September 13, 2012 12:01:58 PM
Every American schoolchild knows that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag, although this story may well be untrue. Few know the name of Peggy Shippen, who had much more direct effect on the events of the American Revolution. Betsy Ross was a seamstress, however, and Peggy Shippen was a conspirator, a role that clashed with her being a female. She also was a conspirator on the losing side, as she was the wife and helpmeet of the far more notorious Benedict Arnold. Historians have uncovered her role, one that her contemporaries did not believe, but her story still is relatively unknown. In Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America (Lyons Press), Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case haven't so much brought out new facts about Shippen, but rather they have told her story vividly and with sympathy. Shippen was regarded in her time as a woman wronged and disgraced by her husband, and that might have been true, but not for the reasons people thought. She was active in the plotting for the British cause.
Shippen was not shaped into any particular political views by her family. Her father and uncles were prosperous tradesmen and were interested in business, not in rocking the boat. George Washington had dined with the family when he was a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, when Peggy was fourteen. His relations with the Shippens would prove to be valuable for her, and she always wrote of her admiration for his character. One of the useful parts of this book is that it illustrates that our American Revolution, whose success we have celebrated for centuries, was not only a war that could have gone either way, but also was seen as a bloody civil war, with loyalists, revolutionaries, and plenty of undecideds or middle-of-the-roaders. Peggy's family tried to remain neutral and to keep making profits without risk. They were suspected of being loyalists, but the case was not pressed, and her father eventually became a Pennsylvania chief justice within the new country's legal system.
The war might have been nasty, but it is surprising to read how smoothly life went on in Philadelphia. The British captured the city in 1777, and the officers played cricket, bet on cockfights, put on dramas, and organized balls. Peggy Shippen fit right in, along with her society girl friends, and took advantage of the social whirl. The climax of celebrations was on 18 May 1778, a variety of entertainments called the Meschianza, a fabulous farewell party for the departing General Howe. Intricate and exotic costumes, floats, and decorations were designed by the handsome, creative, and romantic British officer John André. All the girls in Philadelphia loved André, and he loved all of them, but he paid particular attention to Peggy Shippen, who was possibly the most beautiful woman in Philadelphia. He was eventually sent back to New York to become an aide to Sir Henry Clinton, Howe's successor, but he and Peggy kept an affectionate correspondence going even through the war.
She had another suitor during the time, Benedict Arnold, who wooed her actively and eventually overcame the doubts of her family to marry her in 1779. He had shown himself a brilliant leader of men into the confusion of battle, and had become the military governor of Philadelphia. For all his exemplary battlefield heroics and leadership (the authors say he was the "bravest and most brilliant general in the revolutionary army"), he was hotheaded, quarrelsome, greedy, and scheming. He was embroiled in Philadelphia's black market when Peggy knew him. In fact, he was facing court martial charges related to his shady business doings. Both he and Peggy had an enthusiasm for getting money, and both had reason to dislike the American forces. Arnold felt he had been neglected and unappreciated and unrewarded (he had a lifetime chip on his shoulder) for his military service, and Peggy had been ridiculed for her dallyings with occupying British officers.
And so, the authors show, the couple made a decision a month after they were married to seek a better fortune by going over to the British side. Peggy does not seem to have been a Lady Macbeth, but she does seem to have done more than simply be married to the turncoat Arnold. Indeed, the couple's contact on the British side was John André, who had been her friend, not his. They made dickering arrangements with the British, and the plan was for Arnold to get command of West Point and turn it and all its forces over to the British. A case could be made that controlling West Point would have blocked communications and supplies, thus splitting and weakening the American forces and turning the war another way, but the plot was foiled. André was caught and his documents taken (and he was eventually hanged as a spy). Arnold found out in time, and was able to escape to the British side.
The plan was that his wife would be with him, but the spoiling of their plot meant that he had to get to the British side without her. This led to the most dramatic scene of her life, a mad scene in which she raved that Washington who visited her was not Washington but an imposter, that her husband had flown away through the ceiling, and that hot irons were penetrating his head and hers. She certainly had reason to be distraught, but the sympathetic Washington (and his aides, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette who were with him) assumed that she had gone temporarily insane because of her husband's treachery. Peggy harnessed two widely-held assumptions about her sex, say the authors. Women were intellectually unable to take part in the vital decisions that their husbands made all the time and they were also liable to go into hysteria. The sympathetic view, that poor Peggy was ever after to be yoked to a craven traitor to the patriot cause, was the one that was to stick to her through her lifetime.
Even though there was sympathy toward her, the anger toward her husband was so vehement that when she returned from New York to her family in Philadelphia, she had to flee the city. She was to rejoin Arnold in New York City, and lived the rest of his life with him in London and in Canada. Arnold does seem to have had the redeeming feature of sincerely loving his wife, although this did not keep him from siring a child by another woman. He was a rotter in almost every other way, and spent his life trying to get Britain to give him more monetary reward for his defection ("including his cockamamie claim that the British should pay him extra because his defection had cost him a chance for the rebel command in South Carolina"); he never thought he had been given enough. His wife loved him sincerely, it seems, until later in the marriage when she did put up with him, which was no small achievement. While most wives at the time were silent partners in the efforts of their husbands, she actively played a role in the American Revolution, and it is quite possible that she came up with the whole idea of Arnold's defection. Had things gone differently, her husband would have been a hero for Britain's ages, and his pretty wife would share in the glory. The fates arranged for her to be a footnote in the history of the American Revolution, but the authors make clear she is quite a beguiling one.