cover image Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty

Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty

Stephen Brumwell. Yale Univ, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-300-21099-6

Historian Brumwell (George Washington: Gentleman Warrior) offers a provocative explanation for one of the enduring mysteries of the American Revolution: why did Benedict Arnold, one of “Washington’s most celebrated and valued subordinates,” become a traitor in 1780? Brumwell rejects the most common theories: that Arnold felt disrespected by the Continental Congress, which passed him over for promotion despite his impressive track record as a military commander, or that greed was his primary motivator. Instead, Brumwell credits Arnold’s own statements that he felt that offers to the rebels to end the fighting were both genuine and satisfactory, and that his defection was intended to reunite the fractured British Empire. Supporting his case with evidence such as the writings of British officer John Simcoe, Brumwell makes plausible the counterintuitive notion that Arnold’s position was not a fringe one, but actually “symptomatic of a far wider discontent” among the colonials. He also narrates the arc of Arnold’s life and reminds nonspecialists that the Americans’ eventual victory was far from inevitable. Open-minded readers will appreciate his dissenting view that Arnold may have “genuinely had his country’s well-being at heart,” a view that Brumwell believes “merits careful consideration within any balanced re-examination of America’s most infamous traitor.” (May)