The Other Peggy—the one who fooled Alexander Hamilton!
March 21, 2018
If you’re like me, in addition to knowing every verse by constantly listening to Hamilton’s soundtrack, you watched TURN, AMC’s series on the Culper Spy Ring. If so, you know Peggy Shippen Arnold.
You will meet this other Peggy briefly in my novel, HAMILTON AND PEGGY! A REVOLUTIONARY FRIENDSHIP. In Chapter Sixteen, a letter to Eliza arrives from Hamilton. In it, Hamilton recounts the horror of discovering Benedict Arnold’s collusion with the British to turn over America’s vitally important stronghold at West Point. Peggy Shippen Arnold was the traitor’s young wife.
While Hamilton expresses dismay at the betrayal of one of George Washington’s most trusted allies and the Continental Army’s most revered warrior, most of his letter is about Mrs. Arnold. In his escape, Benedict Arnold left his beautiful bride behind, to deal with GW who was at West Point inspecting the fort.
Acting as if gone mad from the shock of her husband’s treachery, Peggy Shippen Arnold completely bamboozles the general and Alexander Hamilton into believing she had no prior knowledge of her husband’s plans.
I include Alexander’s letter in its entirety so you have the firsthand treat of reading his exquisitely lush prose and to experience the wondrous revelations about personality that primary documents offer. A dreamer and poet at heart, Hamilton was a fool for ladies in distress.
September 25, 1780
In the midst of my letter, I was interrupted by a scene that shocked me more than any thing I have met with—the discovery of a treason of the deepest dye. The object was to sacrifice West Point. General Arnold had sold himself to André for this purpose. The latter came but in disguise and in returning to New York was detected. Arnold hearing of it immediately fled to the enemy. I went in persuit of him but was much too late, and I could hardly regret the disappointment, when on my return, I saw an amiable woman frantic with distress for the loss of a husband she tenderly loved—a traitor to his country and to his fame, a disgrace to his connections.
It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to. She for a considerable time intirely lost her senses. The General went up to see her and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child; one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate occasioned by the imprudence of its father in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. All the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her appearance and conduct. We have every reason to believe she was intirely unacquainted with the plan, and that her first knowlege of it was when Arnold went to tell her he must banish himself from his Country and from her forever. She instantly fell into a convulsion and he left her in that situation.
This morning she is more composed. I paid her a visit and endeavoured to sooth her by every method in my power, though you may imagine she is not easily to be consoled. Added to her other distresses, She is very apprehensive the resentment of her country will fall upon her (who is only unfortunate) for the guilt of her husband. I have tried to persuade her, her apprehensions are ill founded; but she has too many proofs of the illiberality of the state to which she belongs to be convinced. She received us in bed, with every circumstance that could interest our sympathy. Her sufferings were so eloquent that I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender. As it is, I have entreated her to enable me to give her proofs of my friendship.
Could I forgive Arnold for sacrificing his honor reputation and duty I could not forgive him for acting a part that must have forfieted the esteem of so fine a woman. At present she almost forgets his crime in his misfortune, and her horror at the guilt of the traitor is lost in her love of the man. But a virtuous mind cannot long esteem a base one, and time will make her despise, if it cannot make her hate.
Indeed my angelic Betsey, I would not for the world do any thing that would hazard your esteem. ’Tis to me a jewel of inestimable price & I think you may rely I shall never make you blush.
I thank you for all the goodness of which your letters are expressive, and I entreat you my lovely girl to believe that my tenderness for you every day increases and that no time or circumstances can abate it. I quarrel with the hours that they do not fly more rapidly and give us to each other…
At this point, the rest of Alexander’s letter is mutilated and unreadable. Why? In some of his letters to Eliza, his children later struck through Alexander’s more explicit love declarations. But I speculate in this instance that Eliza didn’t react so well to Alexander’s gushing about another woman, and a fairly infamous one at that in terms of her beauty dumbfounding men.
I knew our Peggy was with her sister in Albany at that time. Being the savvy young woman she was, “endowed with a rare accuracy of judgment for both men and things,” it seems likely she would question Hamilton’s assessment of Mrs. Arnold’s hysteria. After all, there had been all sorts of rumors about the young Peggy Shippen (before meeting her husband) performing in a scandalous Meschianza—a theatrical extravaganza hosted by Arnold’s British contact, the spy John Andre, when the Redcoats occupied Philadelphia, Peggy Shippen’s hometown. She had been quite the belle of British balls.
So, Alexander’s letter gave me the perfect set up for a fairly fraught scene between the sisters, as our Peggy tries to gently push Eliza to recognize her fiancé’s susceptibility to females in trouble. A factor Hamilton fans know will eventually turn his and Eliza’s life upside down over Maria Reynolds. Peggy suspects Mrs. Arnold is faking it. How can she tell Eliza that Alexander was duped? How would her middle sister and BFF react to criticism of the man she adored?
The scene also let me show that Peggy might be a little stung herself that her soon-to-be-brother-in-law, a man who was already affectionately calling her “My Peggy,” would wish to become the brother and defender of the wife of a traitor. A momentary challenge to my overarching thesis of their “revolutionary friendship.”
Turns out our Peggy was right, even though historians wouldn’t reach that conclusion until centuries later when scouring British letters and journals. Evidently, a few months after the event, Mrs. Arnold had quite a laugh about pulling the wool over the eyes of George Washington and his aides with her friend Theodosia. The Theodosia who was married to a British officer and after his death marries Aaron Burr. The woman Burr sings about in “Wait For It.” Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it take and it takes. We keep loving anyway, we laugh and we cry and we break and we make our mistakes…
I can only imagine the terror the young Mrs. Arnold must have felt that morning when her mercurial husband fled, abandoning her and her baby son, left undefended amid men who were suddenly her enemies. I can’t help but pity her and admire her quick survival instincts and protectiveness of her child (depicted above in her portrait)—even though speculation now is that Peggy Shippen Arnold might have been the catalyst in pushing Arnold to consider betraying his country. She may have even had the wherewithal to help Arnold destroy some incriminating documents before he ran out a back door and she threw herself into a fit of madness.
If interested in Peggy Shippen Arnold’s full story, you might enjoy Treacherous Beauty by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case.
Come back next Wednesday for a blog about Mrs. Arnold’s friend, Theodosia Prevost, the 35-year-old widow and intellectual with five children, who would later marry a 25-year-old Aaron Burr in 1781.