Today we're excited to share a guest post from Matthew Landsis, author of League of American Traitors, plus a giveaway!
If You Were Benedict Arnold, You’d Probably Have Committed Treason Too
At the recent launch event for my debut YA novel, LEAGUE OF AMERICAN TRAITORS, which focuses on the modern-day, teenage descendant of Benedict Arnold, an audience member asked a question along this line:
“In your research of Arnold and his treason, did you find yourself sympathizing with his situation and decision?”
My answer was, and is, “sort of.” More than sympathy, I think empathy would be better—meaning I can easily put myself in Arnold’s shoes and understand his decision to switch sides. I suppose I also have some sympathy for his situation—though some hardship was due to his own political deafness—but I absolutely could, from his perspective, see myself doing the same thing.
Likely, you would’ve too.
But admitting to ourselves that we could have been the most notorious traitor in American history requires cultural lenses, specifically understanding Arnold’s childhood and the pervasive eighteenth-century concept of “honor.” When viewed through these filters, the wartime circumstances of his treason make sense to us—or at least, make empathizing with him easier. To be clear: I’m no Arnold apologist, if someone could be called such a thing. I’m a realist who thinks people are often loath to condemn that which they find abhorrent (however justly so) without recognizing that in a similar situation, they would—or often have—acted the same.
Arnold Spent His Teenage Years Watching the Family Reputation Disintegrate
Between the ages of ten and twenty, Arnold’s prominent New England family unraveled, quite literally. After being pulled from boarding school when the family trading business began to slide, he watched his father descend into alcoholism, get excommunicated from the church—a massive deal in New England society—and then die. Oh, and his mom also died. And all his siblings, save one. So there’s that.
But instead of sitting around and cursing the bad cards he’d been dealt (which is what I would have done, and you, if you’re being honest), he picked up, moved to a new town for a fresh start. Within a few years, he’d become a successful bookseller and merchant with enough spare cash to buy back his old home in Norwich—the one his father had foreclosed on—and sell it for a profit. Take that, bad cards.
Eighteenth-Century “Honor Culture” Was A Super Huge, Giant, Big Deal to Upper Class Gentry
Don’t miss the gravity of this familial redemption. In the 1700s, honor was the social currency of the day. We children of modernity smirk at such regal posturing, but as historian/personal hero Gordon Wood points out, upper class dudes like Arnold did not share our 2017 sense of egotism. Reputation and honor were the same thing, and both were rooted in fame, “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” Wood puts it perfectly: “[fame] is what most of the founding fathers were after.”
So pretend you’re Arnold. You’ve just rescued the family’s honor in record time. You captain your town’s colonial militia not just to further independence, but to gain greater honor—to keep that reputation stock rising. Your motivations are not suspect and they are not competing. They are normal, average, gentry reasons for serving one’s country: greater fame/honor. The stage is set for you to come out of this thing looking pretty awesome.
Arnold Did Some Pretty Heroic Things, But Felt Repeatedly Snubbed
A quick review of Arnold’s combat history and his ensuing treatment by the Patriot Powers That Be reveal understandable grievances. Imagine, for example that you helped captured a key New York fort, securing critical weapons that would later free Boston. Let’s say you ventured on to siege Quebec, got shot in the leg, and while ultimately losing that campaign, managed to keep the enemy at bay long enough to stave off catastrophic losses. And just picture this: You personally led a tide-turning charge at the war’s most important battle to date, took another bullet in the leg, then had said leg pulverized when your horse was shot out from underneath you and fell on it.
Now imagine you didn’t get much credit for any of this.
Instead, a superior officer downplayed your role in combat. Then, Congress refused to refund your military expenses, passed over you for promotion, and repeatedly entertained rumors of your cowardice from backbiting Army peers. Oh, and think about the most influential leader on the continent—George Washington—siding with your greatest political enemy—Pennsylvania Governor Joseph Reed—during a court martial fabricated solely to make you look like a dishonorable, money-grubbing Loyalist. In the honor-is-currency world that Arnold inhabited, this was like your friends ousting you from your own company in a hostile takeover. This was the definition of public disgrace.
Arnold’s Treason, Like Most Treason, Was Actually Quite Predictable
A recently declassified CIA study on the psychology of treason could have really helped Washington predict Arnold’s decision: Treason is usually committed by people who are deeply unhappy in their current situation. There’s even a handy formula: Multiply a person's individual psychology (traits of loyalty/honor learned in childhood) times their individual circumstance (feeling disgraced) and you arrive at a person’s likelihood to betray.
In light of this, it’s not actually surprising that Arnold thought, planned, and finally carried out his scheme to hand over West Point to the British in exchange for money and a generalship in His Majesty's Army. It’s also important to note that he stewed on this for a good while—more than a year—even breaking off talks with the British for months when his situation mildly improved. Betrayal is rarely a spur of the moment decision, and traitors are generally not caricatures of evil. They’re people, like you and me, who get worn down by situational injustices—perceived or real—and sometimes give in to self-interest.
You Would Have Likely Done the Same Thing. I Would Have Too
George Washington made this really interesting statement when news about Arnold’s betrayal reached him:
“Traitors are the growth of every country, and in a revolution of the present nature it is more to be wondered at that the catalogue is so small than that there have been found a few.”
In other words, “I really expected more people to do this. A few isn't so bad.”
That’s super insightful, especially considering that everyday life—much less a war—repeatedly puts us in circumstances that create situational unhappiness. Washington was hinting at the greater question: Why don’t more people commit treason?
So would you or I have become “America’s Judas” had we been in his shoes? Let’s leave it at “probably.” Or, if you can’t admit that, don’t write it off entirely. Settle at “maybe.” Or just google “infidelity statistics” if you think you’re completely above betrayal. We may not live in eighteenth-century honor culture, but we’re still human and generally believe (or at least often act) that life is, and ought to be, all about us. When that system is repeatedly challenged, notions of duty give way instinct and we look, often to the detriment of posterity, for a way to “get ours.”
Matthew Landis teaches eighth grade American History outside Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, two children, and a Boxer that acts very much like the forgotten eldest child. His debut YA novel, LEAGUE OF AMERICAN TRAITORS, is available now from Sky Pony Press, and his middle grade novel, THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY will be published in March 2018 by Dial/Penguin. He holds an MA in history from Villanova, and can often be found reading novelizations of his favorite video games, primarily HALO.
Details of Arnold’s life can be found in a million places, but I relied on Jim Murphy’s super-readable The Real Benedict Arnold (New York: Clarion Books, 2007). This book is a great entry point into Arnold’s complicated and lengthy road to treason, as well as seeing how the historical record slants against national villains. Murphy shades very close to an Arnold apologist, but only because he is attempting to humanize a person that the Revolutionary era demonized beyond logic—a worthy endeavor.
 Gordon S. Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 16, 207.
 Psychology of Treason, report no. 0006183135, FOIA Collection; Declassified Articles from Studies in Intelligence: The IC’s Journal for the Intelligence Professional, 2, https://www.cia.gov/library/re
 As quoted by Jim Murphy, The Real Benedict Arnold (New York: Clarion Books, 2007), 215.
Meet Matthew Landis!
Meet League of American Traitors!
Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. . . .
When seventeen year-old Jasper is approached at the funeral of his deadbeat father by a man claiming to be an associate of his deceased parents, he’s thrust into a world of secrets tied to America’s history—and he’s right at the heart of it.
First, Jasper finds out he is the sole surviving descendant of Benedict Arnold, the most notorious traitor in American history. Then he learns that his father’s death was no accident. Jasper is at the center of a war that has been going on for centuries, in which the descendants of the heroes and traitors of the American Revolution still duel to the death for the sake of their honor.
His only hope to escape his dangerous fate on his eighteenth birthday? Take up the research his father was pursuing at the time of his death, to clear Arnold’s name.
Whisked off to a boarding school populated by other descendants of notorious American traitors, it’s a race to discover the truth. But if Jasper doesn’t find a way to uncover the evidence his father was hunting for, he may end up paying for the sins of his forefathers with his own life.
Like a mash-up of National Treasure and Hamilton, Matthew Landis’s debut spins the what-ifs of American history into a heart-pounding thriller steeped in conspiracy, clue hunting, and danger.
League of American Traitors
By: Matthew Landis
Release Date: August 8, 2017