It happened today - September 21, 2015

Benedict Arnold Generally it’s nice to have something named after you. But there are exceptions, as Benedict Arnold could testify if he were with us today. For on September 21, 1780, he made himself forever a byword for treason by promising to hand over West Point, then an important fort, to the British in return for a pile of cash and a high military post. It was squalid, ignominious and horribly timed.

Arnold was actually a distinguished American general, with a better won-lost score than Washington in individual battles. But he felt unappreciated including over slow promotion, egged on by his second wife, a conniving spendthrift and a Loyalist if not actually a spy. Ultimately they entered into treasonous correspondence with Maj. John Andre, who was exposed and hanged as a spy, manifesting a frank courage that many felt contrasted sharply with Arnold’s own behaviour.

His treason shocked the nation and promoted the witty suggestion that the United States erect a statue to his leg, mangled though not actually lost in service before he turned his coat. And the British were not terribly impressed with him.

Even if Arnold’s plot to hand over West Point had succeeded it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Washington’s plan was to outlast the British, not to contest key points and risk crushing defeat in the field. And while Arnold did command British troops in the war, they were of course ultimately defeated and he went to Britain where he died, a bitter man, in 1801.

And for what? He didn’t even get all the money the British promised him, which is fair enough since he didn’t manage to hand over the fort. He left the winning side for a paltry reward and lasting ignominy. As plots go this one was a big loser.

His only consolation, for what it’s worth, is that his is overshadowed in the annals of treason by that of Judas. He’s at best second in the all-time cheap traitors list.

It’s not much consolation.

It happened todayJohn Robson