The Strange Afterlife of America's Best-Known Traitor - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Strange Afterlife of America's Best-Known Traitor

The Strange Afterlife of America's Best-Known Traitor

By Libby Coleman

Horatio Seymour (left); Benedict Arnold
SourcePublic Domain


Because nobody ever forgets a traitor. 

By Libby Coleman

With America three years into a bloody civil conflict, New York Gov. Horatio Seymour took to the podium in Milwaukee in 1864 and made powerful criticisms of Abraham Lincoln’s administration. These criticisms ranged from curtailed free speech to an involuntary military draft.

A lot of people in the North considered the Civil War to be the great treason.

Brian Carso, historian

The New York Times immediately drew parallels between Seymour’s speech and that of Benedict Arnold’s 1780 proclamation — in which the infamous traitor railed against the Continental Congress and George Washington, leader of the Continental Army. In eight points, Arnold laid out his dismay at the anti-British revolutionaries, explaining how they had curtailed free speech and enforced an involuntary draft. “Thus are the points made by HORATIO SEYMOUR against the Administration in 1864, identical, point with point, with those made by BENEDICT ARNOLD,” the Times wrote. As 11 states betrayed the Constitution and their brothers (as the North saw it) in an effort to keep the South’s economy ticking with slave labor, an 84-year-old betrayal was raised in collective memory. “A lot of people in the North considered the Civil War to be the great treason,” says historian Brian Carso.

The greatest tale of betrayal in all of American history involved Arnold. Though he had been born into a well-off Connecticut family, his father became an alcoholic debtor. Arnold worked his way up to military governor before marrying a well-connected Loyalist. When Washington asked Arnold to command West Point, he corresponded with the adjutant general of the British army, Maj. John André, betraying critical information and nearly bringing down the American effort. On top of it all, the British could have captured Washington in the process.

Whether taking aim at conservative Democrats like Seymour — also known as Copperheads — or Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis, Northern sympathizers and the press delighted in evoking Arnold’s actions to draw a comparison. In fact, the favored comparison criticized the South of either playing Arnold or Judas, the man who betrayed Christ. 

Gettyimages 629446175

New York Gov. Horatio Seymour being nominated for president at the 1868 Democratic National Convention.

Source Getty

In 1861, Harper’s Weekly wrote that the Confederate leaders were “a few men directing this colossal treason, by whose side Benedict Arnold shines white as a saint.” According to Carso, opponents of Lincoln were represented in other editorials as embodying “exactly the spirit of Benedict Arnold.” This was at a time when newspapers and men like Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, had a powerful influence. In one case, Southerners sided with Arnold outright, taking up his mantle with pride. In the Richmond Examiner, an opinion piece was published saying that, aside from Arnold, “the North never had any officers who were not cowards! Old PUT, STARK, GREENE, HAMILTON — all were cowards.” Instead of reading Arnold’s betrayal negatively, the author regarded his actions as courageous.

The New York Times quickly tore into this opinion. In May 1861, it published an op-ed stating that men often admire people who exhibit similar characteristics to themselves. “It is perfectly natural, therefore, that the traitors of the South should regard BENEDICT ARNOLD as the best specimen of an officer during our Revolutionary War,” the op-ed raged.

Arnold’s name had been invoked by critics long before the Civil War. In many ways, he was Washington’s opposite: While stories of Washington gave American children moral guidelines to live by, other tales featured cruel children named Benedict Arnold. After the South surrendered at Appomattox, the rhetoric of treason and betrayal continued. Henry Ward Beecher spoke at an event, saying “the giddy traitors … are dead … Ruin sits in the cradle of treason.” Ironically, Lincoln himself had shied away from such name-calling, refusing to label Southerners or their sympathizers as traitors or treasonous.

After Lincoln’s assassination, with Andrew Johnson at the helm, political pardons abounded. Even Davis, president of the Confederacy, was not found guilty of treason. Forgiveness became the rallying cry. “So long as any man was seeking to overthrow our Government,” Greeley wrote, summing up the reasoning, “he was my enemy; from the hour in which he laid down his arms, he was my formerly erring countryman.”

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