We Should All Be More Like Teenage Benedict Arnold
The English poet Christina Rossetti once said, “Life is not sweet.” A teenage Benedict Arnold would agree.
Born into a legit, New England elite family with strong Puritan traditions, Arnold was expected to be awesome—a leader in business, community, and church. For the first decade of his life, things were looking pretty good: He was at a solid school, his dad was making money, and the Arnold name meant something in Norwich, Connecticut.
But his world started falling apart.
Between the ages of ten and twenty, Arnold experienced catastrophe: His father lost the family business, became an alcoholic, and got excommunicated from the church—all giant, horrible embarrassments in a New England society of rigid class structure. And then Arnold’s mom died. Then his dad. Actually all of his immediate family passed away, except for one sister.
Told you so, Christina Rossetti would write eighty years later.
But Colonial-era-guts and good old Puritan dogma don’t allow a person to collapse under the weight of life not being a joy ride. Instead of pouting, Arnold moved to another New England town—New Haven, Connecticut—and started a new mission to regain all his father lost. Within three years, he was running a crazy-successful bookstore and spending tons of time on the trading ships of his business partner and local merchant, Adam Babcock. Arnold’s most baller move during Mission: Bring Back the Arnold Name was rebuying his family’s foreclosed home in Norwich—and then reselling it for a profit. That could have been a purely financial move, but historian Jim Murphy hints that this was of an in-your-face, old-community-that treated-us-like-crap move. I tend to agree.
So the question is: Does knowing Arnold’s hardships as a teen help us understand his decision to betray America as an adult? That’s a dangerous query that opens historians to arm-chairing this whole thing; human motivations are complex and hard to nail down. But if you asked me directly, and my grad school professors weren’t around, I’d say “yes, most definitely” because the two key markers of whether a person is prone to commit treason (according to the CIA) are psychology and circumstance. As the Revolution unfolded, and Arnold saw his reputation and personal finances crumble due to perceived and actual sleights, it could be argued that he again felt his family’s honor slipping away. When push came to shove, he was going to side with whomever would grant him what he had fought so hard to get: the mad respect he was due.
Teenage Benedict had true grit. While sources are scant on how exactly he felt during those tumultuous years, it’s easy to imagine the sorrow and helplessness. But what’s harder to consider is someone today being able to summon the effort to get up when the perils of a not-sweet-life kept running them over. I’d like to be more like teenage Benedict Arnold, but pray I’m spared the circumstances that forge such endurance.
So here’s to reclaiming familial honor by forging your own way—just be careful that way doesn’t inadvertently lead you to infamous treachery. RIP, teenage Benedict.
Details of Arnold’s life can be found in a million places, but I relied on Jim Murphy’s super-readable The Real Benedict Arnold (New York: Clarion Books, 2007). The CIA’s recently declassified study in treason I referenced can be found here - https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/0006183135, and the Rossetti work I quote is called “Life and Death.” It's super depressing, but real, which is why I love it.