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Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America

by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case; Lyons Press

Not all women rediscovered by history turn out to be heroines. A prime example: the notorious Peggy Shippen. The distractingly beautiful and flirtatious Philadelphia socialite married Benedict Arnold in 1779, when she was 18 and the 38-year-old widower was reveling in his fame as the hero of the Battle of Saratoga. Two years later the storybook tale went wrong, and Arnold’s name became synonymous with traitor.

Until now, historians have treated Shippen as a silly girl busy with primping, parties and motherhood (the Arnolds eventually had five children). As a result, the usual take is she didn’t have a clue that when her husband commanded West Point, he plotted to turn that strategic fort over to the British for the promise of a king-size bribe. Jacob and Case argue that Shippen helped Arnold hatch the plan and suggest she was the primary catalyst.

The authors base their case largely on Shippen’s connection to John André, a debonair British major feted in loyalist Philadelphia: She was a popular, intimate member of André’s lively circle. Arnold’s scheme was presented to André just two weeks after he became head of the British military’s secret service. Arnold had already established his “pattern of over-reaching and under-achieving,” Jacob and Case write, but Shippen was clever, with a good head for business— qualities she would need during her coming years of exile as Arnold’s failures accumulated.

When the West Point plot was uncovered, Shippen treated her husband’s pursuers to a mad scene worthy of Jane Eyre’s Mrs. Rochester, which, say the authors, was entirely feigned: “She clutched her infant son to her breast and gave voice to fevered hallucinations. She declared her husband had risen through the ceiling, and that hot irons had been put into his head… and only the commander in chief, George Washington, had the power to take them away. But when Washington arrived in her bedroom to comfort her, she declared him an impostor who was planning to murder her child.”

The evidence for Shippen’s role in Arnold’s treason is sketchy and circumstantial; as presented here, it’s also suggestive and entertaining. Treacherous Beauty offers a vivid, nuanced portrait of a divided country in the bloody throes of transformation. The Revolution, the authors declare, “was a civil war.” For Peggy Shippen Arnold, American princess and independent spirit, that meant, as it did for thousands of loyalists, intrigue, loss and exile.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.