By Eliza Greenbaum
Peggy Shippen is an enigma. Few people know about the story of the cunning spy who transformed the stereotypes surrounding her ‘weakness’ as a woman into one of her greatest strengths. On April 8th, 1779, at the age of eighteen, Peggy Shippen married Benedict Arnold, the notorious traitor of the Revolutionary War.1 To this day, Peggy fascinates historians. During her life, Peggy was viewed as a helpless ingenue, trapped in a marriage with a viper. She was pitied as a damsel in distress, prone to fainting spells and emotional outbursts. The reality of the situation was quite different. Peggy was a major player in a conspiracy to help the British during the Revolutionary War. She dispatched messages to the British while utilizing the stereotype of women being unstable and ‘hysterical’ to outwit some of the most influential men in the nation, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When Benedict’s plans were discovered, Peggy faked hysterics to distract his accusers and help her husband escape. The Lady Shippen was a fascinating woman who deserves more recognition in history.
Peggy Shippen was highly intelligent and heavily involved in the politics of her nation, during a time period when women were criticized for engaging in political activity. She was the wife of Benedict Arnold, an American military general in the Revolutionary War who betrayed the nation with his plot to sell information to the British and surrender Fort West Point.2 When Arnold’s plans were discovered, Peggy was believed to be completely innocent. Hamilton and Washington pitied the damsel in distress, as a victim of her husband’s crimes. Hamilton viewed Arnold’s actions as unforgivable for hurting Peggy. He stated “could I forgive Arnold for sacrificing his honor reputation and duty I could not forgive him for acting a part that must have forfieted the esteem of so fine a woman” (Hamilton).3 However, Peggy was far from a damsel in distress. Scholar Lina Kerber notes that most women at the time operated within a domestic context thought to be divorced from politics:
Most of the women who furthered the patriots’ military purposes [in the Revolutionary War] did not do so in an institutional context; as cooks, washerwomen, laundresses, private nurses… They did not change their domestic identity (though they put it to a broader service), and they did not seriously challenge the traditional definition of the woman’s domestic domain… The notion that politics was somehow not part of the woman’s domain persisted throughout the war.4
Peggy was a notable exception to the rule. She was an enthusiastic Loyalist and engaged in the politics of her country. When Arnold began corresponding to Peggy he valued her political opinion and was willing to discuss the unladylike topic of politics with her. In a letter from 1778, Arnold wrote to Peggy stating that “the security which liberty and property might obtain under democratic forms of government, or of the possibility of successful resistance by arms to the mighty power of England, they might well be pardoned for hesitation to embark in a struggle which, should it end in defeat, might be followed by severe oppression.”5 The letter was written months before Arnold and Peggy’s marriage, highlighting the importance of politics in their relationship. Only a month after his marriage to his wife, Arnold switched his allegiance to the British. There were multiple factors involved with Arnold’s decision to switch allegiances. Arnold believed he was not given enough recognition in the war and required money with his mounting debt.6 However, Arnold’s marriage to Peggy also likely played a role in his shift to traitor. Peggy was certainly not an innocent ingenue, entrapped by the crimes of her husband. Instead, Peggy and Benedict were partners in crime, both involved in treachery.
Peggy Shippen soon proved willing to get her hands dirty with treason. She was friends with John Andre, a major in the British Army. In August 1779, shortly after her marriage to Arnold, Peggy received a letter from Andre. The letter reads:
“It would make me very happy to become useful to you here. You know the Mesquianza has made me a complete milliner. Should you not have received supplies for your fullest equipment from that department, I shall be glad to enter into the whole detail of cap-wire, needles, gauze, etc., and, to the best of my abilities, render you in these trifle services which I hope you would infer a zeal to be further employed.”7
At first glance, the letter appears dull with the focus on “needles, gauze, etc.” However, this was the first letter Andre had written to Peggy in a year. The letter is ambiguous with its intentions, yet statements such as “I hope you would infer a zeal to be further employed” and “it would make me very happy to become useful to you here” hint at hidden intentions. Soon afterward, Peggy and Arnold began sending military information to Andre. Peggy was no bystander. She actively conspired with her husband, cultivating a contact to act as a messenger for the letters. Peggy utilized Joseph Stansbury, a china and furniture dealer who was helping her decorate her home and eager to assist in treachery. Stansbury delivered the messages to Andre at the British Headquarters of New York City, where Stansbury typically went on shopping trips.8 Peggy’s letters to Andre through Stansbury had previously been harmless messages between friends.9 The letters were soon filled with treasonous information coded to the British.10
Lady Shippen was the last person anyone would ever suspect of treachery. However, she was an active member of the plot to betray Washington and the American troops. Peggy and her husband worked together to decode and encode the messages, by using a cipher written in invisible ink that was only readable when rinsed with acid or lemon juice.11 Andre and Arnold decided to smuggle the letters, using the guise of Peggy writing to her friends. Andre wrote in a letter to Stansbury on May 10, 1779, “in general information, as to the complexion of Affairs / an Old Woman’s health may be the subject. / The Lady might write to me at the same time / with one of her intimates.”12 The decision to use the guise of Peggy writing to her friends suggests that Andre, Arnold, and Peggy believed nobody would care to read the letters between female friends or bother examining the details of an older woman’s health. This assumption emphasizes how the group utilized the societal underestimation of women to hide the ‘unladylike’ crime of treason.
Moreover, Peggy was more than a side partner in the conspiracy. She actively participated in negotiations between Arnold and the British. In October 1779, when the British failed to meet the terms of payment for Arnold dispatching information to the British, Peggy sent a letter in code to continue the negotiations. The letter stated, “Mrs. Moore [Arnold’s code name] requests the enclosed list of articles for her own use may be procured for her and the account of them and the former [orders] sent and she will pay for the whole with thanks.”13 The letter requested items that had absolutely nothing to do with treason such as cloth, spurs, and pink ribbon. However, the list of items was intended as a code to inform Andre and the British that Arnold had stated his price. Peggy’s role in sending the letter maintained the negotiations between the two men and proved that she was fully involved in the conspiracy.14
Peggy Shippen’s actions prove how she took advantage of her role as a woman in the eighteenth century to maintain a facade of innocence while assisting in one of the most traitorous episodes in American history. Peggy Shippen was underestimated as a woman with her emotions treated as a weakness and viewed as too “frail” to be capable of treason. During Peggy’s youth, multiple members of her family were captured by the British, which created a large amount of anxiety in the Shippen family. All of “these constantly recurring scenes of anxiety and danger developed in Peggy Shippen a susceptibility to fainting spells… which continued all through her life.”15 Peggy was prone to highly emotional outbursts, often fainting afterward. She was viewed as “hysterical” and unable to contain her emotions. Peggy was heavily underestimated because she fit the stereotype of the “hysterical” woman. Women were heavily associated with “hysteria” and emotional instability throughout the eighteenth century. According to the author Heather Meek,
[In the eighteenth century] the continued use of terms such as, ‘hysteria’(which derives from the Greek for ‘belonging to the womb’)… suggested that, even though hysteria was beginning to be understood through new mechanical and nervous models of the body, metaphors of wandering wombs, corrupt menstrual blood, and disease uteri lingered. Doctors in particular insisted on using the term ‘hysteria’ for female patients, and they promoted notions of women’s inherent hysterical inclinations and deficient physiology.16
Peggy was believed to fit the socially constructed notion of the “hysterical” woman with her emotional outbursts and fainting spells. Therefore, Peggy also may have taken advantage of people’s perception of her as a mentally unstable woman. For example, Peggy’s emotional outbursts successfully convinced her father to allow her to marry Arnold. Mr. Shippen was originally opposed to the marriage due to “rumors about Arnold’s unsavory business dealings and arrogant behavior. Peggy, nevertheless, insisted on the marriage and…wept endlessly, took to her bed, and refused to eat or drink until she became ill. The judge [Mr. Shippen] assented.”17 Peggy may have struggled with her mental health, as demonstrated by her emotional outbursts and fainting spells, yet it appears she also exaggerated her “hysteria” in order to appear unsuspicious and influence those around her.
Peggy Shippen was a figure of contradiction, sometimes praised as a clever spy and other times criticized as a foolish woman. Peggy was certainly a shrewdly intelligent woman with an eye for politics. However, she was also very young during the conspiracy, marrying Arnold at the age of eighteen, and often regarded as frail due to her emotional instability. Colonel Richard Varick once stated, “she [Peggy] would give utterance to anything and everything in her mind,” and he decided “to be scrupulous of what we told her or said within her bearing.”18 The quote is ironic, seeing as Peggy was currently hiding treason from the nation. Varrick’s statement also acts as a reminder of how Peggy was looked down upon as a woman in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Peggy was highly influential in a time period when women had few opportunities. In widowhood, Peggy proved herself more financially efficient than her husband, despite having limited experience in finance. Following his death, Arnold left behind significant debt which Peggy paid off through investing in Canadian property. In a letter, she proudly stated, “I believe I may without vanity say there are few women that could have so far conquered as I have done.”19 Although Peggy was often perceived as inept or foolish, in reality, she was extraordinarily bright and successfully manipulated the stereotypes surrounding femininity to her advantage.
As shown, Peggy utilized the societal perceptions surrounding women as “incapable” and “hysterical” to appear blameless despite her not-so-innocent role as a spy. However, Peggy’s double life quickly came to an end with the capture of Andre. On September 23, 1780, three Westminster militiamen discovered papers in Andre’s boots revealing the plot to capture West Point with Arnold. Andre was eventually executed.20 On September 25th, Arnold received a letter announcing Andre’s capture and impending execution. The letter arrived on the morning Arnold was expected to host breakfast for Washington and his party.21 Arnold swiftly fled the house, leaving Peggy alone to distract Washington and his men. Peggy was completely up to the task. She raved, sobbed, and even accused Washington of attempting to murder her child. Hamilton, a member of Washington’s party, wrote that Peggy
For a considerable time entirely lost her senses. The General went up to see her and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child; one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate occasioned by the imprudence of its father in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself.22
Washington and his men watched Peggy’s display with pity, believing she had lost her senses from learning of her husband’s betrayal. The spy easily outwitted some of the most powerful figures from American history, such as Washington and Hamilton, by faking a sense of helplessness. Hamilton mentioned “her [Peggy’s] sufferings were so eloquent that I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender. As it is, I have entreated her to enable me to give her proofs of my friendship.”23 Hamilton’s desire to defend Peggy emphasizes the perception of Peggy as helpless and needing to be protected. However, Peggy was a far cry from the weak wife that Washington’s men assumed her to be. The “innocent” Lady Shippen manipulated the stereotypes surrounding women as overly emotional to protect her husband even in the face of danger. She was certainly not helpless.
Peggy Shippen is proof that one should never judge a book by the cover. She demonstrated that a “respectable lady” and wife could also be living a double life as a spy involved in treason. Peggy utilized the generalization surrounding women as deeply emotional and uninvolved in politics to spy for the enemy through letters, overflowing with feminine coding that nobody would care to read. She was a cunning schemer who successfully outsmarted the most powerful men of the nation by playing into the trope of the “hysterical” woman. She was far more than the wife of an infamous traitor. Peggy Shippen should not be viewed as a side note to the stories of her husband but remembered instead as one of the most notorious traitors in American history who managed to transcend gender norms by shifting the stereotyping of women as weak into one of her greatest strengths.
1 Peggy Shippen. (Biography, Political Figure Newsletter, 2015).
2 Benedict Arnold. (History Newsletter, American Revolution, A&E Television Networks, 2009).
3 From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, 25 September 1780 (Founders Online, National Archives). Date Accessed February 13th, 2022. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0869
4 Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 73,74.
5 Benedict Arnold to Peggy Shippen, Letters and Papers Relating to Chiefly to the Principal History of Pennsylvania With Some Notices of Writers. (All Digital Collections, Making of America Books), Date Accessed February 17th, 2022. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa&cc=moa&view=text&rgn=main&idno=AFK3977.0001.001
6 From Hero to Traitor: Benedict Arnold’s Day of Infamy. (Constitution Center, NCC Staff, September 21, 2021), Date Accessed February 15th, 2022.
7 John Andre as quoted in James Parton. Daughters of Genius: A Series of Sketches of Authors, Artists, Reformers, and Heroines (The University of Michigan Libraries, 2011),201.
8 Willard Sterne Randall, Mrs. Benedict Arnold (History Net, MHQ). Date Accessed February 16th, 2022. https://www.historynet.com/mrs-benedict-arnold/
9 Willard Sterne Randall, Mrs. Benedict Arnold.
12 John André Letter to Joseph Stansbury, May 10, 1779 (Henry Clinton Papers. William L. Clements Library. University of Michigan).
13 Willard Sterne Randall, Mrs. Benedict Arnold.
15 Lewis Burd Walker, Edward Shippen, and B. Franks, Life of Margaret Shippen, Wife of Benedict Arnold (Continued) (The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1900), 416.
16 Gordon S. Wood and Peter Shaw, Histrionics and Hysteria in the American Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 9, 1981), 176 and 177.
17 Nancy Rubin Stuart. Traitor Bride, (American History, Weider History Group), 44.
18 Colonel Varrick as quoted in Nancy Rubin Stuart, Traitor Bride (American History. Weider History Group), 46.
19 Notes and Documents: The Widowhood of Margaret Shippen Arnold (The Pennsylvania Museum of History and Biographies), 226.
20 T.K Bryon, John Andre (Washington Library, Digital Encyclopedia, Center for Digital History). Date Accessed February 15th, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-andre/
21 Life Story: Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold (1760-1803) (Women in the American History Society, New York Historical Society, Museum and Library).
22 Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, 1780 (National Archives).