Reviewed in the United States on July 17, 2012
This book was clearly written with the aim of rehabilitating, to some extent at least, the image and reputation of Benedict Arnold, a man whose name has been synonymous with treason for over 200 years. This is certainly a noble effort. Just as no hero is without his bad points and deeds, no villain is without his good ones. Understanding the whole person in the context of his historical, socio-economic and personal circumstances helps to flesh out the larger-than-life figures and make them human, and thereby helps to make history itself something human and, therefore, comprehensible.
Sheinkin has succeeded admirably in humanizing Benedict Arnold, delving through mountains of historical documents and other evidence to piece together a portrait of Arnold as a man, rather than the caricature we read about in history books. At the same time, he has done so in a lively, engrossing way, sure to capture the hearts and minds of readers old and young, especially boys and especially those inclined to think history is "boring". Sheinkin's subtitle, "A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery" is no embellishment. You will probably find yourself flipping through the pages of this book as avidly as you would a well-written novel. But this is no novel - this falls clearly in the category of "you can't make this stuff up."
As well researched and as well written as the book is, however, I have to fault Sheinkin at least a little for failing to fully and honestly see the portrait he has painted of Benedict Arnold. Sheinkin is clearly obsessed by, almost enamored with, the historical figure of Benedict Arnold (he admits as much in his Source Notes) and it's almost like he can't bear to face the worst about Arnold. It's not that he omits or whitewashes any data that would tarnish Arnold - indeed, Sheinkin's portrayal is unflinching. It's more that he doesn't want to fully see the conclusion that he himself has come to.
Sheinkin views Arnold as a historical figure who has largely been wronged by history. His final act of treachery erased all the heroic acts that went before - acts which, Sheinkin argues, rescued the American Revolution from dying a premature death. History has also overlooked the jealousies, backbiting and political intrigues which smeared Arnold's reputation, paved the path for his betrayal, and provide Arnold's motivation and mindset for the same. But time after time it seems Sheinkin overlooks (or, rather, excuses) Arnold's own contributions to his predicaments - his pugnacious personality, his utter lack of patience, his brazenness, his lack of diplomacy and social skills, and his lack of ownership of the consequences of his own rash actions. These traits combined to enable Arnold to pull of the brash, heroic deeds he did, but they don't necessarily make him a man worthy of admiration.
Arnold's determined, pugnacious personality probably developed early in life when he was pulled from school due to lack of money caused by his father's drinking, after which he spend a number of years hauling his father out of seedy taverns. We also know that Arnold was involved in a number of duels in his young life, suggesting that he was always impulsive and hot-headed. One of Arnold's first military victories involved the taking of Fort Ticonderoga, but his biggest adversary was actually a man who should have been an ally - Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys. Both had the same objective, but they were at loggerheads because Arnold insisted he had the only real authority (from the State of Massachusetts) to take the Fort, and he wasn't about to share power. (In all fairness, Ethan Allen probably also wasn't too keen on a joint command).
The next several years of Arnold's life show a brazen string of military gambits (all at least partially successful, some wildly so), coupled with an inability to get along with fellow military leaders and superiors, as well as Congress. Arnold took huge gambles, risked - and lost - a lot of men, and earned some decisive battles, including ones big enough to convince France to risk fortune and forces on this unlikeliest of ventures. But because of his uncanny ability to alienate people, Arnold was rarely given adequate credit for his role. He was passed over and delayed for promotion several times, leaving him junior to officers with less military credit to their names. There were also rumors and accusations about him engaging in less than honorable behavior, such as the accusations that he stole provisions from Montreal (which Arnold insisted he was going to pay for).
All of which make Arnold a sympathetic figure, and it's certainly understandable that he would get indignant and righteously angry. But Arnold developed a bitter, devil-may-care attitude and began acting in ways that gave truth to the lies and impugned his own character. After Arnold was wounded in battle, General Washington, in one of the most spectacular errors in judgment in history, made Arnold the military governor of Philadelphia, newly recovered from the British and full of loyalist and neutral families. This position should have required great tact - not one of Arnold's strengths. Arnold began living the high life, selecting for himself the best mansion and commandeering the best carriage. He lived far beyond the means of what his salary should have accommodated and he made some questionable merchandising deals. His attitude was that he was entitled to it all for the sacrifices he'd made on behalf of his country and the lack of recognitions he'd received therefor.
It's soon after this point, while Arnold is just beginning to plot his betrayal, that Sheinkin seems to come to the central core of Arnold's character:
"How could he be so self-righteous? After all, he had been guilty of devious dealings in Philadelphia. And he was at that moment plotting to betray his country! But therein lies the key to understanding Arnold: he didn't feel guilty. He was always able to convince himself that what he was doing was right."
Now, I'm not qualified to diagnose Benedict Arnold across two hundred years of history, and certainly not based on one book. But in modern times, we have a word for people who don't feel guilt, people who always feel like they are the victim, people who feel entitled to take for themselves with no thought of others: sociopath.
Of course, Sheinkin is an historian, not a psychologist, so I wouldn't expect him to use the specific word "sociopath". But it seems like, having laid out all the data, Sheinkin ignores the conclusion, which conclusion gels the two halves of Arnold's personality - hero and villain - into an understandable whole. Men who lack guilt can be brilliant, aggressive, even audacious leaders and, so long as they are "winning", they can accomplish amazing things. But they lack many qualities which inspire personal loyalty or genuine admiration, and when events turn against them, they will seek to fill the void in fame and riches wherever it is most opportune. Given this interpretation, Arnold's protestations about doing it all for the good of the people, to end the war, comes across as hollow and false. I think history has rightfully recognized Benedict Arnold as a self-serving traitor, not as a hero forced by circumstances and belief into acts which merely seem traitorous in the eye of the beholder.
As a side note, Sheinkin opens the book with an execution scene. The reader may be forgiven for assuming the condemned man is Benedict Arnold, since Sheinkin doesn't tell us otherwise. It is only later that we realize it is Major John Andre, the British officer with whom Arnold plotted to expose and surrender West Point. I think it was a bit of a cheap ploy to open the book this way, given that Benedict Arnold himself died of gout, asthma and heart failure at the ripe old age of 60, having never been captured by the Americans.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book. It is a stirring and engaging account of a historical figure whom practically everyone knows by name, but few know by deed.