A hair, perhaps, divides the false and true." This saying of Omar Khayyam though made in the field of philosophy, seems equally applicable to the study of military character. Ambition, energy, determination, and fortitude are attributes which have raised to the pinnacle of success many of the world's greatest heroes. Yet these may be nullified by a single weakness, perhaps one which attracts little notice, and may thus serve to deepen the ignominy into which their possessor is plunged.
Thus in our Revolutionary history two characters stand out, each highly gifted with the qualities required for bold, resourceful, determined, and successful leadership. Both experienced the jealousy of their associates, both suffered undeserved humiliation and injustice. One rose superior to the bludgeonings of fortune and emerged the greatest hero of our infant Navy—John Paul Jones. The other, Benedict Arnold, fell before these and emerged our greatest national villain.
There is much similarity in the background of these men, as well as in their later achievements. Both came of good, plain stock and were reared in humble surroundings. Arnold, though the son of a small and unsuccessful merchant, was descended from one of the early governors of Rhode Island. Paul Jones, or John Paul, as he was first called, was the son of a Scotch gardener, but seems to have believed himself the illegitimate son of the Earl of Selkirk. Thus both had, or thought they had, a heritage of greatness, or at least of position and power, which was at odds with their humble surroundings. Doubtless this circumstance gave rise in each to a feeling of superiority which was the foundation of the energy, ambition, and personal pride which drove each along his allotted path.
These qualities were not long in showing themselves in the case of either man. At an early age Jones put to sea as an apprentice, while still in his teens he obtained a mate’s berth, and at twenty-two he gained his first command. Three years later we find him master and part owner of a brig engaged in the West Indian trade and already well started towards the top of his profession.
Arnold, likewise, while still a young man had marked himself as destined to advance. As a lad he was a leader among the boys of his town, chiefly, be it admitted, in the perpetration of youthful pranks. When but fifteen he had run away to join the militia, but, finding discipline irksome, had then run away from the Army. Thereafter he was apprenticed to a firm of local druggists. Under them he acquired some smattering of medicine and surgery and, what must have pleased him most, the title of “Dr. Arnold.” At twenty-one he went into business for himself as proprietor of a drug and bookshop in New Haven. This was, however, no sufficient outlet for his energies. Before long we find him shipping numbers of horses, mules, and cattle to Quebec and to the West Indies. His interests rapidly expanded and he was soon sailing his own ships in the prosecution of his business ventures.
Meanwhile he had been active in local pursuits. Though known as a man of high temper and somewhat arrogant manner, as a hard and shrewd bargainer, he had through energy and force won the respect, if not the love, of his fellow-citizens and had filled several public offices. He had meanwhile married a young lady of good position and was rapidly becoming a prosperous and locally important person. Thus when war clouds gathered the hotheads of the town elected him to command their company.
“Captain Arnold,” as he was now called, was not content to be a mere figurehead. He obtained arms, uniforms, and equipment, drilled his men incessantly, and spent long hours in the study of military science and strategy. Thus, when his little force joined the army on Cambridge Heights, the word quickly passed around that here was the finest unit of the gathering forces. The leader was at once marked as one from whom great deeds might be expected.
Yet there were many who already mistrusted this impetuous firebrand. Perhaps they recalled his lack of discipline during his previous service in the militia. Perhaps they misdoubted the self-assertiveness, the lack of tact and forbearance which had marked his earlier life. Stories were told of a duel in which he had shot an English merchant captain. Smuggling had admittedly been the foundation of his business. When one of his men had threatened to turn informer, he had him publicly beaten without any legal authority. Finally, he had hotly threatened to seize by force the public store of powder, loudly insisting, “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching!”
However, as much and more might have been brought out against Paul Jones during his early manhood. He, likewise, had engaged in questionable pursuits. His hot blood had more than once got him into difficulties. He had shot his man in a duel, he stood accused of having flogged one of his men to the point of death and of slaying another in the heat of passion. For this last action he had been forced to flee and to drop completely from sight for almost two years, at the expiration of which he appeared under a new name.
However, Jones was persistent in his efforts to school himself, both in education and in character. Thus the rough bucko mate, handy with fist, cat, or cutlass, is transformed into a master of the art of leadership whose maxims still guide us. Thus the gardener’s son becomes the polished courtier, capable of charming great ladies and of impressing statesmen and scientists with his vigorous and well- informed mentality. Arnold likewise devoted persistent effort to self-improvement. He learned to be expert in every activity with which he came into contact, but he was interested only in those forms of knowledge which bore directly on the carrying out of his aims.
Both Jones and Arnold were, for their time, well versed in military science and history, and to this, as well as to their native qualities, must be imputed their sound but audacious decisions in time of stress.
It thus appears that, had there been in 1775 a board by which their complete records and characters could have been compared, it is doubtful which would have received the higher rating. Both had shown intelligence, force, and decision, but had on occasion manifested a defiance of authority and uncontrolled passions. Jones was the more agreeable personally. Against this was the fact that he was a foreigner, while Arnold was bound to this country by every tie and active in its cause since its inception. Considering all these points, such a board when evaluating the factor of “loyalty” would probably have reported: Arnold, B., 3.8; Jones, J. P., 2.7
Arnold lost no time in disclosing the restless activity which marked his military career. He promptly secured a commission as colonel with orders to raise and command an expedition against Ticonderoga. Proceeding with great energy, he overhauled Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain boys who had spontaneously embarked on the same mission. Together they surprised and took the fort, an exploit of greatest material and moral value. Arnold carried on to raid St. John's, the outpost of Canada. However, though by character admirably adapted to exploit the military situation, he was but little suited to deal with the personal difficulties which he at once encountered. His relations with Ethan Allen and his men were strained from the first and became openly hostile. He publicly assaulted one of his officers. He refused to turn over his command when so ordered by proper authority. Finally, when a congressional committee investigated his conduct, he hotly resigned and gave orders to disband his troops.
From his personal standpoint the campaign had been worse than a failure. However, he had established a reputation for energetic and determined action and when, shortly thereafter, an expedition to Canada was planned, it was Arnold who was sought out to lead the attack.
October, 1775, found him, again a colonel, leading a force of a thousand picked men up the icy Kennebec against almost insuperable difficulties to assault Quebec—"the Gibraltar of America." To conquer an almost unknown wilderness, to cross the St. Lawrence in the face of naval opposition, to debouch upon the Plains of Abraham, and there to bid defiance to a force of thrice his strength and of infinitely superior equipment; these were indeed feats of greatest hardihood. Soon he was joined by Montgomery who had proceeded via Montreal, and the combined force, now reduced to but 600 effectives, launched its desperate assault. Montgomery fell at the first fire and his column melted away. Arnold's column fought desperately to the center of the lower town, where its leader was painfully wounded and the survivors were finally hemmed in and captured. The little army, though shattered, refused to give up the attempt. Reduced to a bare handfull, lacking in supplies and clothing, it continued throughout the bitter winter to stand defiantly before the walls. Arnold’s firm will kept it there. “I have no thought” he writes, “of abandoning this proud town until I first enter it in triumph.”
However, this triumph was not to be. With the coming of spring the British were heavily re-enforced. The Americans were compelled to fall back until all Canada was evacuated. The last man to leave was Arnold. Galloping down to the shores of Lake Champlain, he and his aide shot their horses, jumped into a waiting boat, and pulled away after the retreating army amid scattering shots from their pursuers.
In this campaign Arnold, though denied victory, had shown in their highest form the qualities of zeal, energy, courage, and determination. He had won popular acclaim, the confidence of his soldiers and the respect of such leaders as Washington and Schuyler. His advancement to brigadier general came almost as a matter of course.
He was soon to repeat these exploits as a naval commander. Appointed to command on Lake Champlain, he at once set to work to dispute that waterway with the advancing English Army. By early autumn he had improvised a flotilla of sixteen little vessels. The British commander, with his superior resources, had little difficulty in constructing a greatly superior force, but it required time, and it was not until October that his vessels were able to set forth in search of their opponents. Arnold’s flotilla had been skillfully disposed to meet them. The fight was a bitter one. When dusk fell the British drew off, confident that they would have no difficulty in finishing off the shattered vessels which still opposed them. However, Arnold slipped through their line during the night and, though his leaking galleys were finally overhauled while still some miles from safety, he was able to burn the vessels and bring off their crews.
Once more Arnold had contributed powerfully to his country’s cause. The British invasion was delayed until the following year when the American forces were at last well prepared to meet it. But again his efforts had been denied victory. Moreover, he had again come into conflict with his associates and had further increased the number of his enemies. The months that followed were marked by interminable bickerings, charges and countercharges were bandied back and forth, and high words were exchanged. Much of this reached the ears of Congress, and when promotions were next announced, Arnold’s name was absent from the list.
Meanwhile the career of John Paul Jones had developed along similar lines. Though Jones was among the original group of officers appointed to our Navy, his commission dated only from December 22, 1775, on which date Arnold was already before Quebec. Jones was assigned as first lieutenant of the Alfred and hoisted the first Continental flag on that vessel in January, 1776. He participated in the campaign against the Bahamas, and on his return did not hesitate to express his low opinion of both his commanding officer and his squadron commander. His own ability had, nevertheless, made its mark. He was given command of the Providence, and in August, 1776, he was commissioned captain. During the months that followed he made several successful cruises but became embroiled in legal difficulties arising out of his impetuous action with regard to certain alleged deserters. Also he broke completely with his commodore, whom he now describes as “a despicable character.” This resulted in his being superseded in his command by a junior, an act which was galling to his pride and from which he appealed vehemently to Congress. But worse was in store for him. He discovered that his name had been placed junior to 13 officers of less length of service, among whom were those “with whom,” he said, “as a private gentleman I would disdain to associate.” Jones hastened to place his complaints before Congress but received no satisfaction. Though boiling with indignation and injured pride, he bottled these feelings when Congress appointed him to command the Ranger, resolved that by his actions he would establish a reputation secure against all attack.
Arnold likewise boiled with indignation on receiving news of having been passed over. Considering his numerous exploits, his failure to receive recognition was even less justifiable than that of Jones, who had as yet accomplished nothing of outstanding importance. Arnold was somewhat mollified by a friendly and sympathetic letter from Washington, but still he was on the point of resigning his commission.
The opportunity for immediate action saved him. By chance he found himself near Danbury when that town was raided by the British. With a hastily-organized militia force, he harried the retiring British column with such impetuosity that he had two horses shot under him and barely escaped capture. Though the affair was of little importance, it carried greater popular appeal than a bitterly-contested but unsuccessful campaign in a distant theater. As a result Congress made him a major general and presented him with a horse, properly caparisoned, to replace one of those shot under him.
Arnold's star now appeared to be in the ascendent. Washington expressed pleasure at his promotion and gave him an important command. The Board of War found the charges against him groundless. When Philadelphia was threatened, it was Arnold who was intrusted with its defense. In July, Washington sent for him for service in the Northern Department. "He is active, judicious, and brave," he wrote, "and an officer in whom the militia will repose great confidence." Thus commenced the campaign which was destined to bring Arnold to the pinnacle of his fame.
Arnold's first duty was to lead a column to the relief of Fort Schuyler in the Mohawk Valley. As usual, he moved with great dispatch and by judicious propaganda accomplished his mission without a fight. Returning to the Hudson, he was placed in command of the left wing of the Army which under Gates was barring Burgoyne's invasion. Here it was Arnold's leadership which first checked the advance of that force in a hot engagement at Freeman's Farm.
Meanwhile, however, Arnold's proud and aggressive disposition had brought into bitter conflict with Gates, in whose report of the battle Arnold's name was not even mentioned. He soon found himself thwarted at every point, his advice disregarded, his authority undermined, and his position in every way made untenable. Though deprived practically of his command, he was still in camp when, on October 7, the rattle of musketry gave notice of Burgoyne's final effort to advance. "No man shall keep me in my tent today," he raged. "If I am without command I will fight in the ranks!"
Thus he dashed into the struggle, rallying wavering detachments, bringing up reenforcements at critical points and leading the line forward with fierce energy and heedless self-exposure. Finally we see him storming into an enemy redoubt at the head of a band of smoke-grimed Continentals. A wounded Hessian covers him with his musket, but as he fires his gun is struck down and the bullet pierces Arnold's leg. "Don't hurt him," Arnold calls out to his soldiers, "he is a fine fellow." Could Arnold but have known, the Hessian had almost succeeded in doing him the greatest possible favor, in taking his life at the zenith of its glory. Had his shot gone true, Arnold's name would have gone down in history as one who seemed destined to lead our arms to victory and himself to unmeasured fame.
The bullet, instead of landing him among the immortals, furnished the first step in the train of circumstances which was to lead to his disgrace. Shortly after Burgoyne’s surrender, Arnold painfully made his way back to New Haven amid the plaudits of his countrymen. At last he received full recognition and Congress restored him to his rightful place. When spring arrived his wound was still painful and he was therefore designated by Washington as military commandant of Philadelphia. In June, 1778, he took over the city and entered upon duties which were to lead him into temptations which he was powerless to resist.
Meanwhile Jones had been advancing slowly but steadily. He was dispatched to France in the Ranger with news of Burgoyne’s surrender and thereafter had the honor of receiving the first salute to the Stars and Stripes from the French fleet. Following this he sailed on his first cruise in British waters.
If he craved public notice, now, certainly, he received plenty of it. The British press was full of his “piratical” exploits, of his sinking and burning of vessels, of his raid on Whitehaven and his seizure of the Earl of Selkirk’s silver. They might malign him as a mere buccaneer but, when he returned with a captured enemy sloop of war, they had to admit that he was a fighter.
Much as this exploit endeared him to the French, his path among them was still marked by many vicissitudes. Intrigue and suspicion, frustrations and delays, jealousy from French officers, and but half-hearted support from his own commissioners were continually his portion. Among his own officers and men there was almost constant friction. His captains repeatedly disobeyed his orders while the crew of his own vessel at one time petitioned for his replacement. Though at times he showed almost superhuman self-control, there were instances in which his temper asserted itself, not only in hot words but in physical violence. As month followed month with little progress in his efforts to get to sea, it is not to be wondered at that this ambitious and energetic soul was driven almost to distraction.
Franklin’s influence was a strong factor in holding him steady to his course. His almost filial affection for the ancient sage and the latter’s appreciation of his splendid qualities resulted in tempering the impetuous energy of the younger man with the ripe judgment and calm philosophy of the elder. But beyond this, it was Jones’s unquenchable desire for fame which bore him up. His contacts with high personages flattered his vanity. He, the gardener’s son, would show them that he could win for himself an honored place even in the highest circles.
Thus he persevered in the face of all difficulties until at last his supreme moment came. In command of the Bon Homme Richard, a crazy, leaky old tub armed with cast-off cannon, manned by a motely crew, he comes at last broadside to broadside with a King’s frigate. His famous answer, “I have not yet begun to fight!” made when his ship was going to pieces beneath him, exhibits an unshakable will which has been the inspiration of many generations of seamen. Yet for him there was no temptation to surrender. For him surrender meant the loss of everything for which he had striven and which he held dear. It meant failure, disgrace, imprisonment, perhaps even a shameful death at the end of a halter. So he fought on; until a sudden turn of fortune’s wheel brought him victory, and with it the fame for which he had striven through months and years of discouragement.
Like Arnold, he was now the hero of the hour; feted and lionized by the court, honored by the King. But still he found himself encompassed by difficulties. His ships were taken from him, money for his men and supplies were denied him. When at last he sailed for the United States on a little brig, he again encountered continual frustration. His conduct was investigated by a hostile Congress and, though he was finally rewarded with a medal, payment of his accounts was held up and he was unable to secure active employment at sea Thus he passed out of American history honored for his success, but poorly recognized for his abilities or compensated for his exertions.
Arnold likewise was soon to find poison ivy among his laurels. It would have been difficult to find among the Continental generals one less adapted for the difficult post of military governor of Philadelphia Arnold's first act of closing the shops of the city until all captured material had been identified and taken over aroused immediate hostility. The lavish style which he assumed prejudiced him in the eyes of those who stood for republican simplicity. This feeling was heightened when Arnold contracted a second marriage with the daughter of a wealthy Tory family. Added to this was the bitter hostility which existed between the military element and the civil authorities. Arnold was, moreover, not above mixing a little private business with his official duties. His position gave him many opportunities to engage in profitable if somewhat questionable ventures, and the lavish scale on which he lived committed him to expenditures far beyond his normal resources.
His enemies lost no time in collecting incriminating facts against him. In February, 1779, charges involving peculation, the misuse of public property, and illegal trading with the enemy were preferred against him by the civil government Arnold hotly pressed for vindication and after some delay was permitted to appear before a court-martial. For once he conducted his defense with admirable skill and even with some self-restraint. He was acquitted of the most serious charges, but was found guilty of irregularities involving his judgment rather than his integrity. For these he was awarded a public reprimand. Washington's handling of this delicate matter was masterful. While chiding Arnold for failure to live up to the strict standards of the military profession, he exhorted him to "exhibit anew those noble qualities which have placed you on the list of our most valued commanders;" adding, "I will myself furnish you with opportunities for regaining the esteem of your country."
However, even this was incapable of relieving Arnold's wounded pride. He saw himself as subjected to public humiliation by a pack of dirty and scheming politicians. Close contact with the jealousies, bickerings, and corruption of the Continental Congress had convinced him that the dream of a stable American republic was unattainable. His Tory friends had done their best to re-enforce this viewpoint. The fortunes of the Republic were at a low ebb; the treasury was empty, the soldiers ragged and unpaid. The ship of state appeared to be foundering; there were plenty of good excuses for holding that such an ill-conceived and cranky vessel was never destined to survive.
But, though there was much to excuse an honest change of opinion, there was no excuse for treachery, and treachery of the blackest type was what Arnold now contemplated. Having decided to transfer his allegiance, his one thought was, "How can I profit most from this transfer?" Thus, though offered by Washington an important command in the field, he secured instead the much less desirable assignment of commander of the military zone centering at West Point.
His plans to deliver this important post to the British barely, through a fortunate accident, escaped fulfillment. Had they succeeded it is doubtful if the war could have been prolonged much longer. Arnold could then have counted on receiving handsome financial rewards and a high place in the new government. To many he would still have been a traitor but to others a repentant sinner who had at last atoned for his previous error. Perhaps he was guided by the thought expressed in that cynical couplet,
Treason has never prospered. What’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
But the fates willed that his plan should fail. Thus the valiant warrior who had braved innumerable difficulties, who had stood up with unconquerable determination against hopeless odds, whose fiery energy and reckless bravery had made him a tower of strength in battle, was plunged at once into the deepest depths of ignominy, fit only to be spoken of with Judas Iscariot. Though he served his new masters with his customary energy and skill, he was forever afterwards pointed out among them as “Arnold, the traitor.” History, or perhaps fable, records that his dying words were: “Let me die in my old American uniform. God forgive me for ever putting on any other.”
Two monuments survive him: a nameless shield among the roll of Washington’s generals on the walls of the chapel at West Point, and a nameless stone on the field of Saratoga depicting only the leg in which he was wounded while leading the assault on the British redoubt.
Paul Jones likewise suffered repeated disappointments and humiliations after leaving the American service. He, too, died among strangers. But though denied during his lifetime the full recognition of the fame for which he continually strove, he could always hold his head high with the consciousness that he had ever given his best. Could he have known that his name would some day be enshrined as the founder, the guiding spirit, and the inspiration of a great Navy, his soul would have felt well compensated for all his years of struggle and disappointment.
Where shall we draw the line which marks the crucial division in the lives and characters of these two men? Some might attribute Arnold’s fall to the temptations of wealth and power placed before him at a time when he was particularly vulnerable. Yet Paul Jones also loved pomp and splendor. It might be claimed that Franklin’s influence kept Jones in the path of rectitude during his period of deepest discouragement. Yet the high regard and devotion which Arnold felt for Washington were unable to save him.
The difference, I think, is to be found in the nature of the fierce ambition which carried both men through life. Jones thirsted for fame; he valued the acclaim of those about him, but beyond that he valued his good opinion of himself, and above all the good opinion of posterity' Arnold’s thirst was for immediate recognition, power, and position. He was willing to stifle any qualms of conscience if only he might feel the thrill of power.
The faithful perseverance of Paul Jones has been an inspiration to us, so Arnold's downfall should force upon us the conviction that loyalty to one's cause—utter, dog-like loyalty, which seeks only to serve and not to be rewarded, which rises supreme over failure, disappointment, or even injustice—this is the greatness of soul which forms the foundation of the highest type of military character. With this quality even mediocre ability may gain an honored name; without it the highest endowments of energy, intelligence, and courage may but become "as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals."