Speaker presents sympathetic view of Benedict Arnold's 'bad behavior'
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Fri., Feb. 11, 2011
Mention the name of Norwich native son Benedict Arnold, and even today, more than 200 years after his death, passions flare.
So much so, said Norwich Historical Society president Bill Champagne, that a scheduled lecture on Arnold at City Hall to commemorate his birthday initially drew talk of a counter-demonstration. People clad in 18th-century garb planned to rally in protest against the man who betrayed his country during the Revolutionary War, he said.
The protest didn’t materialize, due to repeated postponements for bad weather. But a crowd of nearly 50 local residents turned up Thursday to hear Kathleen Stauffer’s sympathetic take on Arnold, the Continental Army general who turned traitor and sold the Patriot stronghold at West Point to the British for his own gain.
Arnold’s life is “a study in bad behavior,” said Stauffer. His tale of abuse of power resonates today, with headlines of government officials caught in their own misdeeds, she said. “As a country, this is a message worth hearing.”
Stauffer is the executive director of The Arc of New London County, an agency for people with intellectual disabilities. She said she has been interested in Arnold since grade school, when she unearthed a box of old biographies of famous Americans. “What really struck me about Arnold was what promise he had,” she said. “I was shocked by the way the story turned out. For me it was really a question of why.”
She has spent the years since reading everything she can get her hands on about Arnold. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a psychologist,” she said. “But I always felt there had to be more to the story.”
Stauffer described the loss that suffused Arnold’s early life in Norwich, turning him into what she called “a tormented soul”. Four of his five siblings died in childhood, and his mother died before he reached adulthood. His father’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and the loss of the family homestead on what is now Washington Street forced him to abandon any hope of higher education and instead take on an apprenticeship as a pharmacist.
Arnold was so driven to redeem his family name, Stauffer said, that by the end of his apprenticeship he had saved enough money to buy back the homestead. “That speaks to the depth of his shame,” she said.
A brilliant general, but tactless and lacking in social graces, the ambitious Arnold probably rubbed people the wrong way as his military career progressed, Stauffer said. When the Continental Congress didn’t have enough funds to feed and clothe its troops, Arnold sank a good deal of his personal fortune into equipping the army. “I think he felt he had put so many of his own resources into the war that he felt he owned part of it,” she said.
So when others claimed credit for Arnold’s military victories at Ticonderoga and Saratoga, the insult stung. And Arnold, who at Saratoga was nursing a life-threatening wound to the leg and mourning the death of his first wife, hadn’t cultivated friends who would step up and advocate on his behalf. When he was passed over for promotion, he finally soured on the Patriot cause.
“We all do things that others get credit for, but Arnold had trouble handling that,” said Stauffer. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘justified’, but I think there’s a much more nuanced way to judge his actions."
Arnold’s plan to sell West Point backfired – the plot was discovered before the British could attack the stronghold. Arnold defected to the British side of the Revolutionary War, but even there his military skill wasn’t rewarded. Other officers shunned him. “Not a general of rank in England would give him the time of day,” Stauffer said. He died in England after the war.
Local interest in Arnold is still strong, judging by the number and depth of the questions posed to Stauffer at the end of her talk. Listeners admired a lithograph of Arnold’s Norwich home, which has since been demolished, as well as an Arnold bobble-head figure that was – appropriately – two-faced. One side wore Continental blue; the other was clad in a British red coat.
“I’m really not here to celebrate a traitor,” said Stauffer. “While he did the bad thing and there’s no defending that, we are remiss if we do not learn from this complicated cautionary tale.”