books about Benedict Arnold

Why a Novel about Benedict Arnold

Gideon’s Revolution tells a fictional story, based on true events, of a spy mission to capture Benedict Arnold. Near the end of the novel, Gideon Wheatley, a former officer in the Continental Army, reflects on his namesake, the Gideon of the Old Testament, who instructed his small army of men to blow their trumpets in unison to frighten off their numerically superior enemy.  It’s now twenty years after the Revolution, and as Wheatley prepares to tell his audience about Arnold’s treason, he wonders if his story might have a similar power—not to disperse an enemy, but rather to unify the spirit of a new nation. He recalls the battle cry of his own soldiers as they readied to fight the British Army:

With the fury of a windstorm their voices gathered into one, swelled by the echoes of history and myth. The sound swept over us, and those who were tired drew strength from it; those who were fearful gained courage; and those who were uncertain found conviction.

Perhaps, he wonders, his story might similarly inspire the citizens of the new republic.

As we enter a new year that has already reserved a place in our history books, another story comes to mind: an anecdote about a Mrs. Powell, who greets Benjamin Franklin as he emerges from the Constitutional Convention in September 1789.  “What have you given us,” she asks about the new plan for government, “a monarchy or a republic?” To which Dr. Franklin replies, “A republic—if you can keep it.”  It’s an answer that highlights the fragility of self-government, and it suggests a follow up question: How do we keep it?

The stories we tell might be part of the answer.

William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, observed that “the only true and natural foundations of a society are the wants and fears of individuals.” This is instructive for historians and storytellers alike. In the case of Benedict Arnold, for instance, his heroism at Saratoga and his treachery at West Point tell a tale of intrigue, but the real mystery lies in his wants and fears.  What did he desire so much that he would betray his countrymen, and what kept him awake at night, rattled with fear, such that he could not resist treason?

Bringing wants and fears to life: this is the heavy lifting of the historical imagination.  It is the taproot, too, of moral instruction.  We encourage empathy not by admonishing a person to walk the same mile as another, but rather to walk a mile in his shoes.  Because the experiences of life, though infinite in variety, are repetitive in their forms, we have the imaginative power to connect with every human being who has ever walked the earth, even if the only evidence of their existence is a handful of once-buried artifacts…and their stories.

When stories illustrate our common humanity, they compel us to action.  For all the abolitionist fervor delivered by William Lloyd Garrison’s highly rational essays, for instance, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin that made northern whites feel the brutality of slavery. To that end, no story in American literature is more poignant than the account Frederick Douglass gives of being taken as a child from his mother, as simply told in the first two pages of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  There could hardly be a more powerful evocation of our most basic wants and fears.

In 1857, as the specter of disunion appeared on the horizon, Washington Irving published his monumental Life of George Washington.  Irving devoted 59 pages to the treason of Benedict Arnold as a warning against a new betrayal of America’s democratic principles. The history of the nation’s founding, he argued, was the centerpiece of “a universal tie of brotherhood—a watchword of our Union.” Four years later, Lincoln called upon the same unifying heritage when he evoked the “mystic chords of memory” to summon the better angels of our nature.

Those mystic chords are most readily heard in the stories we share. Asked, as we are today, to choose between loyalty to the principles of self-government or the whims of one man or movement, we would do well to revisit the story of Benedict Arnold and the whole repertoire of our common stories. Through the lessons of relatable characters—our companions, then and now, in this grand experiment—our shared identity might be renewed.  And from them, one hopes, the tired may draw strength, the fearful gain courage, and the uncertain find conviction.