arnold: Well, that’s when he appointed me military governor of Philadelphia.

Lloyd:  But that was a job you could do sitting down.

Arnold:  Precisely, precisely. You’ve recognized the further need for convalescence.

Lloyd:  Fighting a war is a different kind of work.
Arnold:  Indeed, indeed. Of course, you do know he offered me command of the left wing, in the summer of ’80, so he realized I had convalesced to the point that I could still fight.

Lloyd:  He had a very high opinion of you as a field commander, I don’t know about other things.

Arnold: Indeed, indeed.

Lloyd:  When you were laid up, did you have any resentment that you couldn’t get into the field to fight? Were you brooding over it? I don’t mean to be …

Arnold: No sir, a perfectly valid question, and of course I did. I think my record speaks that I am a man of action, and I enjoy nothing better than being where action is, and engaging my faculties to their fullest. That has been the case since my days as an apprentice to my uncles in their apothecary shop when they first started sending me out on trading ventures on their ships. I rapidly came to command their ships, and set myself in my own business, and have sailed up and down the Eastern Seaboard to England, to Canada, to the Indies. I do adore action, and so yes sir, it was a quite cruel fate to be laid up knowing that there were deeds to be done, and that my services were lying fallow. Yes sir, it was a very bitter time for me.

Lloyd:  Who did you blame?

Arnold:  Especially, sir, especially, in light of the fact that Gates was bandying about the lies that he was bandying about.

Lloyd:  Who did you blame for being laid up? Did you blame someone?

Arnold: Sir, it’s the vagaries of war, I was shot and wounded. These things happen, I readily acknowledge that. Any man who has fought knows that, on any given day, you will either leave the field under your own power, or not. So there’s no one to blame, it’s simply an accident of war.

Lloyd:  That’s the way it goes.

Arnold:  Precisely, precisely. I would that my horse had fallen in the other direction, instead of the direction it did, but there you have it.

Lloyd:   You wanted command at West Point.

Arnold:   Indeed.

Lloyd:  You asked General Washington for command at West Point.
Arnold:  Indeed.

Lloyd:   At the time you asked General Washington for command at West Point, were you then contemplating going to the British?

Arnold:   To be perfectly candid, yes, that is why I asked for that. The fortifications – and it’s not just, of course, West Point, it’s a ring of fortification straddling both sides of the river – are a very crucial link, and I knew that if that were offered and successfully turned over, it could well end the war, which is the aim of all of us, on either side. This war must end, the people are suffering too greatly.

Lloyd:  How do you think it will end? Do you want to make a prediction?

Arnold:  Well sir, here in April of 1781, if you look at the situation on the ground here in Virginia, we’re winning – those of us wearing coats of this color are winning.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time, with Ken Johnston portraying Benedict Arnold. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *