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Benedict Arnold, Peggy Arnold, and Aaron Burr
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010

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Was Peggy in on Benedict's plot?



Benedict & Peggy Arnold & Aaron Burr

By Noble M. Notas[i]  

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Did Mrs. Arnold play a major role in her husband's treason?

Benedict Arnold, Son of the Havens by Malcolm Decker, New York: Antiquarian Press, 1961, First Published 1932, provides us with a fascinating account of the Arnold Affair. The author's stilted language and obvious display of his biases can be cumbersome for those who prefer a more apparently objective account. Nonetheless, his biography does not stray from the facts known when he wrote his account.

With the exception of a few historical documents, the author refers to accounts written many years after the fact. He frequently refers to Mrs. Arnold, Margaret (Peggy) Shippen as "neurotic", a term which he also applies to Arnold. When writing of the "Philadelphia Belles" who attend an extravaganza where a feu de joie called a Meschianza ('a medley of things') was presented in honor of Howe, Decker describes Peggy as follows:

“Of all the gay Capuan throng, none has stood out more prominently than Major John Andre, the handsome, somewhat effeminate bachelor, quartered in old Dr. Franklin's house on Market Street; or the neurotic blue-eyed blonde, Peggy Shippen, Quaker daughter of the 'Downrights.'”

Note that elsewhere the author does not identify Edward Shippen, Peggy's father, as a Tory or a Whig, but rather as politically neutral, one of those persons who are complacent and are standing by for whomever may rule. Some time after the extravaganza, Arnold threw a soiree at the Penn mansion, a party which Reed said (to Green) was attended by "not only Tory ladies but wives and daughters of persons proscribed by the state."

“This gossip of 'Tory parties' was allowed to spread, much to Arnold's discredit. But he was beginning to discover a deep, heart-moving passion just then, besides which, loss of prestige and public esteem loomed trivial indeed. Among the gay throng, his roving eyes had met and appraised a lovely, blue-eyed blonde, a damsel fated to be his eternal choice - fair Margaret Shippen, youngest daughter of the 'Downrights.' Since the return of the Whigs, she had been running off to the shops in quest of new frocks, China pots (Whigs drank only coffee), and the like. As many another, she, too, was setting her cap.”

"No ‘gadder’ was this pretty-faced Peggy with the golden hair, nay, rather, was most home-loving, ‘the darling of the family,’ say her apologists. All which, we would graciously acknowledge, and there let the matter rest. But your soft-hearted male apologists (a woman would have appraised her more correctly) have conspired, in singular, unanimous way, to make her a loyal, high-minded creature... “

“Be all this as it may: fair Peggy of the blonde hair and weak chin - is she not, of all women, the one most ill-suited to lead off our disintegrating hero? By all odds, the General is neurotic, hasty-thinking enough without the Fates conspiring to muddle him still more by such an unstablizing helpmeet as this nerve-sick daughter of the ‘Downrights.’ She was suffering, even then, from fainting spells and some sort of "confusion in the head." When two nerves come together, are we not to expect pain and tragic chaos? Yet, with all her failings, this light-headed Shippen does seem to know the value of a pound sterling, has some hazy girlhood notions about ‘getting on,’ but whither, one can only guess”

That being said, Decker offers us a footnote:

“There has been no critical study of Margaret Shippen. That she was one of the average middle upper middle class women of her time, that is to say, of the pampered, overdressed, somewhat stiffly-arched sort, the kind who lean heavily upon man simply because it is man after all to whom she must look for brocades and ribbons, china teapots, and the like, ought to be evident to all. Peggy was not unlike a million other well-to-do women of her time and, indeed, of our time. The eighteenth century was more strictly a man's world than the present, and it is not incongruous to observe girls of Peggy's class being more worshipful of papa than mamma. Indeed Peggy seems to have relied on her papa in everything. In all her correspondence she rarely ever refers to her mother. She was nineteen when she married Arnold.”

Edward Shippen acquiesced to the marriage even though he had reservations due to the fact that Arnold was twice Peggy's age and had three children already. The author attributes Arnold’s consent to an economic consideration: he had four daughters on his hands and the currency was deflating. In any event, Peggy knew what she wanted:

“Peggy... had become thoroughly fascinated with her celebrated suitor, and would listen to no argument against the proposed marriage. She created such scenes with her fainting spells, hysteria, and the like, every time the practical side of the question was mentioned, that there was no alternative but to speed the business....”

“What a tragedy it was to be for Peggy, this alliance with Arnold, whose military command was already at stake....”

A letter from Arnold to Peggy, "My Dearest Life", dated 8 February 1779, contains expressions of feelings many men have had at one time or another:

“....I am heartily tired of my journey, and almost so with human nature. I daily discover so much baseness and ingratitude among mankind that I almost blush at being of the same species, and could quit the stage without regret was it not for some gentle, generous souls like my dear Peggy, who still retain the lively impression of their Maker's image; and who, with smiles of benignity and goodness, make all happy around them. Let me beg of you not to suffer the rude attacks on me to give you a moment's uneasiness. I am treated with the greatest politeness by General Washington and the officers of the army, who bitterly execrate Mr. Reed and the Council for their villainous attempt to injure me...."

Notwithstanding General Arnold's love for his wife, Decker has this to say a few pages later:

“Mistress Peggy, with nothing more in her head than thoughts of a new frock, and how to make an invidious comparison with others, was enjoying the fun of being the bride of an extravagant and celebrated General. Not for one as useful as her to know she had married a Lucifer already in flight Hadesward!”

Then we learn that Peggy is pregnant; her motherly instincts set in and she can think no ill of her husband since he is the father of the little man in her womb. She is therefore loyal to him despite Reeds' “gross assassination of his character” and the reprimand he received at the Court-Martial, and, if we "know this neurotic Peggy", we certainly know she sneers at the authors of his troubles.

After the spy John Anderson was caught and Arnold's exposure was certain, Arnold went upstairs, embraced Peggy and kissed his child, but "What took place in that upper chamber between Rascal and Rascal's wife will never be known in this world. In that case, we must depend on the guesses of dim tradition...." After her husband flees, she, according to tradition, prepares for her tragic act in the upper chamber at Robinson House, swoons across the bed, raves and carries on, says she is in a bad way, gets a sedative, and so on and so forth. In the author's words:

“Unmindful of all soft condolement, tragedianne Peggy was to continue with her dramaturgy; now was in a kind of frenzy; now railed viperish at Washington and others; now lay coma-like 'with he hair disheveled,' with few clothes. Too few for Secretary Varick, destined one day to head his Bible Society! Forty-eight hours more she was to continue to display remarkable talent for her tragic role; until Colonels Varick and Hamilton must perforce accept it as none other than reality itself. Did not feeling Hamilton rise, like some poor yokel at the play, to remark that "he would to God he were her brother that he might have the right to defend her?”

Arnold sent a letter to Washington claiming Peggy was innocent of any involvement in the conspiracy, and Washington gave her the choice of returning home to her father or of joining Arnold: she returned to her father, joined Arnold and remained his wife until death did them part.

Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero by James Kirby Martin, New York: NYU, 1997. The author provides numerous references to historical documents of the period.

Arnold has perused his despatches and has read the one spelling disaster for him - that Andre has been caught with the incriminating pass signed by Arnold….  Arnold evidenced little sign of discomfort, nothing more than what McHenry recalled as a fleeting moment of ‘embarassment.’ He stopped reading, stood up, and motioned Allen aside, then whispered to him to keep silent about the capture of Andre. Still unruffled, he excused himself and limped clumsily upstairs in search of his beautiful, vivacious, twenty-year-old wife, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Shippen. Exactly what Arnold said to her remains a mystery. Historians have not resolved the extent of her involvement in her husband's perfidy, although Peggy certainly knew about his contacts with Andre. Arnold likely told Peggy of his urgent need to escape downriver to the British. He also promised to provide for her, if he could somehow find the means, as well as for their six-month-old son, Edward, who was in the bedroom with Peggy.


“Aboard the Vulture that evening, Arnold labored over a communication to his once-valued patron, George Washington. He implored the commander in chief to protect Peggy, whom he described "as good, and as innocent as an angel, and who is incapable of doing wrong.

“He also rationalized his conduct as being in the best interest of his country even if it appeared otherwise. “

Aaron Burr by Nathan Schachner, New York: Stokes, 1937, provides more information from Matthew L. Davis' biography of Burr, regarding the statement allegedly made to Davis by Burr, of Peggy's alleged confession to Mrs. Prevost regarding Peggy's dramatic deception at the Robinson House incidental to the uncovering of her husband's treachery. I am unable to lay my hands on Davis' biography therefore I note Schachner's synopsis.

“After Aaron Burr resigned from the army, he had drifted around aimlessly for awhile, then his interest in Law was renewed. Princeton was recommended. But Burr complained in a letter dated 16 February 1780 that ill health had delayed his plans. He continued to shift around, sometimes visiting the Hermitage in Paramus, New Jersey, where Mrs. Prevost lived. His visits were the subject of some gossip. Theodosia Prevost was the wife of a British officer - Burr married her on July 2, 1782, after she was widowed.”

“Indeed, Burr seems to have been present that night at the Hermitage when Peggy Arnold, the wife of the traitorous Benedict Arnold, heavily veiled and under close guard, halted there on her way from West Point in New York. She was the Peggy Shippen who had been a playmate of Burr's for some years during his childhood, and she was likewise intimate with Mrs. Prevost. To the latter, so the story goes, she confessed her complete implication in the conspiracy; though at the time, and for a considerable period thereafter, she was universally believed to be the innocent victim of her husband's machinations.”

Benedict Arnold was also a friend of the Prevosts. Burr served under Arnold in the Quebec campaign: more on that below.

Aaron Burr, Portrait of an Ambitious Man, by Herbert S. Parmet & Marie B. Hecht, New York: Macmillan, 1967, provides us with more detailed information of the connection between Aaron Burr and Mr. & Mrs. Benedict Arnold. The author, citing Matthew Davis' biography of Burr as his source, says that Burr, anticipating a demand for Whig lawyers to replace the Tory practitioners after the war, was studying Law with a Mr. Osmer in Connecticut. Connecticut provided Burr with isolation from the noises of war - the news of war made him petulant - yet he had invested in the war through privateering and had taken a part interest in a sloop, the Hawk. Although Burr was not interested in drinking and gambling, he had a weakness for women, one such woman being Mrs. Prevost, who lived at The Hermitage in Paramus.

“While Burr was at Paramus during the fall, Mrs. Prevost had an unexpected visitor, the wife of General Benedict Arnold. After his treason plot had been discovered, the General had fled from West Point to the protection of the British frigate Vulture, anchored in the Hudson River. Peggy Shippen Arnold was left in hysterics that were so convincingly loud in her protestation of ignorance of her husband's perfidy that, at Hamilton's request, General Washington ordered that she be allowed to go to her father in Philadelphia.

“But Mrs. Prevost, whom Peggy regarded as a Tory sympathizer, was told a different story. As soon as the two ladies were alone, Mrs. Arnold confessed that her theatricals were necessary to save her neck. In reality, she had been disgusted with the shabby treatment of the American command had accorded her husband and had encouraged his plot.

“Long after all the principals were dead, Burr repeated this story, as Theodosia had told it to him, to Matthew L. Lewis. The Shippen family, in rebuttal, alleged that Burr told the tale because he had made advances to Peggy when she arrived at The Hermitage that day and had been repulsed. Not only does the evidence point to Peggy Arnold's complicity, but British papers have revealed that Mrs. Arnold handled some secret dispatches and that, 1792, she was paid £350 for her services. Burr actually suppressed the story at the time because of his loyalty to the Shippens, who had cared for him when he was an orphaned child.”

Furthermore, we learn that Burr served under Benedict Arnold in the Quebec campaign:

“ After hearing of the clash at Lexington and Concord, Burr persuaded his friend Ogden to join the patriot Army; with letters of introduction from John Hancock and William Morris in hand, the two 'Jerseys' presented themselves to George Washington, from whom they hoped to receive a commission. But none was forthcoming because Washington did not have control of commissions; besides, no colony was subsidizing the unattached volunteers, hence they would be too expensive to commission anyway.

“The two men considered Washington's refusal as a rebuff if not as a personal snub. They decided to join Benedict Arnold's expedition - a detachment of ten musketmen companies and three riflemen companies - through the Maine wilderness to attack Quebec City. The unattached volunteers paid their own way. Burr outfitted himself with a blanket, tomahawk, gun, and bayonet. The expedition was plagued by dysentery. The weather grew colder and several inches of snow covered the ground. Potable water was scarce. As for food, the men were reduced to eating soap, shoe leather, and cartridge boxes.

“A force led by General Montgomery had previously been sent, more or less as a diversionary tactic, to capture Montreal. Since Arnold's force was insufficient to take Quebec once it had arrived nearby, Arnold sent Burr with a message to Montgomery, congratulating Montgomery for taking Montreal. Arnold also pointed out that his men were "as naked as men can be", without weapons or ammunition. Arnold's next message to Montgomery was also carried by Burr; it expressed anxiety over the ‘strangely delated’ ammunition. Burr's role as messenger led to promotion in rank, to fame, and to fictitious legends. Montgomery, who had received a letter from Arnold recommending Burr, was impressed with Burr and made him his aide, promoting him to the rank of captain.

“Legend has it that Burr had disguised himself as a priest and had traversed a treacherous route to reach Montgomery with the messages from Arnold; but that turns out to be a fiction: numerous people were travelling the same route along the northern shore of the St. Lawrance without benefit of disguise. Nonetheless, Burr behaved as an extraordinary man, giving good advice to Montgomery on battle plans. However, the advice was not taken - Burr said the men were honest but under a ‘most fatal delusion.’ However that may be, Montgomery took a ball in the head as they approached Quebec City. What they thought to be a private dwelling along the road had actually been converted into a blockhouse manned by a loyalist Bostonian named John Coffin, in command of a small Canadian group. Macpherson and Cheesemen were also killed as the three-pounders roared, accompanied by a spray of buckshot and bullets. The attackers still living panicked and fled. Burr tried to pull Montgomery's body to the American lines, but the General's dead weight was too much for him.

“Yet, legends enhanced even these brave efforts. Word circulated in later years that Burr had actually moved the General's huge body, running with it on his shoulders "down the gorge, up to his knees in snow, the enemy only forty paces behind him," according to Reverend Spring's son. But Private John Joseph Henry noted that Montgomery's body was still near Cheeseman and Macpherson when it was found, at the edge of the river...”

The biographers write that Burr emerged from the catastrophe at Quebec unscathed - his friend Ogden, General Arnold, and others were wounded. The siege on Quebec continued. Burr remained with the troops for five more months there without suffering a wound, imprisonment, or disease, and he distinguished himself as a brave, patient, and determined man. "An eager, immature youth only six months earlier, he was now a respected officer."

Secret History of the American Revolution, An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America now for the first time examined and made public drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America now for the first time examined and made public by Carl Van Doren, New York: Viking, 1941, brings to light the Arnold-Andre correspondence included in the British Headquarters files preserved among the Clinton Papers as well as hundreds of unpublished public and private business letters to or from Arnold preserved in various archives. Van Doren assures the reader that his sources are manuscripts and that "everything in Secret History is based on a document, every conjecture."

In (the unpublished letters)," notes Van Doren, "Arnold contrived to seem a patriotic American throughout the sixteen months in which he was bargaining with the British. These letters led still further to the earlier records of Arnold's accounts with Congress and his later self-justification of his greedy dealings while in command at Philadelphia."

On the other hand, the Arnold-Andre correspondence provides evidence of the treachery:

"The treason, long so mystifying, now appears as the downright transaction as it was. Traditional guesses about Arnold, either that he was a villain out of melodrama or that he was a disillusioned hero honestly conveyed to the enemy, give way to facts which show him to have been bold, crafty, unscrupulous, unrepentent: the Iago of traitors."

The continuous revision of history provides different and often opposed conjectures on the same facts. And now Van Doren has brought forth unpublished facts from the archives regarding Arnold's secret activities and private communications. He has good cause to believe that what a man does in secret reveals his true disposition and that we may judge him accordingly.

“By May 1779, when Benedict Arnold made his first overtures to Sir Henry Clinton, the contemporary methods of treachery had all been tried, even standardized, and there was nothing new either in Arnold's offer or in Clinton's reply. Arnold was not the first renegade, as he was not the last....

“The secret processes by which he changed from a fearless, tireless, stormy, ardent patriot to a calculating friend of the British government are hard to follow.... But Arnold was so unscrupulous, or so self-deceived, in his apologetics that his facts as well as his excuses must be tested at every point. Traitors, whether successful or unsuccessful, seldom tell the simple truth. There seldom is any simple truth in treason."

Van Doren quotes from Arnold's clearest attempt to exonerate himself: a letter Arnold wrote in England, four years after his plot failed, to George Johnston, a director of the East India Company. Arnold wanted a job with the Company, and Johnston asked him for an account of the Arnold Affair.

"My only object was to obtain redress of grievances," Arnold wrote, "and at the same time I disclaimed any idea of independence.... Nor did I consent to join the British army until I had received the most unequivocal and positive assurances from Sir Henry Clinton that Great Britain had given up every idea of taxing America; that we wished to extend her every right and privilege which she enjoyed before the war; and in return only expected her to acknowledge the sovereignty of Great Britain."

Johnston politely turned down Arnold's application, saying, among other things, "The explanations are so interwoven with a complicated detail of circumstances that the great vulgar head will always be divided in opinion on them.... Under an unsuccessful insurrection all actors are rebels. Crowned with success they become immortal patriots.... Although I am satisfied with the purity of your motive, the generality did not think so. While in this case no power in this country could suddenly place you in the situation you aim at under the East India Company."

Yet there was no criminal intent! We have heard that story before. In fine, Arnold claimed that his motive had always been the salvation of his country regardless of what political side he took. The Americans were in desperate straits at the time - even Washington had nearly lost hope. Therefore it was time to make the best deal one could get from the British, hopefully everything that had been demanded of them in 1775. Then Arnold could and did claim to the British that he was not a deserter, and that he wanted not independence from Great Britain but simply redress for a few grievances.

Unfortunately for Arnold’s legacy, Van Doren finds no evidence whatsoever that Arnold made any such overtures to Clinton or anyone else before his misdeeds, nor did he find in the documents one syllable from Arnold of his dissatisfaction with independence, or, for example, with the American alliance with France. We find instead the mention of money, money, money, right down to a proposed ratio of how much is to be paid per patriotic soldier betrayed.

Still, Van Doren gives Arnold the benefit of the doubt, and makes the curious statement that, "Analysis cannot do justice to Arnold's story. It must be narrated through its zigzag course during the four years before it took its dark turn underground to treachery and catastrophe."

In any case, analysis must end somewhere, and in Arnold's case we who take note of the varying accounts would probably say, "We have heard the evidence, we have looked at you, and we believe you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

There is one thing we have no doubt about: Benedict Arnold and his wife, Peggy Shippen, were deeply, even madly in love with each other. Her role if any in the conspiracy has of course been the subject of considerable conjecture. Clinton said Arnold volunteered services without any inducement from him to do so. Since Arnold had consorted with Tories in Philadelphia and had married a "Tory lady", some analysts give Peggy credit for swaying Arnold to the Loyalist cause. Van Doren disagrees:

“In an angry conference during the Saratoga campaign, Arnold declared that ‘his judgement had never been influence by any man.’ And everything in Arnold's career shows how independently - not to say touchily - he made up his mind.... Nor need the later statement of Peggy Arnold, reported at third-hand long after her death, concern Arnold's earliest move. She was said to have said that she had urged Arnold to obtain and then surrender West Point. In May 1779 there was no thought of West Point, nor was there to be for another year. If Peggy at the time of her marriage was disgusted with some of the rebel leaders, so was Arnold. And however beguiling she may have been in the warm days of courtship and honeymoon, she could hardly have done more than confirm a powerful will like Arnold's in its own decision. Even if it was actually she who proposed the treachery - and there is no first-hand evidence that she did - the responsibility must like with the mature and experienced Arnold for undertaking to carry it out.”

Van Doren notes that Arnold was financially strapped in 1779 and was sorely aggrieved by the conduct of his enemies including the civil authorities:

Arnold was a man of action only. He must act, or else be sick. To be crippled in the leg was enough to make him desperate. To be hemmed in by pettifogging civilians, expected to account to them for his audacities, checked whenever he turned in any free direction: this was unendurable. Unable to be patient, Arnold had to be violent. In a fury of irritation, he felt he could not wait. Delay was, at that moment, worse than death. But it will be seen that, once started on his treacherous career, he developed the cold, sly patient of conspirators.”

John Andre, who was a poet, Clinton's aide de camp, and Peggy Shippen's friend, wrote down for Clinton's benefit his ingenious plan for carrying on a correspondence with Arnold through intermediaries, the poets, Stansbury and Odell, by means of coded letters, letters in veiled language, and letters with messages in invisible ink. Some of the letters would go to Peggy Chew for her to turn over to Peggy Shippen, and would contain “apparent nonsense.” Van Doren believed that this plan, which refers to Peggy, makes it impossible to doubt her complicity in the conspiracy. But he goes on to say that Andre "had no luck in his effort to involve Peggy Chew in a dangerous correspondence of which she knew nothing, or Peggy Arnold in a superfluous subplot." However, a number of communications between Andre and Arnold took place: Arnold asking for money and sending along secrets - troop movements and so on. One letter, Stanbury's to Odell, has a paragraph setting forth Peggy Arnold's shopping list, various quantities of cloth, ribbon, satinet for shoes, and "1 pair of neat spurs." That is probably all it is - a shopping list - although some believe it is a secret message to Andre. In yet another letter, Andre sends his regards to Peggy Arnold.

We do not gather from the facts made available by Van Doren that Peggy Arnold, who was nineteen when she married Arnold - half his age - played any more than a minor part, if that, in the conspiracy itself, or that she was a British agent provocateur who led Arnold by the nose into betraying the United States. She does deserve credit for supporting her husband, a man capable of great good and evil, in better and worse times. And it does appear that she should get credit as an actress for her command performance at the Robinson House when her husband's plot was exposed. Everyone was taken in one way or another: Washington, Hamilton, and perhaps Arnold's aides, Varick and Frank. Her several pathetic references to her husband being gone forever, pointing at the ceiling to where the spirits had carried him "to put hot irons in his head", led the aides to think Arnold had gone over to the British. Varick allegedly said some time later that he believed Peggy had been acting, but at the time he believed she was frantic with genuine grief. Hamilton, a young man at the time, wrote to his fiancée as follows:

“... It was the most affecting scene I was ever witness to. One moment she raved, another she melted into tears. Sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate, occasioned by the imprudence of tis father, in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. All the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife, and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her appearance and conduct. We have every reason to believe that she was entirely unacquainted with the plan, and that the first knowledge of it was when Arnold went to tell her he must banish himself from his country and from her forever."

Van Doren believed, based on the evidence he uncovered, that "there is reason enough to suppose" that Peggy Shippen, on her way to Philadelphia from West Point, did stop and find some relief in confessing to Aaron Burr and Theodosia Prevost the role she had played, whatever that role might have been.

Monday, January 20, 2003

[i]  Noble M, Notas is the nom de plum David Arthur Walters employs for his notes on various subjects

">" name="_edn1">[i]  Noble M, Notas is the nom de plum David Arthur Walters employs for his notes on various subjects


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