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An American Warrior Reconsidered

by James Kirby Martin

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 1997
ISBN: 0-8147-5560-7
Publisher: New York Univ.

 Renowned traitors are almost always heroes who have gone astray, otherwise what would be the tragedy of the betrayal? In this sense, a revisionist history of Benedict Arnold as ``revolutionary hero'' is not a surprising turn--but it is an edifying one. Martin (History/Univ. of Houston; Men in Rebellion, not reviewed, etc.) unpacks the various myths that have sprung up around Arnold--myths that were designed to recast the hero into the villain--and draws a truer portrait of this misunderstood American archetype. What he uncovers is a bright and ambitious man who miscalculated badly on one very significant act of his life. Born to a respectable family in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1741, Arnold watched helplessly as his father drank away his good family name and modest fortune. Arnold was taken out of school (he had thought himself destined for higher education at Yale) and apprenticed to successful merchants on his mother's side of the family. He did well in business, married advantageously, and was headed for a very comfortable life when duty, and the hope of laurels for the somewhat tarnished Arnold name, sent him into the military. He proved himself an able leader, but in 1780, Arnold rethought his cause and decided that the colonies, which appeared to be losing the war, would be better off appealing favorably to the British after all. He hoped that he would be viewed as a greater hero for recognizing this truth, and that the rest of the rebels would follow his lead. Instead, his defection gave the revolutionary cause a shot in the arm, as well as a villain to burn in effigy--an ironic end to his lifelong quest for respectability. Although Martin can be rather heavy-handed in pressing his central theme that Arnold's concern was to restore his family's reputation, this is still a worthy exposÇ of a truth underlying a cherished American myth. (24 illustrations, not seen)