I discovered infamous traitor Benedict Arnold as a fourth grader studying the American Revolution. Back then, books portrayed Arnold as an evil turncoat who tried to hand over West Point to the British on Sept 25, 1780. Fortunately, now there are many books for young people that show how Arnold was a flawed hero and NOT evil—he was a good person who made choices that he felt he was compelled to make. It’s a testament to our modern culture that we’re showing historical figures in a more realistic, human light, rather than portraying them as all good or all evil. That’s what I hoped to show in my most recent poetry collection, Heroes without Capes. All of us are flawed and all of us can be heroes. We can also learn from our flawed heroes, like Benedict Arnold, on how to be less flawed. I’ll take these lessons any day!
3 Lessons from Benedict Arnold
Take some downtime for yourself. As an adult, Arnold went from one crisis to another without a break. How many of you have done this to avoid dealing with something in your life? I know I’m not the only one here raising my hand! Arnold first lost his younger siblings to sickness, then lost his dad to alcoholism, then he lost he beloved mother, Hannah, to a broken heart. At 27 years old, he made his living in the most successful convenience store and bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut, but was very angry because of the British Stamp and Tax Acts impact on his bottom line. Soon afterwards, he jumped with both feet into the Revolution by hoofing it to Fort Ticonderoga, getting into a major tussle with Ethan Allan and the Green Mountain Boys (they sound like a bluegrass band) and then hoofing it with his new Army commission to wage war on Canada. BTW, it’s never a good idea to wage war on Canada–too cold and too rocky (didn’t work in the War of 1812, either). Whew! Okay, then more stuff happened: he almost lost his left leg, he outran the British Navy at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain with a leaky fleet, he turned the war around at Saratoga, Congress didn’t pay him, his horrific superior, Horatio Gates, got all the credit at Saratoga, his wife died, he remarried a younger one, he bought fancy shoes and wigs for himself and for her, he hosted parties in Philly, he made a ton of political enemies…you get the idea. Arnold was so busy being busy, he could only work on short-term goals, not long-term ones. Like maybe he could have thought…hmmmm…maybe the French coming into the War can kick British ass and the British may lose. Maybe the British guys, who value honor and class rank, will dislike my ambition and personality even more than the Americans. The takeaway: if you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, STOP and figure out what you can learn from the situation and how you can change your story.
You Are Enough. Benedict Arnold was in fact the sixth Benedict Arnold, the last child of one of the founding families of New Haven. His mom’s family was also very wealthy. All his young life, he was brought up to believe he was better than other people and when his dad lost the family fortune and he was pulled out of boarding school, he was pissed off, because he was raised to believe the family name was everything, and now New Haveners made fun of him in front of and behind his back. Based on this belief, he worked his entire life to gain his reputation back and to hide his shame. He never felt he was enough—he felt he had to keep proving himself worthy, over and over again. He also felt responsible for his family’s misfortune. And by him boasting about himself, which he did to make sure people knew he was worthy, he made a bunch of enemies. I wish he could have made some better friends who could have spread the word about how great his was, so he wouldn’t have to all of the time. George Washington, I’m looking at you! This dude could have used an awesome PR firm. Modesty and humility was big back in the 1700s, and he didn’t toe the line. The takeaway: if you live in a toxic town (like New Haven, and later Philadelphia, for Arnold), try to move away if you can. Granted, that wasn’t easy back in 1760, but it’s easier now. Please note that you ARE enough. Be grateful for who loves you and who you love. Focus on all the good in your life and the good you do for others.
Live Below Your Means. His whole life Arnold fought to be wealthy, so that he and his family wouldn’t return to that awful place when his father left him, his mother and sister abandoned emotionally and financially. Arnold did do very well for himself as a successful merchant and entrepreneur until the British imposed their taxes without representation. As he fought in the War, mainly to restore his good name and to keep himself busy, his sister Hannah also did a fantastic job of managing his affairs. Yet he never lived below his means, so he had to keep finding new ways of making money while he became the military commander of Philadelphia, the capital of the United States at the time. To be fair, the Continental Congress never paid him and he personally paid his troops when Congress didn’t. While he was in Philly, he was like Rhett Butler doing a lot of privateer work. While doing so, he made even more enemies in this den of snakes, aka Philly, chief among them, Joseph Reed, who had Arnold court-martialed. While in the capital, Arnold LOVED to entertain, buy nice clothes, buy his hot young wife, Peggy Shippen (a smart Loyalist), new wigs and jewelry, hang with the cool Loyalists and eat imported cheese and drink fine wine. Living below his means wasn’t in the cards for him, but it would have given him more choices. The takeaway: saving your money and getting out of debt is the only way to build your future and give yourself a stress-free life. To do so, stop hanging out with friends who persuade you to buy all of the time. I know this can be really tough if these friends include your kids (ha, ha). Set limits. Set boundaries. Say no. Set a budget with an Excel spreadsheet and track every expense, down to every vanilla latte purchased. Trust me, this works. If Arnold hadn’t been in so much debt, he may have thought twice about selling the Americans out. And then, the British delayed his payment and he didn’t get everything he was owed! Oh, the wicked irony!
There’s so much material about Benedict Arnold’s life to chew on, and I’ve only given you a nibble. As a son of an alcoholic, I imagine he was predisposed to judge himself without mercy and feel he was responsible for what went wrong in his family. He was also very sensitive to anyone who ever criticized him; sometimes he didn’t say anything and at other times he exploded—children of alcoholics tend be hypersensitive and overreact to slight hurts because of the accumulated hurts they suffered as youngsters.
Alas, there weren’t self-help books or therapists back in the 18th century, and Benedict Arnold did the best he could under the circumstances. But we have the advantage of learning about his fascinating life and making sure we take his 3 lessons to heart.
Here’s my Benedict Arnold poem, “A One-Time Hero,” featured in Heroes without Capes, which I also turned into a song. Enjoy them both!
It’s so easy to hate me,
we weren’t supposed to win.
Cut the facts from fantasy,
weren’t we all kin?
You may know me as Judas,
or the devil in a tricorn hat.
I never stopped surviving,
and died in a foreign land.
I’m a one-time hero,
who can’t change the past.
I’ve done some bad, bad things,
and I won’t take them back.
Books forget I led an army.
Eating candles, bark and a dog.
We danced with black snowy death;
I prayed every day to God.
Then the rumors started,
there’ll be no statues in my name.
So I made West Point weak,
and I wouldn’t play their stupid game.
Sold a country, sold my soul,
sold a lot for a little gold.
Had to pay my debts,
never felt free,
and I still can see my father
drowning in his whiskey.
If you want to dig more into Benedict Arnold’s story, I encourage you to check out these two middle grade books (yes, middle grade) that are very well-written and which I used for my own research and edification:
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin
The Real Benedict Arnold by Jim Murphy