Great political plays (No4) The General from America

America is sometimes referred to as a country created out of legends, and certainly much of its history has become mythologized. For instance George Washington really couldn’t tell a lie, the Civil War was simply about slavery, and Benedict Arnold was the worst traitor since Judas Iscariot. The facts are rarely as simple as the myths suggest though, and this play attempts to explain Arnold’s betrayal of the American cause during the Revolution without resorting to such dumbing down.

If Benedict Arnold had been killed in 1779 he would probably have gone down in history as a great hero. He took part in many important campaigns including the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the famous victory at Saratoga. However his decision to betray his command at West Point to the British a year later, in 1780, has meant that he is probably one of the most demonized men in the United States.

The play starts with Arnold acting as military governor of Philadelphia. He is visited by a young Alexander Hamilton because the local council have made accusations that he has profited from his role. As it later turns out some of these accusations are true, but Arnold feels that his sacrifices in the war have been overlooked. When Washington decides to formally censure him the stage is set for his betrayal.

Three main reasons are outlined in the play as to why he does this. On the one hand he feels that he has been shabbily treated by Congress when the corruption charges are upheld. They also owe him over £2000 in back pay. The second reason given is the role of his young bride, Penny Shippen. A member of a loyalist family who favours the British, it is suggested that she played an important part in persuading her husband to defect.

The third and final reason is perhaps the most complex. The play explicitly argues that Arnold felt that the revolution had come undone. The flames of liberty that had burned so brightly in 1776 were now being used by merchants and politicians to make a profit. As Arnold observes early on, liberty in some places seems to have increasingly become an excuse for mob rule. Richard Nelson, the author, outlines all of these motivations in a plausible manner. Of course we’ll never know the truth for sure.

The Benedict Arnold portrayed here is multifaceted and all too aware of his human flaws. George Washington is presented as a strange mixture of idealism and pragmatism, and much less formal than he appears in the history books. The play also more than hints at a homosexual relationship between John Andre, the spy sent to communicate with Arnold, and the commanding officer of the British army in North America, Sir Henry Clinton.

One of the things I think this work highlights incredibly well, is the extremely poor treatment the Continental Army received at the hands of Congress. Sometimes they went months or even years without proper supplies or even pay, and Washington had to deal with armchair generals who felt they had a better idea of how to run the war then he did. As he notes at one point, John Adams in a fit of democratic over exuberance suggested that all generals should be elected.

Ultimately The General from America is a play about betrayal. Why people do it and the impact it has on their lives both before and after. In the case of Benedict Arnold his actions could have changed the course of the war. As it was he ended up in London as a political refuge where he died some years later. I’m not an American so I don’t feel as strongly about him as they do, but I feel that he comes across here more as a tragic figure then a villainous one.

For a full list of great political plays please click here

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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