Published February 11, 2014
They are heroes of American history whose faces adorn our dollar bills and whose names are attached to cities, universities, streets and national holidays.
But the Founding Fathers and Mothers, those people we have immortalized as cultural icons central to our nation’s birth, were people, too. And, as such, they lived, loved, and misbehaved just like the rest of us mere mortals.
While doing research for my novel, "The Traitor’s Wife," on Benedict and Peggy Arnold, and their attempt to end the American Revolution, I discovered that there was much more to the infamous tale than just Benedict Arnold’s decision to turn traitor. Benedict Arnold had a back story of his own, yes. But even more interesting was his wife’s back story.
Here is a look at some of the unknown facts about the men and women who created our nation, and the mischief and adventure they indulged in while doing so.
1. Benedict Arnold & Peggy Arnold: A Checkered Past. Everyone knows the name Benedict Arnold. To be called a “Benedict Arnold” is a huge insult, implying you can’t be trusted.But few know of the traitor’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold, and the role she played in American history.
Socialite Peggy Shippen was half Benedict Arnold’s age when she met and married the patriotic war hero. Besotted by his new bride, Arnold forgave the fact that Peggy was loyal to the British and had had a past romance with the dashing British spy, John André.
But it seemed that her old habits persisted, because Peggy connected her new husband to her former lover, and together, the three of them hatched the plot to deliver West Point to the British. Had Peggy and Benedict Arnold succeeded, the American fight for independence would have been crushed.
2. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Peggy Arnold: Swooning for a Traitor.
Benedict Arnold and John André were not the only two men smitten with the charming Peggy Arnold.
George Washington, an unabashed flirt, famously told his friend and mentee, Benedict Arnold, (before Arnold’s treason was discovered!) that half of his men were in love with Peggy Arnold.
Meanwhile, George Washington’s aide, a promising young officer by the name of Alexander Hamilton (yes, the same Alexander Hamilton who later went on to help found the United States Treasury and the banking system as we know it), was with Washington at the Arnold residence on the day that Benedict’s treason was uncovered.
When Peggy heard of her husband’s newly-discovered treason, she fainted. Hamilton, very concerned, brought Peggy Arnold flowers in bed and attempted to comfort her in her distress.
If only he knew!
3. George Washington and Caty Greene: Dancing & Diplomacy. Flirtation and flattery were not the only ways by which the tall, handsome commander in chief charmed women. Washington was also a famously good dancer.
An imposing figure standing at six foot two inches tall, Washington was no wallflower when given the opportunity to cut loose. At a ball during the winter of 1779, Washington reportedly danced for three hours with the same woman – and no, her name was not Martha. Her name was Mrs. Caty Greene, and she was the energetic and beautiful young wife of one of Washington’s favorite generals, Nathanael Greene.
This winter in New Jersey marked the third year of a bloody war, when American volunteers were often forced to go without both food and pay, and General Washington wrestled with the bleak outlook for the patriotic effort. It seems that there was, at least, one bright spot for the general during that frigid winter.
4. Agent 355: A Spy at the Soiree. Brains and beauty can be a dangerous combination, especially when they come with a skill for spying. Meet Agent 355. She is believed by historians to have been a young socialite living in British-held New York City throughout the American Revolution.
A favorite of the British officers, and a frequent guest at their salons, dances and dinner parties, Agent 355 was recruited by fellow New York patriots to be a member of George Washington’s top-secret spy ring.
Throughout the war, Agent 355 used her unique access to British leadership to feed the American commander in chief vital information on the enemy army’s plans and movements. Employing her proximity to the officers, as well as her disarming wit and charm, Agent 355 proved devastating to the British cause.
Agent 355 is the only member of Washington’s top-secret spy ring whose identity remains unknown to this day and that, perhaps, is the best indication of how skilled she was in espionage.
For more information on Agent 355 and this spy ring, check out the book by Fox News Channel’s Brian Kilmeade called "George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved The American Revolution."
5. Aaron Burr and Theodosia Prevost: An Unlikely Pair. Aaron Burr is perhaps best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But a lesser-known fact is that the young officer and patriot also married a loyalist.
Burr’s bride, an intelligent and sophisticated young woman by the name of Theodosia Prevost, was a recent widow, her husband having died while serving in the British army. Theodosia was also a close friend of Peggy Shippen’s. The two women had both been popular favorites of some of the same British officers earlier in the Revolution.
Theodosia Prevost is cited by some historians as the reason we know of Peggy’s role in her husband’s treason.
According to a Burr biographer, Peggy divulged to Theodosia the central role she had played in her husband’s schemes, even complaining of how exhausting it had been to maintain the charade of innocence for Washington. Theodosia in turn reportedly confessed this to Aaron Burr, who waited until the principle
figures in the treason were dead before revealing this information.
Peggy Shippen Arnold’s family members were outraged by Burr’s account, and responded by accusing Burr – a notorious flirt – of making advances at Peggy in a carriage ride. Advances which, the Shippen family alleged, were not reciprocated.
Regardless of this colonial-era he-said-she-said, Peggy’s role in the plot has now been substantiated by her own hand-written letters and British documents recording payments made to the Arnolds.
6. Benjamin Franklin: A Founding Father in France. Benjamin Franklin was a brilliant scientist, a skilled diplomat, and an ardent patriot. He also happened to be the most popular man at the French court of Versailles, winning over not just the royal diplomats, but their wives as well.
Early in his life, Franklin had been the poster-boy for character traits such as frugality, industriousness, and good sense. However, when he sailed for France in 1776, this 70-year-old Founding Father was a savvy enough politician to recognize that his new home, the palace of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, was nothing like his hometown of Philadelphia.
The French Court was an extravagant and dissolute place where Franklin’s previous diligence and sensibility had little value, and might even appear to the royal residents more like vices than virtues.
In France, Franklin had to achieve nothing short of the impossible: he had to convince King Louis, already in debt from years of overextended government and devastating military campaigns, to bankroll a foreign army and support a non-existent nation against the world’s mightiest military power. Tough argument to make? Franklin succeeded.
The image that persists of Franklin’s years in France is one of a randy and frolicsome man, shirking his duties and enjoying far too much of the French wine and French women.
Perhaps Franklin did have some dalliances during his decade at Versailles. But what is certainly true is that he identified the role he had to play in order to succeed, and he played it skillfully.
7. John Adams & Abigail Adams: Patriots & Partners. The other key figure in the negotiations in France was John Adams. Adams, a man of a decidedly different temperament than Franklin, never did adjust to life at court, and found many more critics than he did admirers.
Adams, unable to affect the affability and easy charm of his fellow Founding Father, wrote openly of how appalling he found Franklin’s behavior in France. He even went so far as to say that a statue in the Court of the Versailles garden would do better as an ambassador than Benjamin Franklin!
Franklin, like the French, found Adams irksome. He wrote that Adams was “always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
Though he never did click with the French, Adams had the unconditional support and backing of another American patriot: his wife Abigail.
A devoted partner and trusted confidante, Abigail Adams wrote diligently to her husband from the time of his first trip to the Continental Congress through the remainder of their days in public service.
Thanks to love letters that begin with pet names such as “Miss Adorable,” and “My Dearest Friend,” history knows the depth of the relationship enjoyed between Abigail and John Adams. The two discussed everything, from the state of their children’s upbringing, to debates over politics, to reactions to current events such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the Constitution.
8. Sybil Ludington: A Rider Like Paul Revere. When you hear about a midnight ride through dangerous territory, during which time a lone rider warns of the coming British army, you think of Paul Revere, right?
Well, it turns out there was a colonial heroine who rode twice as far as Paul Revere allegedly did, and she was a sixteen year old girl named Sybil Ludington.
A young patriot from upstate New York, Sybil was tapped for her dangerous midnight mission after the British raided Danbury, Conn., in April of 1777.
Setting out after dark in freezing late-winter rain, Sybil rode forty miles. Some reports even state that she fought off a band of highway robbers along the way, rousing the local militia and ordering them to the home of her father, an American colonel. From Sybil’s home, the men marched and engaged the British at the Battle of Ridgefield.
Sybil, though often forgotten today, was honored by George Washington for her heroic ride.