Benedict Arnold,

American ... hero?


     “You Benedict Arnold!”

     When I was growing up in Hamden, Connecticut, that was one of the worst insults a kid could yell at another kid. (What can I say, it was a more innocent time.) It meant your friend had ratted you out, or turned against you in some way. Of course, the phrase harks back to the actions of General Benedict Arnold, who in 1780 arranged to sell out the American cause for a few thousand dollars.    


    But what I didn’t know growing up was that Arnold was also a Revolutionary hero, responsible for key American victories. At Saratoga, for instance, he almost died while leading his troops to defeat the British. Nor did I know that Arnold was a Connecticut native who had made his home just a few miles down the road from me, in New Haven. In addition to owning a well-known store, he had a beautiful home on the New Haven waterfront.

     Our teachers never focused on any of this, perhaps didn’t even mention it. The only Connecticut Revolutionary legend about whom I remember being taught is Nathan Hale, the young schoolteacher hanged as a spy after he was caught behind enemy lines in civilian clothing. Connecticut has monuments and statues to Nathan Hale, schools named after Nathan Hale; every year, schoolchildren on field trips flock to the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry. And this is well and good: Young Hale was a hero who died a heartbreaking death, alone, not even allowed to write his mother a final letter. Besides, nobody’s going to name anything after Benedict Arnold!

     But put Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold side by side and ask the question: Which one did more to advance the cause of the Revolution? The answer is, without question, the traitor Benedict Arnold.

     Just one more of the quirky contradictions that, to me, make our nation’s history so endlessly fascinating.