Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Benedict Arnold- Some Thoughts

   While Benedict Arnold's treatment by the Church Committee may seem harsh to a contemporary American, it is not anything out of the ordinary for mid-eighteenth century military finance. The colonists adopted the complicated British system of procurement, ripe with favoritism and corruption and expected a commander to shoulder a number of exigent expenses for which he would be later reimbursed. What is interesting about Arnold's appearance before the committee is his failure to provide receipts. While Arnold would not have been able to provide receipts for the odd situation, he certainly should have had them for the bulk of his expenses. It was the job of the committee to view Arnold's claims with suspicion.
  Benedict Arnold, throughout his career, demonstrated an utter lack of political acumen. He was not an intellectual and had no feel for human interplay, the ambitions of men, and the cut throat nature of politics. Alexander Hamilton, who knew Arnold from Hamilton's days as Washington's aide, remarked of him that "the fighter did not combine...any intellectual qualities with his physical prowess. Instead of engaging in interesting argument, he shouted and pounded the table." A description of Arnold from his days in Philadelphia perhaps describes him best:
He was by nature impetuous, aggressive, alert and eager for battle under any circumstances but he had never been a good politician. He was tactless, impatient, extremely outspoken and had made numerous enemies unnecessarily.
 One of the things that Arnold's biographers gloss over during Arnold's actions during April and May of 1775, is the utterly callous way in which he abandoned his Connecticut Company in favor of a commission from a colony in which he had no friends and no political base. Colonelcies were highly sought after in every colony and there were more candidates for colonelcies than there were colonelcies. Arnold had nurtured this company but abandoned them without a moment's hesitation to take a colonelcy in a colony in which he was not known. This was a rash act of a man with no political acumen.

  In closing, it should be noted that in September 1775, Arnold turned over his financial records to Silas Deane and asked whether he might get satisfaction from the Continental Congress. Deane, who was a friend of Arnold's and sympathized with Arnold over his treatment by Massachusetts, pursued the claim. In late January 1776, the Continental Congress awarded Arnold and additional L245,14, 1. This was probably in reaction to Arnold's recent surge in stature as a wounded hero in the Patriots attempt to conquer Canada.

Major John Andre's self-sketch drawn the night before he was hung.


  1. Arnold's difficulty in getting reimbursed is striking given how he had been quite successful as a businessman, importing medicines, traveling as a supercargo on trading voyages, and co-owning ships. He understood financial procedures well. I wonder if Massachusetts had entered some sort of cash crunch between when the Provincial Congress sent Arnold west and when the General Court's committee reviewed his receipts. Also, by that point the Continental Congress and New York had entered the war, so the Massachusetts committee might have hoped some other government, who benefited more from Arnold's success along Lake Champlain, would pick up the bill, as eventually happened.

  2. Indeed, the financial situation had changed dramatically in the few months since Arnold received his commission. Bunker Hill had been fought and Massachusetts now had to finance the enormous expense of keeping a large militia force besieging Boston.