Biography of Peggy Shippen, Socialite and Spy

The socialite complicit in Benedict Arnold's treason

Peggy Shippen (wife of Benedict Arnold) with one of her children
Peggy Shippen Arnold with one of her children, circa 1783-1789; oil on canvas (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Peggy Arnold (born Margaret Shippen; July 11, 1760–August 24, 1804) was a Philadelphia socialite during the American Revolution. She was part of a notoriously Loyalist family and social circle, but she became infamous for her role in the treason of her husband, General Benedict Arnold.

Fast Facts: Peggy Shippen

  • Known For: Socialite and spy who helped her husband, General Benedict Arnold, commit treason
  • Born: July 11, 1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Died: August 24, 1804 in London, England
  • Spouse: General Benedict Arnold (m. 1779-1801)
  • Children: Edward Shippen Arnold, James Arnold, Sophia Matilda Arnold, George Arnold, William Fitch Arnold

Pre-Revolution Childhood

The Shippen family was one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Philadelphia. Peggy's father, Edward Shippen IV, was a judge, and although he tried to keep his political views as private as possible, he was generally counted as a “Tory” or “Loyalist” to the British colonials, not an ally of the would-be revolutionaries.

Peggy was the Shippens’ fourth daughter, born after three successive older sisters (Elizabeth, Sarah, and Mary) and a brother, Edward. Because she was the youngest of the family, Peggy was generally considered the favorite and was particularly doted upon by her parents and others. As a child, she was educated like most girls of her social class: basic school subjects, as well as accomplishments considered suitable for a wealthy young lady, such as music, embroidery, dancing, and sketching.

Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Peggy displayed a particular interest in politics from a young age. She learned about political and financial matters from her father. As she grew older, she gained an understanding of these topics as they related to the Revolution; she had hardly known a time when the colonies were not at war, since the war began when she was only five years old.

A Tory Belle

Despite her genuine interest in politics, Peggy was still a young woman concerned with social events, and she tended to move mostly in Loyalist circles. By 1777, when Peggy was seventeen, Philadelphia was under the control of the British, and the Shippen home was central to many social events involving the British officers and Loyalist families. Among these guests was a significant figure: Major John Andre.

At the time, Andre was an up-and-coming figure in the British forces, under the command of General William Howe. He and Peggy met often in social settings and were believed to be particularly close. The pair definitely shared a flirtation, and it’s fairly likely that their relationship bloomed into a full-fledged romance. When the British abandoned their stronghold in Philadelphia upon news of French aid coming to the rebels, Andre left with the rest of his troops, but Peggy kept up a correspondence with him in subsequent months and years.

The city was placed under the command of Benedict Arnold in the summer of 1778. It was at this point that Peggy’s personal politics began to change, at least outwardly. Despite her father still being a staunch Tory, Peggy began to grow close to General Arnold. Their differences in political background were not the only gap between them: Arnold was 36 to Peggy’s 18. Despite this, Arnold sought the consent of Judge Shippen to propose to Peggy, and although the judge was mistrusting, he ultimately gave his consent. Peggy wed Arnold on April 8, 1779.

Life as Mrs. Arnold

Arnold purchased Mount Pleasant, a mansion just outside the city, and planned to renovate it for his family. They did not end up living there, however; it became a rental property instead. Peggy found herself with a husband who was not necessarily as much in favor as he once had been. Arnold had been profiting off of his command in Philadelphia, and upon being caught in 1779, he was found guilty of a few minor corruption charges and was reprimanded by George Washington himself.

At this point, Peggy’s favoring of the British began to re-emerge. With her husband furious at his countrymen and their social circle increasingly including those with British sympathies, the opportunity arose to switch sides. Peggy had kept in touch with her old flame Andre, now a major and the spy chief for British General Sir Henry Clinton. Historians are divided as to who was the original instigator of communications between Andre and Arnold: while some point to Peggy’s close relationship with Andre, others suspect Jonathan Odell or Joseph Stanbury, both Loyalists affiliated with the Arnolds. Regardless of who started it, the undisputed fact is that Arnold began communications with the British in May 1779, sharing information on troop locations, supply lines, and other vital military intelligence.

Espionage and Aftermath

Peggy did play some part in these exchanges: she facilitated some of the communications, and some of the surviving letters include portions written in her handwriting, with her husband’s messages on the same sheet, written in invisible ink. In 1792, it would be revealed that Peggy was paid £350 for handling some messages. Around this time, however, Peggy became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son, Edward, in March 1780. The family moved to a home near West Point, the crucial military post where Arnold had gained command—and where he was slowly weakening defenses in order to make it easy to hand over to the British.

In September 1780, the plot fell apart. On September 21, Andre and Arnold met so that Arnold could hand over significant documents related to the West Point plot. As Andre attempted to return to British territory, however, he was persuaded by his go-between that it would be safer to ride in plain clothes; as a result, he was captured on September 23 and deemed a spy instead of an enemy officer. Arnold fled on September 25, leaving Peggy and their son behind.

George Washington and his aides, including Alexander Hamilton, were scheduled to have a breakfast with the Arnolds that morning, and they discovered his treason as they arrived to find Peggy alone. Peggy became hysterical upon “discovering” her husband’s treason, which may have helped buy Arnold time to escape. She returned to her family in Philadelphia and feigned ignorance until a letter between Andre and Peggy was discovered, upon which she was sent to British-occupied New York with her husband, where their second son, James, was born. Andre was executed as a spy.

Post-Revolution Life and Legacy

The Arnolds fled to London in December 1781, and Peggy was presented at the royal court in February 1782. It was here that she was paid for her services in the war – an annual pension for her children, plus £350 on the orders of King George III himself. The Arnolds had two more children – a son and a daughter – but both died in infancy in London.

Arnold returned to North America in 1784 for a business opportunity in Canada. While he was there, Peggy gave birth to their daughter Sophia, and Arnold may have had an illegitimate son in Canada. She joined him there in 1787, and they had two more children.

In 1789, Peggy visited family in Philadelphia, and she was made very unwelcome in the city. By the time the Arnolds left Canada to return to England in 1791, they were unwelcome in Canada, too, where mobs met them with protests as they departed. Arnold died in 1801, and Peggy auctioned off much of their property to cover his debts. She died in London of 1804, possibly from cancer.

Although history remembers her husband as the ultimate traitor, historians have also come to conclude that Peggy played a role in that treason. Her legacy is a mysterious one, with some believing she was just a British sympathizer and others believing she orchestrated the whole betrayal (Aaron Burr and his wife, Theodosia Prevost Burr, were among the sources of the latter belief). Either way, Peggy Shippen Arnold went down in history as party to one of the most infamous actions in American history.

Sources

  • Brandt, Clare The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold. Random House, 1994.
  • Cooney, Victoria. "Love and the Revolution." Humanities, vol. 34, no. 5, 2013.
  • Stuart, Nancy. Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women And the Radical Men They Married. Boston, Beacon Press, 2013.