A “Few Bad Apples”: A Historiographical Review of the White Power Movement

By Aidan Goldberg

On the morning of April 19th, 1995, a Ryder truck containing close to 5000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the northern half of the building, severely damaging all structures within a 4-block radius, and killing 168 people, including various federal employees and, particularly disturbingly, 19 children in a day care center directly adjacent to the blast. The bombing was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two disaffected Army veterans, radicalized both by antigovernment literature and the perceived brutality of federal law enforcement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho–where a standoff between survivalist Randy Weaver and the United States Marshal Service resulted in the death of Weaver’s wife and son–and Waco, Texas, where an ATF/FBI siege of a fringe religious sect’s compound in Waco, Texas ended in the immolation of the compound and the deaths of 76 people.  

The attack on the Murrah Building remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in American history, effectively forcing the federal government to dedicate new attention and commit greater resources to investigating and prosecuting white supremacist groups. While the intensity and efficacy of these investigative efforts has varied greatly depending on the ideological priorities of political leadership—consider, for example, the contrast between the Obama administration’s investment in anti-domestic terrorism efforts and the Trump administration’s legitimization of white supremacist rhetoric for political gain—white supremacy is now generally regarded as one of the most pressing national security concerns facing the United States. Racist, right-wing attacks have been occurring with increasing regularity; Black churchgoers gunned down in Charleston, Latinx individuals murdered at a Walmart in El Paso, elderly Jews shot at a congregation in Pittsburgh. Taken with other, overseas incidents of racialized political violence—Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attacks on the Norwegian Prime Minsters’ office in Oslo and a Labor Party-run children’s summer camp, and the 2017 murder of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, to cite but two examples—these domestic attacks seem part of an increasingly globalized pattern of white supremacist revolutionary activity, in many ways inextricably tied to the development of a shared discourse between right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States. Testifying to the urgency of the present moment, both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) affirmed during 2021 congressional hearings that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” specifically white supremacists [1].

Given the post-Oklahoma City governmental focus on the security risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorism, and, more recently, the heightened public awareness about the dangers of white supremacy with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Trumpism, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been a proliferation in the past two decades of literature focusing on white supremacist violence. In this review, I have analyzed three popular readings which exemplify this body of work. The readings— The Terrorist Next Door, written by Daniel Levitas in 2004; Blood and Politics, written by Leonard Zeskind in 2009; and Bring the War Home, by Katherine Belew in 2019—are illustrative of the varying approaches academics, popular writers, and journalists have taken in their treatment of the white supremacist movement, and of the ways in which these historiographical methods have shifted over time. While it is difficult to extrapolate anything definitive from such a small sample size, it appears that authors writing about the white supremacist movement have adopted an increasingly holistic analytical lens, one emphasizing the tactical flexibility, social cohesion, and political influence of white power groups.

The Terrorist Next Door by Daniel Levitas is fairly narrow in scope, focusing specifically on the figure of “Reverend” William Potter Gale, and his establishment of a paramilitary group known as the Posse Comitatus in the early 1970s. Levitas delineates the origins and maturation of the Posse, outlining its birth out of opposition to the Civil Rights movement, its broadening connections to other factions in the white supremacist and anti-tax movements through the 1970s and 1980s, and its eventual metamorphosis into the “Christian Patriot” and militia movements which dominated the late 1980s and 1990s [2]. While Levitas clearly establishes the nexus between the Posse and other white supremacist groups, which, he contends, have been profoundly influenced by the Posse’s ideological framework, his book is primarily focused on the Posse, with any broader analysis of the modern paramilitary right filtered through that lens. 

As befits a semi-biographical study, Levitas begins the book with the immigration of William Gale’s family–ironically Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms in the late 19th century–to South Dakota. This background, while seemingly anecdotal, effectively forces the reader to consider the ways that religious and ethnic minorities might, in their effort to assimilate into existing sociopolitical and economic power structures, internalize and adopt white supremacist attitudes [3]. After discussing Gale’s family background and important experiences in his early life, Levitas describes how, following his discharge from the Army in 1950, Gale became increasingly engaged with anticommunist and, intertwined as they tended to be, antisemitic political causes, effectively embracing the Christian Identity movement by 1953. 

Gale’s political efforts which predated his founding of the Posse Comitatus were largely reliant on harnessing the bigotry of both conservative opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and Christian Identity theology, a fringe ideology which dictated that white people constituted the true Israelites, and which regarded the extermination of nonwhite peoples as necessary for the fulfillment of eschatological prophecy. Levitas is less interested in these early efforts to mobilize opposition to racial integration and to infuse Christianity with white supremacy–two tactics which were hardly novel–than he is with the ways in which Gale was able to take radical, right-wing rhetoric and effectively cloak it in “pseudoreligious legalisms” which lent it a semblance of credibility [4]. Through synthesizing anticommunist and white supremacist talking points, historical allusions to the principles of common law, and the idea of radical popular sovereignty into a single rhetorical toolbox, the Posse was able to provide a range of white nationalist activists and sympathizers with a useful (if inane) legal framework–one which affirmed the unconstitutionality of both federal civil rights legislation and the income tax [5].  Levitas suggests that the relative success of the movement can be attributed to both the usefulness of this quasi-legalistic framework and the movement’s effective use of dog whistles, rather than explicit appeals to notions of racial purity, to recruit a broader segment of the American public [6]. 

Professing this “American-sounding” ideology, Posse groups expanded rapidly from California, Gale’s home state, up the West Coast and to the Midwest, where they effectively leveraged contemporary economic challenges facing farmers—high interest rates, rising inflation, and low farm prices—to expand their recruitment efforts and political activities in rural areas. By the 1980s, the Posse had expanded its political base to encompass a wide range of economic classes and political demographics. While increasing confrontation with the federal government—including, notably, the murder of two federal marshals in 1983 by Gordon Kahl, a Posse member—forced the movement to reconfigure itself under the new label of “Christian Patriotism,” its ideas were effectively incorporated by the militia movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Levitas concludes that the Posse’s success lay in its ability to articulate a new anti-government legal framework, and, critically, in its ability to unite the underlying conspiracy theories and bigotries of its ideology with more mainstream political issues like gun control, land use, and regional planning [7]. While Levitas’ study of the white supremacist movement vis a vis Gale and the Posse is narrowly focused, and his discussion of broader historiographical issues and events somewhat minimal, Levitas provides an excellent overview of a critically important faction within the larger movement. 

By contrast, Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, written five years after Levitas’ account, takes a significantly more expansive view of white supremacy, providing a survey of the white nationalist movement more broadly and describing critical developments from the 1950s through the immediate aftermath of September 11th. While Zeskind, like Levitas, is sure to situate the subject of his investigation, white nationalism, in the context of other white supremacist movements, his engagement with the latter is relegated to what he sees as pertinent to telling the story of the former. Like Levitas, Zeskind clearly emphasizes the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in mobilizing political actors on the radical right.  Zeskind contends that white supremacist organizations in the post-Jim Crow era, responding to the inability of their predecessors to prevent widespread racial integration, opted to “build a movement around the idea of white dispossession.” The rhetoric of white dispossession—that the economic and political dominance of whites was being threatened by political reform and demographic change—motivated racist groups to coalesce around the need to create a white ethnostate [8].

Zeskind has chosen to center his narrative around individuals, focusing on two prominent white nationalists,Willis Allison Carto and William Pierce,whom he believes epitomize a key strategic divide in the movement between a more reformist “mainstreaming” represented by Carto and a more revolutionary “vanguardism” represented by Pierce. As Zeskind describes it, Carto’s “mainstreaming” approach was heavily preoccupied with cultivating political respectability. Zeskind notes that Carto attempted to win people over to the white nationalist cause by working within existing political institutions to affect policy change. Pierce’s “vanguardism” approach, by contrast, was rooted in the premise that gradual reform is an impossibility, and that any attempts to recruit white people en masse through respectability politics is misguided, instead suggesting that the movement should rely on small, highly organized cells of dedicated cadres to take revolutionary action [9].

Zeskind’s narrative, which describes the political activism and criminal activities of numerous factions within the white supremacist movement—David Duke’s neo-confederates, pseudo-constitutional groups like the Posse Comitatus, and myriad paramilitary survivalist groups—is framed around this ideological and strategic debate between Willis Carto and William Pierce. Zeskind suggests that the viability of each strategy shifted depending on contemporary political conditions. For instance, when describing white supremacist activities in the 1980s, Zeskind notes how the bank robberies and assassinations carried out by vanguardist factions like the Order prompted federal prosecution of key figures in the white supremacist movement, leading the vanguardist approach to fall out of favor. This is not to say that acts of political violence were not perpetrated by organizations within the movement—the OKC bombing testifies to that—but that vanguardism ceased to be the dominant strategic approach as the 1980s drew to a close. Indeed, Zeskind suggests that by the 1990s, those on the right had begun to develop a form of ethnic nationalism which found its way to the margins of political respectability, attributing this development, in part, to the ways in which the end of the Cold War and effective collapse of communism catalyzed a reckoning within conservative circles about the meaning of American identity [10]. He argues that the relative political success of figures like David Duke, who was elected to the Louisiana state legislature, and Pat Buchanan, who enjoyed considerable support in national presidential primaries, exemplified this new form of white nationalism and illustrated the extent to which white nationalist rhetoric has been assimilated into the political mainstream. 

Zeskind’s study is, broadly speaking, more all-encompassing than Levitas’, and he provides the reader with greater insight into both the methods of his historiographical approach and the challenges associated with studying white supremacist groups. He describes how, in researching hate groups, he would rely on a wide range of printed sources, including racist and antisemitic booklets and periodicals, numerous newspaper clippings, and a variety of courtroom documents, including federal affidavits, criminal indictments, and depositions. Additionally, Zeskind details how he relied on the stories of people who were part of the movement, both current members that he met while attending white supremacist rallies, and those individuals who sought him out when they were trying to leave the movement. Zeskind also addresses what is one of the most obvious historiographical challenges associated with studying fringe, racist groups—their tendency to lie to outsiders—noting that  to work around this, he enlisted several volunteers to attend racist meetings and gather information covertly [11].

In Bring the War Home, Katherine Belew seeks to provide a more extensive narrative of the white supremacist movement. The author departs from the traditional historiographical approach to the post-Vietnam white power movement—one which characterizes the movement as a simple resurgence of Klan activity–seeking instead to understand white power as something more ideologically all-encompassing and tactically flexible than had been previously understood [12]. Indeed, Belew is quite deliberate in her use of the term “white power” rather than “white nationalist” or “white separatist,” arguing that the former better encompasses the range of ideologies and practices aimed at affirming the political and economic control of white people, and suggesting that the latter terms minimize the violence of the movement while implying that white supremacists were seeking to defend the American state [13]. Taking a comprehensive approach to the archive, Belew begins her study in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, arguing that the historical memory of American defeat in Vietnam played a central role in the efforts of the white power movement to construct a common group identity [14]. The centrality of Vietnam in her narrative represents a particularly interesting contribution to the historiography of the movement, forcing the reader to reckon with the ways in which militarism, imperialism, and racialized violence abroad might, and frequently do, have profound repercussions domestically. Her historical study goes on to discuss the intensification of white supremacist criminal activities in the 1980s and the effective climax of the movement’s violence in Oklahoma City.  While Belew’s work is more limited in time frame when compared to the chronological scope of Zeskind and Levitas, the depth and comprehensive nature of Belew’s research enables her to effectively reframe our understanding of the white power movement. 

Moreover, Belew argues quite compellingly that prevailing scholarship has failed to recognize both the extent to which white power constituted a full-fledged social movement and the movement’s remarkable influence on mainstream politics [15]. Whereas Levitas and Zeskind orient their narrative around particular individuals and their respective organizations, Belew’s study examines the ways in which more macro-level political developments, namely the Vietnam War, allowed the white power movement to construct a common political identity. Belew argues that, after the military defeat in Southeast Asia, there was a concerted effort by the white power movement to construct a common narrative about the war: that American soldiers had been betrayed by cowardly military and political leadership, and that their sacrifice had been trivialized by an ungrateful public. This narrative helped the movement both to create a common political identity, effectively unifying a disparate array of white supremacist congregations, neo-confederates, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis, and to attract more military veterans, a development which she sees as instrumental in the development of the movement’s paramilitary culture and infrastructure and, consequently, of its capacity for revolutionary violence [16].

Belew divides her study into three constituent parts. Part I focuses on the 1970s, establishing the role of violence within the movement, including the centrality of the Vietnam narrative, the development of paramilitary training camps, and the nexus between the white power movement and various transnational mercenary groups. In Part II, Belew focuses on the 1980s, illuminating how the movement became more and more violently antistatist, discussing the movement’s 1983 declaration of war on the federal government, its use of early computer networks and cell-style organizing, and its attempts to steal military-grade weaponry from the state. Part III looks to the apex of the white power movement’s revolutionary violence, describing its confrontations with the federal government at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, and the effective culmination of antigovernment violence with the Oklahoma City bombing. Belew concludes her study with a meditation on the ways in which the bombing has obfuscated and distorted historical memory, arguing that it cemented public perceptions of white supremacist violence as merely the acts of a few men rather than the manifestation of a broader movement. Belew argues that the inability of the American public to understand the broader implications of OKC and the white supremacist violence that fueled it, in part, set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump, a political development that seemingly took mainstream and left-wing America by surprise. 

Perhaps because she is writing as an academic historian, Belew deals at great length with the historiographical issues inherent to writing about white supremacist groups. She notes, for instance, the difficulties associated with incorporating images from the white power movement into the book, saying that using any photographs owned by racist organizations risks making a financial contribution to their cause. Like Zeskind, she also points out that white supremacists tend to hide their activities, legal or illegal, to mitigate the risk of government infiltration of their cells. Belew also emphasizes the many ways that the archive itself is limited. She suggests that FBI, ATF, Marshall Service, and DOJ records, used widely in research of the white power movement, vary enormously in the accuracy of their accounts, the motivations of their authors, and the degree to which they have been redacted. She further asserts that white supremacist activity in prisons—a key part of the movement—has been poorly documented, and that legal documents from the height of the movement in the 1980s and 1990s are rarely digitized, making them difficult to access. Belew also notes, quite shrewdly, that records from extremist watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, while extremely useful, ought to be read in light of these organizations’ reliance on donations; that is to say, they might have a financial incentive to overestimate the movement’s influence and organizational sophistication [17].

Taken together, these readings support several broad statements about contemporary trends in the historiography of the white power movement. First, the recent proliferation of literature focusing on the white power movement and racialized violence illustrate the extent to which both popular and academic interest in these groups has increased as right-wing domestic terrorism is increasingly seen as one the most pressing critical threats to national security. Second, the books I selected suggest an evolution in who is writing about the movement. Whereas Daniel Levitas and Leonard Zeskind have worked primarily as experts on the origins and activities of white supremacist and neo-Nazi group (Zeskind, for a time, also worked as a community activist), Katherine Belew is a professor at the University of Chicago, suggesting the ways in which the white power movement has increasingly become an important subject of inquiry for academic researchers. Finally, the differences between the three books indicate a fundamental shift in the historiography towards more all-encompassing studies of the white power movement as a whole, exemplified by Bring the War Home, rather than more specific examinations of particular groups, as shown by Blood and Politics and The Terrorist Next Door. All three books, however, are thoroughly researched and cogently written, significantly contributing to our understanding of the history of various factions within the white power movement. Future scholarship should look to answer more developed questions, building off of the work of Levitas, Zeskind, and Belew. For instance, is it even possible to identify common root causes of white supremacist violence that can be applied across disparate demographic groups; disaffected workers in the rust belt, Christian extremists, anti-immigration vigilantes at the border, corporate CEOs reliant on GOP support? Furthermore, what does our lack of understanding about these issues mean about our ability to address white supremacist violence in a cohesive, policy-driven manner? There is an urgent need for continued scholarship in this area—scholarship that broadens our understanding of white supremacy beyond the focus on a few isolated groups, a few bad apples.


[1] Eileen Sullivan, Katie Benner, “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists,” New York Times, June 15th, 2021.

[2] Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002): 3.

[3] Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 11.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 26-27.

[10] Ibid., 29-30.

[11] Ibid., 16-18.

[12] Katherine Belew, Bring the War Home (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019): 25.

[13] Belew, Bring the War Home, 12.

[14] Ibid., 12-14.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Ibid., 30-34.


Belew, Katherine. Bring the War Home. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Levitas, Daniel. The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002. 

Sullivan, Eileen, Benner, Katie. “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists.” New York Times, June 15th, 2021. 

Zeskind, Leonard. Blood and Politics. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009. 

The Spying Lady Shippen

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.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

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.

14 Ibid.

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).

23 Ibid.

The Harlem Hellfighters

By Conner Levitt

Most Americans today know about famous African-American soldiers like the Tuskegee Airmen or the black Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Today we view these groups as important milestones of the struggle for equality in the United States. Yet, there is another group of soldiers who deserve the same amount of remembrance and respect, but have been forgotten: the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters were one of the first African-American units that fought in World War I1 and through their bravery they became one of the most famous and well-known units in the US during the war. 

The Harlem Hellfighters got their start as a part of the New York State national guard in 1916.Civic leaders from Harlem convinced the governor of New York to create the Hellfighters (then called the 15th New York Guard Regiment) as the very first all-black unit in the guard. They were led by a man named William Hayward.3 Hayward was white, but unlike other white officers who might have been in his place, he respected his men and hired both white and black officers to lead the unit. He is quoted as telling white officers to “meet men according to their rank as soldiers” and that if “[they] intended to take a narrower attitude, [they] had better stay out.”4 

After the US joined WWI in 1917, the Hellfighters had to be trained into a proper unit before being shipped off to France. They were forced to train in Spartanburg, South Carolina. By  the early 1900s, Jim Crow was already in full swing, and the black soldiers of the regiment were constantly harassed and insulted by townspeople. The same people they were going off to fight for. White Americans’ animosity toward the African-American troops continued even after they left the US and sailed to France. Once the Hellfighters arrived in France, they were denied the opportunity to do the one thing they were trained to do: fight instead they were relegated to more menial duties like guarding rail-lines or digging latrine lines. While many American units had this duty, the Hellfighters had this duty for a unique reason: white American soldiers refused to fight alongside any black soldiers.To allow the Hellfighters to serve in combat, the US Army made an unfortunate but necessary decision: they transferred the unit over to the French Army. 

Once the Hellfighters were transferred over to the French Army they had a very different experience than in the US Army. While the US shunned them, the French welcomed the Hellfighters into their country’s army.  The French did not segregate units or treat them any differently than white units. With US uniforms and French weapons and helmets equipped, the Hellfighters were sent by the French army to their first frontline posting on April 15th, 1918, three months before any other American unit saw any combat.They stayed on the front for 3 months. During this time the unit’s most famous and enduring story of the war occurred. 

On the night of May 14th, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, two privates in the Harlem Hellfighters, were on sentry duty when Johnson heard the snipping of wire cutters in the darkness. The two men tried to get word back to their commanders but were forced to fight for their lives against a group of 24 German soldiers. Both soldiers were severely injured with Roberts being hurt by a grenade explosion and Johnson? being shot several times by the German attackers.7 However, in the end the two men were able to stop the German attack, killing 4 and wounding 10. Due to their efforts, the two men became the first Americans to be awarded the Croix de Guerre8, a prestigious 

award given to soldiers who distinguish themselves by performing heroic deeds. Henry Johnson was known as “the Black Death” after the attack.9 The Harlem Hellfighters fought in many campaigns in France and had the single longest tour of duty of any unit of the war: they were on tour once for over six months!10  After the war they returned to New York, demobilized, and returned to being a national guard unit. Through their service they showed the US that they, and by extension other African-Americans, were worthy of respect and being first class citizens. They fought and died for a country that restricted their rights but that they nonetheless believed in. In the end, the Harlem Hellfighters were a group of African-American soldiers who put their lives on the line for a country that didn’t want them in continuation of the fight for equality in the US, and should be remembered and honored as such.

[1] France-Amerique. “The Harlem Hellfighters: American Fighters in French Uniforms.” Accessed 12/12/2021 

[2] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/one-hundred-years-ago-harlem-hellfighters-bravely-led-us-wwi 180968977/ 

[3] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/one-hundred-years-ago-harlem-hellfighters-bravely-led-us-wwi 180968977/ 

[4] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/one-hundred-years-ago-harlem-hellfighters-bravely-led-us-wwi 180968977/ 

[5] New York Daily News. “For Henry Johnson.” Accessed 12/14/2021 https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/editorial-henry-johnson-honor-sight-article-1.2043664

[6] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/one-hundred-years-ago-harlem-hellfighters-bravely-led-us-wwi 180968977/ 

[7] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117 386701/?no-ist 

[8] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117 386701/?no-ist