Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: A Fresh Look at Benedict Arnold’s Treason

Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: A Fresh Look at Benedict Arnold’s Treason

Also, I hadn’t fully appreciated the depths to which the patriot cause had sunk by September 1780, when Arnold’s plot was uncovered. If that plot had succeeded, the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been totally different, ending in some kind of negotiated peace agreement and without an independent United States of America. Gordon Wood, who’s probably the most eminent historian of the American Revolution, contested that conclusion in his review of my book. We’ll never really know, but I would maintain that if the plot had gone ahead, it would have dealt an extremely heavy blow to the cause of liberty. It’s a scenario that’s never been properly explored, because history is written by the winners.

Stephen BrumwellCreditMilly Brumwell

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It’s fair to say that the book is far more original and controversial than the one I expected to write. I signed up to revisit Arnold and his treason with the aim of retelling the whole story as vividly as possible while taking on board the recent outpouring of scholarship about colonial and revolutionary America. Knowing that the subject had been tackled by many historians, I doubted whether I would uncover any significant new evidence. Happily, that turned out to be overly pessimistic.

I found a good deal of material, including revealing letters written by Arnold himself, and that was quite a surprise. They not only added new details to the familiar narrative, but allowed me to come to grips with the central question: Why did one of the patriots’ most effective fighters, who had been crippled in the cause of American liberty, decide to change his allegiance? This allowed me to challenge the previous wisdom that Arnold had been motivated by a combination of greed and resentment. Those sources made it possible to try to build a case that Arnold believed that he acted in the best interests of his country. In delivering a knockout blow, he would save the misguided patriots from a dysfunctional congress and the horrors of a civil war that had been dragging on inconclusively. He had convinced himself he was doing the right thing. Whether he was doing the right thing is another matter.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

I’ve always loved the cinema, especially the great sweeping historical epics. As a kid I was very lucky. My dad would take me to watch classics like “Spartacus” and “Zulu” on the big screen. The films of David Lean have had a lasting impact on me: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Ryan’s Daughter,” which wasn’t an especially well-reviewed film at the time, but I’ve always liked it. As a writer of nonfiction, I’m drawn to the same kind of flawed characters that fascinated Lean — and Benedict Arnold would have offered him a perfect subject. My books rest on extensive research, and I try very hard to make sure whatever I say or argue is based on credible foundations. But even the best evidence can be squandered unless it’s framed in a compelling story line.

Persuade someone to read “Turncoat” in 50 words or less.

The story of Benedict Arnold’s metamorphosis, from renowned hero to reviled traitor, rivals any fiction. “Turncoat” explores his treason as part of a far broader crisis, deploying fresh evidence to contest traditional interpretations of events. Its themes of loyalty, patriotism and betrayal have never been more relevant than now.

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