Gordon Wood Reviews Stephen Brumwell’s *Turncoat*

TurncoatYesterday we posted an Author’s Corner interview with Stephen Brumwell, author of Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty.

Over at The Weekly Standard, Gordon Wood reviews the book.  Here is a taste:

It was once common knowledge, the story of Benedict Arnold—that extraordinarily successful patriot general who abruptly turned against the American Revolution. Because he had been so trusted by George Washington, Arnold was regarded as the worst of traitors. Indeed, his very name became synonymous with treachery and treason. Not so anymore. Nowadays many young Americans have no idea who Arnold was, and even those who have vaguely heard of the name have little sense of what he did and why “Benedict Arnold” has been a byword for betrayal through much of our history.

This loss of memory comes in part from a changing view of the revolution. In the hands of present-day teachers and professors the revolution is no longer the glorious cause it once was. It is now mostly taught—when it is taught at all—as a tale of woe and oppression, redressing what many academics believe was an overemphasis on the patriotism of great white men. “Those marginalized by former histories,” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor in a recent introduction to current scholarship, “now assume centrality as our stories increasingly include Native peoples, the enslaved, women, the poor, Hispanics, and the French as key actors.” In his own narrative of the revolution, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor has painted a bleak picture of the event. Most of the patriots were not quite as patriotic as we used to think. The Southern planters, for example, engaged in the revolution principally to protect their property in enslaved Africans, but “implausibly blamed the persistence of slavery on the British.” Ordinary white men were even worse. In the West, where the fighting was especially vicious and bloody, they tended to run wild and slaughter Indians in pursuit of their “genocidal goals.” In the end, writes Taylor, it was a white man’s revolution whose success came at the expense of everyone else—blacks, Indians, and women.

No doubt this dark and sordid side of the revolution needs to be exposed. But unfortunately, this exposure has become so glaringly dominant nowadays that there is little room for the older, more patriotic story to be appreciated. Modern scholars haven’t gone so far as to describe Benedict Arnold as a hero for turning against this rather squalid and nasty revolution—after all, the side to which he defected was by their standards of judgment not appreciably different from the side he left—but since patriotism doesn’t have the appeal it used to have, Arnold’s treason seems not to matter as much anymore.

Yet of course it does matter, which is all the more reason to welcome another account of Arnold’s career, written, as many of the best and most readable histories of the revolution are written these days, by an independent scholar who is not caught up in the academic world’s obsessions with race and gender.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Gordon Wood and his scholarship (I am a fan of his scholarship and writing style), it seems as if he cannot review a book these days without turning it into a diatribe on a field that appears to have left him behind.  This is a really good review, but it is odd that Wood has to frame it in this fashion.

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Brumwell

TurncoatStephen Brumwell is a freelance writer and independent historian based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  This interview is based on his new book Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Turncoat?

SB: I wrote Turncoat after becoming fascinated by the central enigma of Benedict Arnold’s remarkable life. Why would an officer famed for his bravery in the American Revolutionary cause, who was clearly obsessed with his reputation as a man of honor, behave in a way that would be widely interpreted as utterly dishonourable? I was sceptical about the usual explanations – greed, or resentment at his shabby treatment by Congress – and wanted to re-examine all the available evidence to see if I could find a more convincing explanation for his behaviour.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Turncoat?

SB: By reassessing Arnold’s military career, Turncoat seeks to explain how he gradually came to believe that his country’s interests would be best served by ending the damaging civil war between Britain and her American colonies. Faced with a dysfunctional, ineffective Congress that seemed uncaring about the men who were actually fighting for American liberty, and hounded by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Arnold concluded that the cause in which he’d made his illustrious name had lost its way, and that he could better devote his talents to restoring Crown rule, and peace to the fractured British Empire.

JF: Why do we need to read Turncoat?

SB: With its dramatic twists and turns, the treason of Benedict Arnold is deservedly one of the best known stories of the American Revolutionary War. By uncovering archival sources not previously used by scholars, Turncoat offers a fresh and challenging interpretation of a tale that still resonates today. For example, this new evidence not only supports the contention that Arnold’s primary motivation in changing sides was ideological, but also removes any lingering doubt that his wife, Peggy Shippen, was actively involved in his treasonable correspondence with the British.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian (or how did you get an interest in the study of the past)?

SB: Growing up in an area of southern England full of castles, which I explored at weekends with my parents and brothers, I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. When I finally went to university, and was given an opportunity to undertake postgraduate research, I decided to focus on the French and Indian War (a conflict in which I’d long been interested), seeking to contest existing stereotypes of the British redcoats who fought it.

JF: What is your next project?

I’m still finalising my next book project, although I have several ideas, involving both non-fiction and fiction. In either case, I’m keen to draw upon my interest in the past, although it’s possible that I’ll stray outside my specialist field of British-American military affairs in the second half of the eighteenth century, and tackle something different. Whatever the subject and approach, my objective will be to present a compelling narrative with an authentic backdrop.

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Elaine Crane

80140104089920L.jpgElaine Crane is Distinguished Professor of History at Fordham University. This interview is based on her new book, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport (Cornell University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Poison Plot?

EC: Mary and Benedict Arnold were a badly matched couple. The documents I stumbled on relating to Benedict’s divorce petition were salacious, and I needed little tempting to write a story that would upend everything we thought we knew about prim and proper New England. As I became more and more interested in both microhistory and legal history, the Arnold saga seemed a perfect way to combine both interests in a readable narrative.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of The Poison Plot?

EC: I’m not really trying to make an argument or support a thesis. I’m a writer telling a story, and the title simply alerts potential readers to what the story is about. On the other hand, the book’s subtext highlights female dependence in an eighteenth century society that thrives on male dominance. And although I never actually say so, it is an indictment of consumerism.

JF: Why do we need to read The Poison Plot?

EC: Nobody NEEDS to read it. But if any bookworm is interested in a small local incident that has international implications; if any reader wants to understand that early Americans were in many ways much like us; if any history lover is turned off by ponderous words and long winded sentences; if anyone is smitten by historical crime stories, then maybe, just maybe such a person would like The Poison Plot.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EC: I was greatly influenced by Clinton Rossiter, one of my undergraduate professors at Cornell. The other great influence was the first feminist movement, during which I realized how much I wanted an academic career.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I’ve started to unravel the story of an eighteenth century vintner and his Native American servant. As usual, the documents will tell me what to say.

JF: Thanks, Elaine!

On Treason

JeffersonDavisBenedictArnoldTreasonCartoon1865

Satan and Benedict Arnold welcome Jefferson Davis (right) to hell (Wiki Commons)

I think it was Virginia Senator Tim Kaine who her first raised the “T” word in the wake of news that senior officials in the Trump presidential campaign, including Donald Trump Jr., met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016.

“Treason” is not a word we use very much in political discourse.  The word harkens us back to an early age in American history.  For example, many will note that the patriots during the American Revolution committed treason against England.  Benedict Arnold committed treason in 1780 when he tried to hand West Point to the British.  Aaron Burr was tried for treason in 1807 after he tried to establish an independent republic from Spanish territory that he hoped to annex from Louisiana and Mexico (he was acquitted). John Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia after he led a slave rebellion on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  He was executed.

Over at The Philadelphia Inquirer, historian Brian Carso, author of Whom Can We Trust Now?: The Meaning of Treason in the United States, provides some historical context for this whole Russia-gate mess.

Here is a taste:

When the Framers completed the Constitution in September 1787, a famous story tells of a woman who approached Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall and asked him, “Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” To which Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Thus, Franklin defined the moral responsibility that is a birthright of every American citizen, which is “to keep it” — to preserve this republic, to put some thoughtful effort into maintaining this fragile experiment in democracy. We call it treason, when such efforts are betrayed.

For all its hyperbole and incendiary color, talk of treason is primarily a rhetorical shorthand that conjures deep-seated feelings of loyalty, national identity, and trust. Historically, when Americans speak of treason, they do so not to identify elements of law so much as to express concern for abstract notions of allegiance and political obligation that they recognize as a profound American tradition.

Prosecutors will have many diverse laws at their disposal to bring about justice should it be proved that individuals assisted the adversarial Russian regime’s interference in our democratic practice. The rest of us will gather about the water cooler, or the kitchen table, and talk about treason.

Read the entire piece here.

Nathaniel Philbrick Wins the 2017 George Washington Book Prize

PhilbrickHere is a taste of the press release from Washington College, one of the sponsors of the award.

Author Nathaniel Philbrick has won the coveted George Washington Prize, including an award of $50,000, for his book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking). One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards and now in its 12th year, the George Washington Prize honors its namesake by recognizing the year’s best new books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Conferred by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Washington College, the award will be presented to Philbrick on May 25 at a black-tie gala at Mount Vernon.

“To have Valiant Ambition recognized in this way means a tremendous amount to me, especially given the extraordinary quality of the books produced by the other six finalists,” said Philbrick. “My heartfelt thanks to the jurors involved in the selection process and to the George Washington Prize’s sponsoring institutions.”

Valiant Ambition is a surprising account of the middle years of the American Revolution and the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Philbrick creates a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and of the war that gave birth to a nation. He focuses on loyalty and personal integrity as he explores the relationship between Washington and Arnold—an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters.

“Philbrick brings both careful craftsmanship and propulsive energy to his storytelling—a hallmark of all his widely read and acclaimed books,” says Adam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. “Moreover, Valiant Ambition is also an impressive feat of research: it offers dramatic episodes that have been largely forgotten, such as a naval battle fought by Arnold on Lake Champlain in 1776, which Philbrick turns into a heart-racing adventure story.”   

Established in 2005, the George Washington Prize has honored a dozen leading writers on the Revolutionary era including, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton. For this year’s prize, a distinguished jury comprised of notable historians David Preston, Kathleen DuVal, and Nick Bunker, selected the finalists from a field of nearly 60 books.

Mount Vernon’s event on May 25 will also honor the six finalists for the 2017 prize:

T.H. Breen, George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (Simon and Schuster)

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (Liveright Publishing)

Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton)

Michael J. KlarmanThe Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press)

Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler StoneFatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press)

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton)