Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Margaret Shippen Arnold 1760 ~ 1804

 


Margaret Shippen Arnold

Defense as well as eulogy is occasionally necessary in reviewing the names of women who have been prominent in American history. Certainly explanation or investigation of fact is necessary in rightly judging the character of the wife of Benedict Arnold. John Jay, writing from Madrid when Arnold's crime had first become known, says, "All the world here curses Arnold and pities his wife." Robert Morris writes, "Poor Mrs. Arnold I was there ever such an infernal villain." But there are others who still believe in her complicity in her husband's plot to betray his country, and point to certain significant sentences in her correspondence with Andre as denoting that she knew at least something of her husband's treachery. The facts of her life would seem to support the theory that all her sympathy would naturally lie with the Loyalist's cause.

She was Margaret Shippen of Philadelphia. Her father, Daniel Shippen, afterwards chief justice of Pennsylvania, was distinguished among the aristocracy of the day. He was prominent after the commencement of the contest among those known to cherish Loyalist principles, his daughters being educated in this persuasion and having their constant associations and sympathies with those who were opposed to American independence. Margaret was the youngest, only eighteen years of age, beautiful, fascinating and full of spirit, she acted as hostess of the British officers while their army occupied Philadelphia. This gay, young creature accustomed to the display of the "Pride of Life" and the homage paid to beauty in high station, was not one to resist the lure of ambition.

Her relatives, too, would seem to have passed their estimate upon the brilliant exterior of this young American officer, without a word of information or inquiry as to his character or principles. One of them writes boastfully in a letter, "I understand that General Arnold, a fine gentlemen, lays close siege to Peggy."

Some writers have taken delight in representing this woman who married Benedict Arnold as another Lady Macbeth, an unscrupulous and artful seductress whose ambition was the cause of her husband's crime. But there seems no real foundation even for the supposition that she was acquainted with his purpose of betraying his trust. She was not the person he would have chosen as the sharer of a secret so important, nor was the dissimulation attributed to her consistent with her character. It is likely, of course, that his extravagance was encouraged by his young wife's taste for display and she undoubtedly exercised no saving influence over him. In the words of one of his best biographers, "He had no domestic security for doing right, no fireside guardianship to protect him from the tempter. Rejecting, as we do utterly, the theory that his wife was the instigator of his crime, we still believe that there was nothing in her influence or association to overcome the persuasions to which he ultimately yielded. She was young, gay and frivolous, fond of display and admiration and used to luxury; she was utterly unfitted for the duties and privations of a poor man's wife. Arnold had no counselor in his home who urged him to the assumption of homely republican principles, to stimulate him to follow the ragged path of a Revolutionary patriot. He fell, and though his wife did not tempt or counsel him to ruin, there is no reason to think she ever uttered a word or made a sound to deter him." This was the judgment of Mr. Reed. Mrs. Sparks and others, who have closely investigated the subject, are in favor of Mrs. Arnold's innocence in the matter. We cannot but have great sympathy at least for the young wife, whose husband was to go down in history as the foremost traitor to his country.

It was after the plot was far advanced and only two days before General Washington commenced his tour, in the course of which he made his visit to West Point that Mrs. Arnold came thither with her baby to join her husband, making the journey in short stages in her own carriage. Near New York she was met by General Arnold, and proceeded up to headquarters. When Washington and his officers arrived at West Point, Lafayette reminded the General that Mrs. Arnold would be waiting breakfast, to which Washington answered, ''Ah, you young men are all in love with Mrs. Arnold, and wish to get where she is as soon as possible. Go breakfast with her and do not wait for me." Mrs. Arnold was at breakfast with her husband and his aid-de-camp when the letter arrived which brought to the traitor the first intelligence of Andre's capture. He left the room, immediately went to his wife's chamber, sent for her and privately informed her of the necessity of his instant flight to the enemy. This was perhaps the first intelligence she received of what had been so long going on, and the news so overwhelmed her that when Arnold went from the room he left her lying in a faint on the floor.

Her almost frantic condition is described with sympathy by Colonel Hamilton in a letter written the next day. "The General went to see her, and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child. She raved, shut the doors and lamented the fate of the infant. All the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife, and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her frenzied conduct" He, too, expressed his conviction that she had no knowledge of Arnold's plan until his announcement to her that he must banish himself from his country forever. Mrs. Arnold went from West Point to her father's house, but was not long permitted to remain in Philadelphia, the traitor's papers having been seized by direction of the executive authorities and the correspondence with Andre brought to light Suspicion rested on her, and by an order of the council, dated April 27th, she was ordered to leave the state and return no more during the continuance of the war. She accordingly departed to join her husband in New York. The respect and forbearance shown towards her on her journey through the country, notwithstanding her banishment, testified to the popular belief in her innocence. It is related that when she stopped at a village where the people were about to burn Arnold in effigy they put it off until the next night. And when she entered the carriage on the way to join her husband all expression of popular indignation was suspended as if respect for the shame she suffered overcame their indignation towards Arnold.

Mrs. Arnold resided with her husband for a time in the city of St Johns, New Brunswick, and was long remembered by persons who knew her there. She afterwards lived in England, surviving her husband by three years, and died in London in 1804, at the age of forty-three. Little is known of her after the blasting of the bright promise of her youth by her husband's crime and a dreary obscurity hangs over the close of her career. It is to her credit that her relatives in Philadelphia always cherished her memory with respect and affection.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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