Peggy Shippen, the beautiful, vivacious, and charismatic wife of infamous American Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold, was long thought to have been innocent of any wrongdoing – just another dupe taken in by her husband’s deceit. Much of that was driven by sexist assumptions, prevalent in her day and throughout much of subsequent history, about the passive role of women. Between that, and a reluctance to believe that women might be prime movers and key actors behind significant events, Peggy Shippen’s role in her husband’s treason has long been overlooked and minimized.
As it turns out, she was far more intelligent, and far more of a key player, than she was given credit for. As historians have discovered, Peggy Shippen had actually been up to her pretty eyelashes in her husband’s treachery. Not only did it turn out that she had been an active and hands on participant in Benedict Arnold’s negotiations with the British to turn coat and sell out the Americans, but she might have actually initiated the whole treasonous plot.
The Treasonous Triangle: Peggy Shippen, Andre, and Arnold
Margaret “Peggy” Shippen (1760 – 1804) was the youngest surviving child of a prosperous Philadelphia family, whose ancestors included two mayors. Her father was a prominent lawyer, a member of Pennsylvania’s Provincial Council, and a judge, while her mother was a socialite and the daughter of a prominent lawyer. When the Revolutionary War broke out, her father adopted a studied neutrality, but his leanings were pro British. In September of 1777, the British captured Philadelphia, and occupied the city for almost a year. During the British occupation, the Shippen family held social gatherings that were attended by British officers, and it was at one of these gatherings that Peggy first came into contact with British captain John Andre.
John Andre (1750 – 1780) joined the British Army in 1771, and was posted to Canada in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolutionary War. A likeable character, he was popular in colonial society in New York as well as Philadelphia, where he was posted for a time after its capture by the British. It was during this period that he met, befriended, and most likely had an affair with Peggy Shippen. After the British were forced out Philadelphia, Andre and Peggy kept in touch, exchanging letters across enemy lines. Through that line of contact, and through Peggy herself, John Andre would reel Benedict Arnold into treason.
The name of the final party in the treasonous trio, Patriot general Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801), has become an epithet, synonymous with betrayal. He was probably the most capable combat commander on the rebels’ side before a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to turn coat. Before that, Arnold had provided valuable service to the Patriots and played a leading role early in the war in capturing Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain to capture Quebec. It failed, but he demonstrated extraordinary leadership in getting his men to the outskirts of Quebec.
In 1776, Arnold constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain, with which he defeated a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, his successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against Arnold. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, he was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors. Only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented Arnold’s resignation.
He then repelled a British attack in Connecticut, and was finally promoted to major general, but his seniority was not restored – another slight that ate at him. Arnold again sought to resign, but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in halting the British advance into upstate New York in 1777 and was instrumental in bringing about its defeat. It culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and was severely injured.