Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Book Review: Review: Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

The cover for Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2012 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

When considering notable women who played a role in the American Revolution, it is usually select women who come to mind. Women such as Abigail Adams, whose words "remember the ladies" resonate today despite more than two centuries of distance; Deborah Sampson, whose decision to enlist in the military despite the restrictions against women and then later fight for her right to a military pension were deeply symbolic of a desire for the foundation of a new country

But what about the women who did not support the decision to separate from England--or women who went so far as to work against the Revolution itself?

Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob is the first modern popular biography of an enigmatic and often ignored figure in American history--Peggy Shippen, the wife of the infamous Benedict Arnold. 

Peggy, born Margaret Shippen, was born into the elite world of Philadelphia's high society. Not much is known about her early childhood, although Case and Jacob suggest in this book that she received an above-average education for her sex and learned much about finances through her father and mother. 

She came of age during the American Revolution in British-occupied Philadelphia and developed a strong social reputation due to her beauty and wit. She was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the city and frequently attended balls and other social gatherings with others of her rank. Also in attendance at these elite social gatherings were British soldiers, including one John André, who would later play an important role in the "Benedict Arnold plot."

Peggy was considered to be beautiful, loving and sweet, but she was presumably not Benedict Arnold's first choice for a new wife. Case and Jacob point out that many of the lines Benedict used in his courting letter to Peggy were actually recycled from letters he had written to a previous potential wife. Regardless of whether or not Arnold was pursuing Peggy out of genuine love or merely from acceptance that his first choice had rejected him, the two were eventually married and what soon followed is the subject of much debate and controversy. 

How much of a role did Peggy Shippen play in Benedict Arnold's decision to become a spy for Britain? Did she know about the extent of his betrayal? And if she did, how much did she use her knowledge to advance Britain's desire to quash the American Revolution? Did Peggy herself play an active or passive role in the most notorious betrayal of the American Revolution?

Although the title of the book labels Peggy squarely as the woman "behind" the plot, I don't think that the authors, if it was their attention to paint her as the mastermind, successfully provided enough evidence to suggest that Peggy was the one who pushed Arnold into making his final and what would be his fateful decision regarding espionage.

Unfortunately, much of Peggy's correspondence was destroyed or burned in the wake of the plot, perhaps to save her reputation or prevent her from being implicated. So it is difficult to determine exactly what she did, how much she knew--and what role she played in the decision for Benedict Arnold to betray the cause he had once fought to promote.

After the news of Arnold's betrayal broke, Peggy claimed innocence; "the poor innocent wife of Benedict Arnold," as she was called after news of his betrayal and her subsequent hysterics at the "shocking news" broke out across the rebelling colonies.

And although they do not provide a tight case for Peggy being the woman behind the plot, Case and Jacob were able to provide ample information which not only indicates she knew about Benedict Arnold's betrayal--but that she assisted him and played at least some active role in the espionage.

The plot to betray America is, understandably, the real meat and bones of the book. Because there are gaps in the recorded history of Peggy's life, some of the narrative focuses much more on the actions of Arnold--whom Peggy often followed; along with John André, who left behind a more tangible historical trail than Peggy Shippen. However, Case and Jacob have made excellent use of the resources they had to create an interesting and rounded narrative of Peggy's life--from her birth in pre-revolutionary American to her matrimonial betrayal of the revolution and finally to her last years in England, where she spent most of her time dealing with poor state of her family's finances and securing a future for her children.

I recommend Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob to readers who are interested in the American Revolution, 18th century, or women's studies in the 18th century.

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]


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