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‘Treacherous Beauty': The story of a woman married to a real Benedict Arnold

Treacherous Beauty Peggy Shippen The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America By Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case Lyons Press. 279 pp. $24.95

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

Treacherous Beauty Peggy Shippen The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America By Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case Lyons Press. 279 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Michael D. Schaffer

Nobody likes a traitor.

The traitor's wife? Well, that's a different story. Especially if she happens to be a beautiful young woman so bewitching and smart she can manipulate her husband's stolid commander with her hysterics even as her double-dealing spouse completes a mad dash for enemy lines.

The woman was Peggy Shippen Arnold, daughter of a distinguished Philadelphia family. Her husband, of course, was the infamous Benedict Arnold. And the commander she beguiled with her tears was none other than George Washington, one of a long line of men Peggy knew how to disarm.

She charmed Washington and aides Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, fooling them all into believing she had no part in her husband's treachery.

She hasn't exactly charmed Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case, who tell her life story in Treacherous Beauty, but they acknowledge in their preface that she fascinates them. And through their storytelling skill, she fascinates us.

Jacob and Case have no doubt that Peggy Arnold was up to her elegant neck in her husband's scheme to hand over the American fortifications at West Point, N.Y., to the British. They speculate that the lady may even have put Arnold up to selling out.

With West Point under their control, the forces of King George III would have been able to "cut the new nation in two by blocking the flow of soldiers, supplies, and communications from New England to Pennsylvania and the southern states," Jacob and Case write. And the French might have rethought the alliance with the Americans that eventually made the Revolutionary victory at Yorktown possible.

Arnold was twice the age of 19-year-old Peggy Shippen when they married in 1779. The groom was a genuine hero of the American Revolution at that point, a daring and brave patriot whose left leg had been terribly wounded during an American assault on Quebec on Dec. 31, 1775. Arnold performed so bravely that he was promoted to brigadier general even though the attack failed.

It seemed a strange match. Shippen was a beguiling blend of brains and beauty, adept at getting what she wanted. Arnold was a distinctly unattractive mixture of ambition, hot temper, mistrust and grievance, a man with a penchant for making enemies. Arnold's love for Shippen (even though he would later cheat on her) was "as sincere a devotion as this traitorous man would ever have," write Jacob and Case. At the time of their wedding, both bride and groom were hungry for money, and both were nursing grudges against the Revolution — Shippen because she had been "subject to ridicule and condemnation" for her dalliance with British officers when the Redcoats occupied Philadelphia from late-September 1777 through mid-June 1778, and her husband because he was facing court martial on charges of shady business dealings and abuse of power.

"His breaking point had come, but Arnold wasn't alone," Jacob and Case write. "He had Peggy, a smart and savvy ally willing to help him maneuver through the bedlam that the American Revolution had become. ... And so, just a month after their wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold made a decision. The bravest and most brilliant general in the revolutionary army — and his astute, awe-inspiring wife — would offer their services to the enemy."

The proximity of wedding and conspiracy suggests to Jacob and Case that the bride was behind Arnold's treason. "Most of the players came from her world, not her husband's," the authors write. The man who would become the Arnolds' contact on the British side was dashing young John André, one of those officers with whom Peggy and her friends had dallied during the British occupation of Philadelphia. And the conduit between the Arnolds and André was a "Loyalist gadabout from Philadelphia who was more familiar with the Shippen family than with Arnold."

After some difficult preliminary negotiations with the British, the Arnolds decided their best chance for selling out would be to surrender West Point: "Peggy could be with the general," Jacob and Case write, "and could defect in the same instant, something that would be almost impossible if Arnold commanded an army in the field." But first, Arnold had to get comand of West Point, which he finally managed to do in the summer of 1780 after Washington decided to abandon an offensive against New York City that would have taken Arnold into the field.

The plot was foiled only because André, who was carrying secret documents Arnold had given him at a clandestine meeting, was captured by American forces. Arnold found out about André's capture just in time to escape, leaving Peggy to rely on her wits and steely nerve to play out a "mad scene" that would convince Washington and his staff that she was but another victim of her husband's treachery. She would later join him and live out the rest of her life in England and Canada. André was hanged as a spy and hailed as a hero in Britain.

While the authors are hard on her husband, who was betraying his comrades in arms, they go easy on Shippen, who, like many Americans of that era, didn't really want to be independent. "She was quintessentially American in her bravery and her improvisation," they conclude. "She was dogged in her efforts to preserve her family, and to build on the gains made by her ancestors."

Treacherous Beauty is history with all the sex, suspense, knavery, and bravery of a spy thriller. The authors are not professional historians: Jacob is a journalist, deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, and Case is a lawyer, managing director and general counsel of Emerald Development Managers LP, and a member of the board of the American Revolution Center, under development in Philadelphia. (H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a partner in the company that owns The Inquirer, is chairman of the ARC board of directors.)

They haven't uncovered new facts or fashioned a new interpretation of the American Revolution. And they certainly haven't tried to apply Revolutionary-era wisdom to 21st-century America's problems. Their goal, as they explain in their preface, was simply to write "a popular biography that brings a fascinating yet little known American story to a wider audience."

Mission accomplished.