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Patriots & Traitors: What Can We Learn from the Lessons of History?

By Nancy Rubin Stuart

Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen
Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen

As we celebrate the 238th birthday of the United States on July 4, 2014, one question remains as important today as it was when we declared our independence. What causes some citizens to be patriotic and others to become traitors?

Periodically this question arises during Congressional inquiries and in the press when a particular American is revealed as a potential or active domestic terrorist. Equally disturbing are reports about citizens who have emigrated to foreign countries to join anti-American organizations bent on producing death and destruction from afar.

The reasons for betrayal are complex and often highly personal, but one common thread seems to be the traitor’s long-standing inability to embrace the values of American society. With that in mind, I researched the lives of two late-eighteenth century couples who reacted to the ideals of the American Revolution in vastly different ways.

STUART-DefiantBridesThe first involved Henry Knox of Boston, a poor bookbinder and member of the Sons of Liberty, who later rose to become the chief of artillery of Washington’s Continental Army. While his eighteen-year-old wife Lucy Flucker came from a Tory family, she embraced the American cause and spent the eight years of the Revolution following Henry through the army camps to become an enduring example of a patriotic wife.

The second concerned Benedict Arnold, a wealthy Connecticut apothecary and trader, who initially supported the ideal of the American Revolution by funding regiments and heroically fighting against the British. The political loyalties of his lovely teenage wife, Peggy Shippen, were more ambiguous, since her father, Judge Edward Shippen was believed to be either a Neutralist or a Tory.

Why then, since Benedict Arnold, was Washington’s “famous fighting general” did he betray the fledgling United States? Historians have painstakingly pondered, examined and explained his motives. These include bitterness over Congress’s failure to honor his heroic deeds on the battlefield; that governing body’s inability to repay him for his outlays of cash; resentment of Washington for failing to advocate his early appointment as a major general, and, finally, the ruin of his health from injuries sustained on the battlefield.

Another, less convincing but highly romanticized, interpretation attributes his defection to his eighteen-year-old bride Peggy Shippen. According to that view, she was a Tory and sexual siren who persuaded him during their honeymoon to betray America. Admittedly, Peggy did later pass treasonous papers to the British on Arnold’s behalf, but her tender age and her secondary status as a woman pledged to “obey” her husband may well have compelled her to embrace his decision.

These examples are as relevant and provocative on this July 4th as they were nearly two and a half centuries ago when we broke from England in the name of freedom for all. Today, the problems that beset our nation and the discontent they foster among certain members of our country are fertile breeding ground for potential traitors. Among them are the forces of wealth and power versus the ordinary man; growing income inequality; and declining idealism about the American way of life.

Isn’t it time we take a lesson from the heroes and traitors of our past to improve the lives of all Americans today?


STUART,NANCY-by_William_StetsonNancy Rubin Stuart, an award-winning author specializing in women's and social history, is the author of Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married. She has appeared on national television and NPR and has written for the New York Times, among other publications. Stuart is a board member of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center and executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center.