The National Museum of American History is developing new programming and related educational materials on Benedict Arnold and we were hoping to get some insights from the Thinkfinity Community on the topic.
What impressions do you have of Benedict Arnold? If you met him and could ask him any question, what might it be? If Arnold were to ask you, “What was so terrible about what I did that I am forevermore vilified as a traitor?" what would your response be?
And, does his name come up in your teaching of the American Revolution? Do students know the name and if so, what are their associations with it?
We will update the Community as new Revolution and Benedict Arnold-related material becomes available on our site. For those with an interest in him, you can find the Gunboat Philadelphia here at the museum, as well as a field gun from the Battle of Saratoga!
Your help is much appreciated!
National Museum of American History
I'm embarrassed to admit that although the name rang a bell, I couldn't have told you who he was.
I just read a little bit about him on Wikipedia, and the first question that came to mind is why he switched sides in the war. The Wikipedia account blames it on bitterness—he was passed over for promotion, had lots of debts, had accounts investigated by Congress. Was it really this bitterness that fueled his actions, or was it ideological reasons too?
Don't be embarrassed! I'm glad you were honest--that's exactly what we're looking for. To explain, the museum has launched a new theater program called Time Trials based on the life of Benedict Arnold. An actor playing Arnold explains some of his actions and motivations and a facilitator asks the audience to discuss what they know of Arnold, the new information they've learned, and whether their perspective on him has changed by learning more about his story. Your question is the kind that we would invite the audience to discuss together in this program.
I asked about this in the Community because it will help our colleagues running the program to know what visitors may come to the program knowing already, but also because the History Explorer team would like to film the program and develop some teaching materials to go with it as we have for past theater programs--Join the Student Sit-Ins and Broad Stripes and Bright Stars)--and wondered what teachers know of him/whether he is a part of their teaching.
The program is designed to inspire visitors to question their assumptions, understand that the story of history is complicated (as are historical figures) and there are rarely easy answers. The short answer is, the references I've seen so far suggest that the frustrations you describe were the driving forces for his decision, and our program stresses them as well. But, there are certainly historians, several of whom are quoted in this article from US News and World Report, who take a charitable view of Arnold and suggest that in addition to his anger, he felt turning back to Britain was, by the time of his betrayal, a better course for the colonies. It's worth noting that a question like yours is the type that historians ask all the time--then examine the sources to develop their own interpretation or analysis.
I look forward to hearing more feedback on Arnold--if he comes up once, twice, or not at all in your teaching, what you may have heard of him, and if students would recognize this character!
Bringing this question home to my 12 year old was quite illuminating. She knew the name and associated it with "traitor" and the American Revolution, but had no further detail. Interestingly enough when I was her age I knew only a little more. Growing up in NJ, the Revolution was a huge part of our social studies curriculum and we learned it year after year (back in the olden days i.e. 1970's). We learned he turned over the plans for the defense of West Point to the British and that was the reason he was a traitor. As a kid, we actually referred to tattle-tales and "snitches" as "Benedict Arnolds." It was like spitting on the ground at someone's feet as far as an insult....at least in a 10 year old's world.
Later, through touring West Point and doing a lot more reading I started learning about all the other things Benedict Arnold did during the Revolution (such as the victory at Saratoga) and found myself seeing him more as a hero who made a bad decision. I sometimes wonder if the war had ended with a British victory whether Arnold would have been seen as a hero who helped to save lives by handing over West Point. But, it did not turn out that way and he is forever known as a traitor. Do you think we can help students look at Arnold in a more nuanced way so that we see the full spectrum of his achievements and failures?
I like NMAH's desire to shed light on the real Benedict Arnold, an historical figure who has been branded the great traitor of the American Revolution. To think we can sum up a life in one such sentence pushing aside his early successful military career in two wars, his early success as a business man and later his not so successful venture in shipping is limiting. I especially like your question to students, asking them what would have happened if the British had won the war? Would Benedit Arnold have been remembered differently?
Not wanting to rewrite history, I do hope NMAH will continue to shed light on the lessons learned and to view the leaders in our history books as real people who made tough decisions.
How have teachers been teaching about Benedict Arnold? Is he a footnote in history, listed as the great traitor of the American Revolution, or have you discussed with your students about him as a man whose life took a wrong turn. Or, do you discuss him at all?
You bring up good points, especially about re-writing history. I would like students to know that history in a sense, is being "re-written" all the time and that what we know now, might be dramatically altered based on new information, or the work of some dedicated scholars. But we have to be careful about explaining the difference between propagandistic revision and the critical re-examination of information based on evidence.