Citation metadata

Date: Fall 2000
From: Early American Literature(Vol. 35, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 12,236 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

A Sentimental Journey or American Virtue Defined

Somehow or other, I cannot get Arnold out of my head. Major Samuel Shaw to Rev. Eliot, 1 October 1780 (Dawson 118)

In the early morning hours of 22 September 1780, Benedict Arnold closeted himself with British officer John Andre to plot the fall of West Point which was under Arnold's command and provided the crucial link between the northern and southern colonies. Andre was later caught with incriminating documents in the heel of his boot and hanged as a spy on October 2. Arnold learned of Andre's capture before the plot was completely understood, though. Spurring his horse down the banks of West Point, he escaped to a nearby British ship. Leaving an enraged citizenry behind, Arnold quickly became the most hated turncoat in American history.

All across the country, Americans vented their anger. In Philadelphia, the citizens burned Arnold in effigy a few days after Arnold's plot was discovered. Arrayed in regimental dress, the mock Arnold was drawn through the city in a cart. Arnold's head was given two faces, and he also had a mask, symbols of his duplicitous treachery. Behind the General stood the devil, who shook a purse of money in Arnold's left ear while holding a pitchfork with which to prod Arnold to hell. According to a local newspaper, "The procession was attended with a numerous concourse of people, who after expressing their abhorrence of the Treason and the Traitor, committed him to the flames, and left both the effigy and the original to sink into ashes and oblivion" (Pennsylvania Packet, 3 October 1780).

But the effigy itself contained signs that Arnold would not be so easily banished from memory. Arnold's treachery was symbolized both by a mask and by two faces. The very meaning evoked by the two together was contradictory. If a mask best symbolized Arnold's treachery, his true self was evil but was hidden from view by his false front. If Arnold had two faces, though, there was no true self to discover; rather, he was split, a mixture of good and evil.(1) As one writer noted, Arnold's actions could take on a radically different complexion depending on one's perspective, making him "the ornament or the disgrace, the pride, or the pestilence of mankind" (Pennsylvania Packet, 21 October 1780). The ambiguities contained within Arnold's representation point to larger tensions within American society. The Pennsylvania Packet ended its account as if Arnold and all that he represented had been destroyed, but the exploration of what Arnold stood for was only beginning. He was troubling to his fellow countrymen precisely because he was representative of tensions within the Revolution and flaws within themselves.(2) Some of Arnold's traits ran deep in revolutionary society, and his symbolic meaning became contested terrain precisely because defining his meaning was bound up with larger questions of American identity (Royster, "The Nature of Treason" 184).(3) Ultimately, the confusion about who Arnold really was and what his treason meant stemmed from a confusion...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A68364572