But I have a bizarre fascination with Benedict Arnold. As far as I'm concerned, he is one of the most intriguing characters in all of American history.
And he's also one of the most tragic.
Because Benedict Arnold wasn't always a traitor. His legacy is one of deceit and betrayal, yet in the early days of the American Revolution, he was perhaps the most celebrated and revered military leader in all of America, aside from General Washington himself. During campaigns that took him into New York and Canada, against the most formidable army in the world he led poorly trained men over horrible terrain in terrible weather conditions with very limited resources, and he did so with incredible courage and resilience and with the honor and respect of the men in his command. Without the contribution of Benedict Arnold, particularly in the Battle of Saratoga, which proved to be a turning point in the war, it's entirely possible America would have lost in her struggle for independence.
So how does a man go from American hero to American villain in barely four years' time?
Some suggest it was greed. He was certainly low on money when he began his talks with the British and he was known as a man who enjoyed the finer things of life, not to mention his involvement in a few questionable, and very lucrative business dealings.
Some blame it on a woman. He did eventually marry the daughter of a Philadelphia Loyalist, so some might suggest his relations there may have corrupted his allegiances.
But I just can't help but think there was more to it than that. This was a complex man, and I believe only the most complex circumstances could have turned him from patriot to turncoat in so short an amount of time.
Some careful research will tell you Benedict Arnold's life was replete with pain and tragedy. His father was a drunk. Three of his four siblings died in childhood. His first wife died at age 30. He was later jilted by another romantic interest--twice. He suffered with frequent attacks of gout. He watched his wealth slip away while he served in the Continental Army, often without pay. He witnessed horrid things in battle on both land and sea. He was wounded in the same leg twice; the second time severely. Again and again he was denied promotion, primarily because he was a far better military leader than a politician. Jealous fellow officers and statesmen often undercut and maligned him, mostly out of jealousy, though it's true Arnold seemed to have a special knack for rubbing people the wrong way.
But it's easy to look at the events of Arnold's life and say he had more than his fair share of trouble. And I have to wonder if he allowed it all to torment his mind and tear at his soul so much he could eventually find ways to justify actions he once would have considered reprehensible.
Simply put: Benedict Arnold let the circumstances of his life and his career make him bitter.
Somehow in the midst of the hurt and the anger and the disillusionment that came with it all, he lost sight of all those things he once believed in and held dear. And in some twisted sense of right he could then rationalize his plans to betray an entire fort into the hands of the British army and, with it, even hand over General George Washington, one of the few men who had actually been willing to stick his neck out for Arnold on more than one occasion.
Had Arnold succeeded, it would have effectively ended the war for the Americans, the war he himself had been so determined to fight and win just a few years before.
And yet once he was beyond the reach of the Continental Army, he would write to General Washington,
"I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country. The same principle of love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right any man's actions."And so he smugly justified actions that ran contrary to everything he once believed and held true, and then criticized the world that dared judge him for it.
That's what bitterness does. So easily it can fill our eyes so full of hurt and anger and betrayal and confusion that we become blinded to the things we believe and love and hope in and trust. It consumes us; controls us; dictates our ways and our words until sometimes, if we're not very careful, not only will we be miserable souls making others miserable around us, but we'll even find ourselves justifying things we once despised and daring anyone to question it.
The writer of Hebrews said this:
"Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled." ch.12:14-15
In fact, at the Saratoga National Historical Park in New York there's a monument to him, or to his leg actually, near the spot where he was so severely wounded in 1777. The monument is of a boot and gives honor to "the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot...winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution."
Benedict Arnold's name, however, isn't there. After all, we don't honor traitors.
But we can certainly learn a lesson from them.
And we can vow never to be entangled by bitterness.
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