Picks and Pans Review: Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor

updated 10/08/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Willard Sterne Randall

Every schoolchild (okay, maybe not the kids who can't find Mexico on the map) knows that Benedict Arnold became a brand-name fink by betraying his country at the moment of ultimate peril. But wait, writes Randall, there's more! Arnold was also greedy, smarmy and obsessed with leading a life of aristocratic splendor.

Arnold displayed a penchant for sneakiness. and alliances of convenience, early. Starting out as a pharmacist, he bought a fleet of ships and ran a prosperous smuggling enterprise in New Haven until Britain's increased taxes made it impossible to pay off his English suppliers.

At that point. Arnold developed an affection for the Sons of Liberty. There is no doubt that he was militarily astute and unflinching in battle: he moved on Fort Ticonderoga at a ripe moment and attacked Quebec with tactical skill and bravery. Yet he was also a lousy sport. When the Continental Congress denied him the promotions he felt he deserved. Arnold offered to surrender 3,000 men and give up West Point, with all of its artillery and stores, to the British in exchange for £20.000.

In this long (667 pages), carefully researched and ultimately convincing portrait. Arnold's treachery comes off less as philosophically-based treason than as the bratty revenge of an 18th-century proto-yuppie sulking about the size of his Christmas bonus. Even some of his contemporaries had his number. "At the moment of Benedict Arnold's latest military success." Randall writes, "he was attacked in print by his nemesis. Colonel John Brown ...'Money is this man's god and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.' "

Randall also brings to rich life the long-lost Colonial world, with its sailing ships, codes of honor and sordid business dealings. George Washington's selfless heroism grows as Arnold's grasping nature emerges. After he was exposed. Arnold fled to England, where he was booed in public. He died in 1801 in London of gout and asthma, but, as Randall so nicely puts it, "As much a victim of his chronic frustration and rage." (Morrow, $27.95)

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