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Televising the Revolution: Turn’s Peggy Shippen Arnold

Not long before her death in 1804, Margaret Shippen Arnold (better known as “Peggy”) lamented to her son that “misfortunes and other circumstances have made me lay castle-building quite aside… Mine has been an eventful life.” She had indeed led an eventful life. In the fall of 1780, as the newly fledged United States struggled to become a nation and needed every man’s and woman’s support, Benedict and Peggy Arnold conspired with British officer John André to turn over the Continental Army’s post at West Point, New York–and possibly General George Washington himself–to the British. Driven by pride and a desire for the finer things in life, the couple had plotted against the patriots. The plot failed miserably, forcing Benedict to flee for his life to British lines and leaving Peggy to face the consequences of their treachery alone. She did so with such success that it took over a hundred and twenty years for her part in the treason to be revealed.

Having left few written documents behind, Peggy Shippen Arnold remains elusive to academic historians. Her small number of letters are scattered in collections around the globe: Philadelphia, Denver, New York, Washington, D.C., London, and New Brunswick, Canada. We all know that she was married to the most famous traitor in American history, but that is about the only thing we know. Few know that she was totally involved in his treason, although that fact was revealed when British general Henry Clinton’s letters were donated to the University of Michigan in the early 1900s. Romance novelists and popular historians, however, have long found her story captivating and have told it in myriad ways, always heightening the drama and romance and rarely explaining her in the larger context of her times. That is what I have set out to do in my next book. After writing about one badly behaving woman of the early republic (Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte), I searched for another; I had thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing about a troublesome woman and wanted the same experience. I would add to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s wonderfully perceptive quote about well-behaving women seldom making history that well-behaving women are also often boring to research. I had almost abandoned my search for another colorful woman when I paid closer attention to season two of a television show I had been watching about the American Revolution, AMC’s Turn.

It is little surprise that Turn, a television series based on Alexander Rose’s remarkable Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006), has made Peggy Shippen Arnold a pivotal character in seasons two and three, granting her a much larger place in the story of the revolution and the first spies than Rose did (she is briefly mentioned on only two pages in his book). She possessed all the makings of a terrific female lead. She was exceptionally beautiful and vivacious. She wore the latest fashions incredibly well. As an expert flirt, she knew how to skillfully play the game of courtship—the one arena in which women had clear power over men. She had been raised in Philadelphia within genteel circles and entered the tumultuous years of the revolution not quite sure which side she should support (her wealthy father, Edward Shippen, was not sure either).

In the first episode of the second season of Turn, we meet a seventeen-year-old Peggy at this moment. The British occupation of Philadelphia has just begun in 1777 and she and her girlfriends are at a party with their hairdresser—a stereotypically and anachronistically gay male—fussing over them and their high-roll hairstyles. Like their ornamented hair piled on top of their heads, the voluminous fashionable gowns of these elite young women fill up space and mark their importance in this arena of sociability. While a hairdresser never would have been present at an elite party in the 1770s, the scene is accurate in depicting British officers and elite young ladies enjoying each other’s company. We think of Philadelphia as one of the key birthplaces of the revolution, but it was filled with loyalists and with colonists who struggled not to commit to one side or the other, like the Shippen family. Peggy’s father had worked carefully to walk the delicate line between both sides. As in many other elite colonial families, business interests, not politics, were his main focus. A lawyer and then a judge, Edward Shippen had received his wealth and status by serving the king. After the revolution began, he had many close friends leading the Pennsylvania patriots, but remained quite cautious. He made sure to stay loyal to his friends, if not exactly to the rebellion. And Peggy, it seems, thought little about the stakes of revolution. Finding and marrying the right spouse occupied her attention. This opening portrayal of Peggy is probably not much off the mark.

There truly was much socializing between the eligible young ladies of Philadelphia and British officers during the occupation, with even a few resulting marriages. At a ball in the television episode, Peggy meets the captivating, twenty-seven-year-old British officer, Major John André. Their relationship will become central to seasons two and three and a key part of the storyline. In their portrayal of André, AMC got it right. He was very handsome and charismatic, a gentleman in the fullest sense. He turned the heads of many young women and wooed them whenever he could, while not neglecting his military obligations; he made fast friends among men. He was well educated and very creative: he wrote and staged plays, and acted in many; he penned poetry, especially to send to women; and he was a fairly accomplished artist, painting backdrops and sketching portraits of many of the young ladies of Philadelphia, including Peggy (which provides, of course, a dramatic scene in the show). We do know that Peggy and André spent much time together; she watched him act and took sleigh rides with him, and he frequently visited her at her home. They were, however, usually accompanied by friends. While Turn portrays Peggy Shippen as the object of his affection and, eventually, the love of his life, André was actually probably more romantically interested in her good friend, Peggy Chew of Cliveden. But the television story is enhanced to make Peggy and André passionate lovers. Not only does this allow the series several sex scenes (which would have been a rarity with elite, unmarried young women in the 1770s), but also the standard trope of a love triangle to add tension.

The British occupation of Philadelphia did not last very long; the officers departed in the late spring of 1778. The gaiety between the British and the young ladies was over. André made farewell visits to many of his beloved female friends and left each a keepsake to remember him and their times together. As Turn poignantly shows, when he said goodbye to Peggy, he gave her a lock of his hair. After they made their farewells in real life, unlike in the show, she likely never saw him again. But Benedict Arnold soon arrived in Philadelphia and changed her life.

There is not a shred of evidence that Peggy plotted with André to get Arnold to turn to the British. There was no need to woo Arnold to the British side; he came willingly. George Washington had rewarded the wounded and crippled hero of the Battle of Saratoga with the military governorship of Philadelphia. But Arnold—as the show brilliantly demonstrates—was already embittered and resentful over his treatment by the Continental Army. He was ambitious and thought he deserved better. Revolutionary ideology meant little to him. He detested the fact that men he believed to be his inferiors were promoted over him. While Washington was very fond of him, everyone knew Arnold had a temper. Already feeling slighted by the patriots, he fell in love with the beautiful Peggy Shippen, paying little heed to the rumors that she and her family were loyalists. Turn needed to give a reason for Peggy choosing Arnold, the petulant, thirty-seven-year-old buffoon, over André, the gorgeous young gentleman, so they made it part of the treason plot. But the historical evidence shows that Peggy loved Arnold and believed he was a good match for her, financially and in terms of social status. He was a celebrated American general, after all. She foresaw a future of living on a genteel country estate with all the accustomed luxuries and readily agreed to marry her besotted Continental Army suitor. They did so in April 1779. Politics had nothing to do with it for either of them.

As the Turn chronicles quite well, when Arnold was eventually investigated for how he spent military funds and had to endure a court martial and a congressional investigation, his fury knew no bounds. His new wife and her family had also suffered much from never being public patriots. Her family had been harassed and some members even arrested. They had also lost much of their money, and Peggy herself had been ridiculed for socializing with the British. Since political ideology had meant little to either, turning over to help the enemy probably came as a good strategy to both of them. We will probably never know who first proposed the plan, but both—as the television show stresses—were willing players in this game. Peggy wrote coded letters to André after he left Philadelphia and clearly knew the details of the scheme to surrender Arnold’s post at West Point, and possibly a visiting George Washington, to the British. While Turn takes dramatic license as it depicts André negotiating with Arnold to get Peggy back, the two military men did firmly believe that the plot would succeed and that both Arnolds would be paid handsomely for their efforts. However the treasonous scheme failed miserably. André was captured, Arnold fled to the British, and Peggy was left behind to face the mess. She did so brilliantly, by behaving as if she had lost her mind in front of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Tallmadge (the head of the Continental Army’s spy ring). The show portrays her scene of “hysteria” with little suggestion that she may have been acting, which many historians believe possible. Whether she was acting or not, the gentlemen officers who watched this delicate lady’s breakdown considered it a testament of her innocence in the treasonous plot and the betrayal of her husband. It bought her and her baby son’s safety. Peggy was allowed to return to her family in Philadelphia. She did not, as the last episode of Turn’s season three chose to romantically dramatize, watch André hang for his part in their treason. She did however keep the lock of his hair. According to one of her descendants, she cherished it for the rest of her life in a small box of mementos.

The fourth and final season of the Turn begins this weekend. I wait eagerly to see how it will wrap up the “eventful life” of Margaret Shippen Arnold.

Charlene M. Boyer Lewis is a professor of history and the director of the American studies program at Kalamazoo College. She is the author of Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790–1860 (2001) and Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic (2012). She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Her next project is a study of Peggy Shippen Arnold and revolutionary America.