Character Portrait: Who was Peggy Shippen Arnold and how did she turn from beguiling socialite to treacherous mastermind?
Peggy Shippen Arnold seems to have possessed all of the elements to make her a wildly intriguing character in our nation’s history – wealth, intelligence, beauty, powerful friends and admirers – and yet, so few people know she existed. In describing Peggy Shippen Arnold, George Washington famously said that all of his men were “in love” with her. So, who exactly was this conspirator, this eponymous character of The Traitor’s Wife? And how is it that Peggy’s charm was so celebrated, while her cunning remained a secret?
Peggy Shippen was born in 1760 into one of the most prominent families in Philadelphia society. The favorite daughter of a judge, the young Peggy was courted by myriad dashing British officers, and she spent the early years of the Revolutionary War at balls and soirees with the elite of the British Army.
Perhaps the most notable liaison of Peggy’s teenage years was the one she had with Major John André, a British officer who, like her, seemed to break hearts wherever he went. While he was quartered in Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-1778, Major André was a frequent visitor to the Shippen home, where he composed poetry and drew portraits of the young socialite.
When the British left Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, the colonial hero, Major General Benedict Arnold, assumed the role of military commander in the wealthy and strategically significant city. Arnold rode in on a wave of popularity, having recently won such critical battles as those at Saratoga, Fort Stanwix, and Fort Ticonderoga. Though he was crippled from these prior military feats, and though he was teetering on the brink of personal financial ruin, the gregarious patriot lived a lavish lifestyle in the city, and began a courtship with Philadelphia’s celebrated belle. Peggy was half Arnold’s age and of a decidedly superior pedigree. She had expensive tastes, which her new suitor sought to satisfy. And, she had loyalist leanings. Before long, Benedict Arnold was enamored of the young Peggy, and after several failed attempts, convinced her to be his bride.
Benedict Arnold married Peggy Shippen several months after meeting her, in April of 1779. Whether Peggy made demands, or her new husband willingly offered them, Benedict Arnold lavished his new bride with gifts—gifts that he could not afford. As a wedding present Arnold bought Peggy one of the largest mansions in Philadelphia, but, as he couldn’t pay to furnish or staff the mansion, the couple never moved into it.
Peggy Shippen Arnold watched as her husband, crippled from his battle injuries and embittered from the feuds and critics he faced on his own side, became more disillusioned with the Continental Army. By this time her former suitor, the Major John André, had risen through the ranks of the British Army, and was now in charge of recruiting spies from the colonial side. Peggy encouraged her husband to begin a correspondence with André, a correspondence in which she often took part. Before long, Peggy and her husband were plotting to turn West Point – the critical outpost on the Hudson River – over to the British. Their success would have dealt a crushing blow to the American cause.
The Arnolds’ plan was foiled when John André was captured with Benedict Arnold’s plans and maps of West Point in his boots. André was hanged as a spy. Arnold fled, narrowly escaping George Washington and his irate colonial comrades.
Arnold’s wife, who was left behind when George Washington arrived at her home the day the treason was uncovered, professed her innocence and did what she did best – she charmed her company. When Washington told Peggy Arnold of her husband’s treason, she erupted into an hysterical fit. She was carried to bed and nursed back to health by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. Alexander Hamilton even brought flowers from the garden to comfort the wronged Mrs. Arnold.
Peggy Arnold was viewed as an innocent in her husband’s whole sordid plot. A hapless victim. Washington granted her safe passage to return to her parents in Philadelphia. Eventually, Peggy reunited with her husband, who was by then a British officer, and together the Arnolds sailed for England.
Peggy Shippen Arnold has been called many things throughout history. Devoted mother. Protective wife. Tory belle. America’s own Lady MacBeth. Siren. Schemer. What is without a doubt is that, above all, she is a captivating figure who tried to change the course of history.
About The Traitor’s Wife
A riveting historical novel about Peggy Shippen Arnold, the cunning wife of Benedict Arnold and mastermind behind America’s most infamous act of treason.
Everyone knows Benedict Arnold—the infamous Revolutionary War General who betrayed America and fled to the British as history’s most notorious turncoat. Many know Arnold’s co-conspirator, Major John André, who was apprehended with Arnold’s documents in his boots and hanged at the orders of General George Washington. But few know of the integral third character in the plot; a charming and cunning young woman, who not only contributed to the betrayal but orchestrated it. + Socialite Peggy Shippen is half Benedict Arnold’s age when she seduces the war hero during his stint as Military Commander of Philadelphia. Blinded by his young bride’s beauty and wit, Arnold does not realize that she harbors a secret: loyalty to the British. Nor does he know that she hides a past romance with the handsome British spy John André. Peggy watches as her husband, crippled from battle wounds and in debt from years of service to the colonies, grows ever more disillusioned with his hero, Washington, and the American cause. Together with her former lover and her disaffected husband, Peggy hatches the plot to deliver West Point to the British and, in exchange, win fame and fortune for herself and Arnold.
Told from the perspective of Peggy’s maid, whose faith in the new nation inspires her to intervene in her mistress’s affairs even when it could cost her everything, The Traitor’s Wife brings these infamous figures to life, illuminating the sordid details and the love triangle that nearly destroyed the American fight for freedom.
About Allison Pataki
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ALLISON PATAKI grew up in upstate New York, in the same neighborhood where Benedict and Peggy Arnold once lived. Allison attended Yale University, where she graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor's Degree in English. While at Yale, Allison received Distinction in the Major from the English department and served as a campus reporter and news anchor for the student-run campus television program, YTV News.
The daughter of former New York State Governor George E. Pataki, Allison was inspired to write The Traitor’s Wife: A Novel of Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America based on the rich Revolutionary War history of her hometown in New York State’s Hudson Highlands.
Allison spent several years writing for television and digital news outlets prior to transitioning to fiction. The Traitor’s Wife: A Novel of Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America is Allison’s first novel.
Allison lives in Chicago with her husband.