Peggy Shippen: Benedict Arnold’s Wife

Growing Up

Peggy Shippen grew up in an upper-middle class family in Philadelphia that didn’t support the American colonies’ complaints about Britain. Her father, Edward Shippen, believed that ordinary citizens could not govern without the upper classes telling them what to do. Her father found himself in a sticky situation when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss how the colonies should respond to Britain’s taxes on America. For a while, the Shippen family left their home for a place in the country. Peggy resented having to leave her fashionable lifestyle behind. By 1774 she was a teenage girl who was about to make her debut into Philadelphia society, but her father believed it was best to leave so he wouldn’t be forced to take sides in the debate.

The American Revolution

In 1777, the Shippens returned to their family home. The American Revolution had already started, and the British captured Philadelphia. Peggy and other young women flirted with the British officers and enjoyed dances and parties. One observer said, “all the young men are in love with Peggy.” Eventually the British left Philadelphia for New York, and American general Benedict Arnold was appointed as the city’s military governor. The ever-practical Edward Shippen welcomed him. Though he was twenty years older, Arnold soon fell in love with Peggy.

Arnold’s Troubles

Before their marriage, Benedict Arnold had career problems. He was charged with crimes against the army, including treating minor officials with disrespect, using public wagons for private property, and showing favor to Loyalists who disapproved of the revolution.  Arnold felt bitter that Americans did not appreciate his skills or the fact that he was lame as a result of fighting in battle. Though most of the charges were dropped and George Washington offered him a job as his number two general, it was too late. By then, Arnold and his wife were spying for the British.

Partners in Spying

No one knows whether Peggy suggested they hand over information about American troop positions and guns to the British, or whether Arnold was the first to bring it up. Regardless, Peggy and Arnold were complete partners once they committed to spying. In fact, one of Peggy’s former British acquaintances, Major Andre, became the recipient of Arnold’s letters in Britain. While Arnold supplied the military information, Peggy wrote and received the letters. She used a secret code and invisible ink to hide the contents of the letters. Major Andre held the letters up to a flame or poured lemon juice on them to read them. Using these methods, the Arnolds gave the British the information they needed to capture Charlestown, South Carolina.

Discovery of their Plans

As they gained success, Arnold negotiated a price the British were willing to pay for information about the New York fortress West Point. If the British had West Point, they could cut off communication between New England and the Congress at Philadelphia. Arnold asked to command West Point so he could tell the British when to strike. An unsuspecting George Washington gave him the job. In September 1780, a British warship was prepared to attack the fort. Unfortunately for the Arnolds, American soldiers ruined their plan with the capture of Major Andre. When the soldiers searched him, they found papers on him that revealed the plot, but did not mention Peggy’s involvement.

Arnold escaped on a British barge, leaving his wife behind to defend herself. She pretended to be shocked by her husband’s actions and acted hysterically. Luckily for Peggy, few men, including Washington, thought women were smart enough to be good spies. Washington and others also completely bought her act, and even felt sorry for her. Eventually, she rejoined Arnold in London, where she lived on money gained from her war activities.

Deborah Read: Wife of Benjamin Franklin

Other than a surge of interest in Abigail Adams, wives of the American revolutionary era remain largely ignored, especially in school textbooks. How many of you have heard of Deborah Read? She was Benjamin Franklin’s wife. Their partnership contributed to Ben Franklin’s later successes, which though not always fun for his wife, led him to serve the revolutionary cause.

According to Franklin, he met Deborah Read while walking through the streets of Philadelphia with one bread roll under each arm and one in his mouth. He looked so odd that Deborah laughed aloud. Franklin may have made this part up, but he did end up lodging in her mother’s house. It was common at the time for women with little income to take in borders, and Deborah’s mother was a widow. Franklin proposed marriage to Deborah before he left for London to try and purchase a printing press. Deborah’s mother insisted that they wait until after Franklin’s trip. The idea seemed reasonable, but Deborah heard little from Franklin while he was in London and ended up married to someone else. John Rogers was a potter with a talent for running up debts. Whether they parted mutually or Rogers just left her, Deborah was alone again when Franklin returned.

He didn’t get the printing press, but he met many girls in London. Eventually he ran into Deborah again, who had news that her husband may have died—something that could never be proved. Franklin may have felt responsible for her loneliness or maybe he realized that she had the qualities he wanted in a wife. Either way, they moved in together as husband and wife. They couldn’t legally get married because Rogers might still be alive. The people of Philadelphia, including Deborah’s mother, accepted the match.

Deborah kept busy not only with housework but also with her husband’s printing business. She managed the accounts from Franklin’s business ventures for years and helped him expand printing franchises throughout the colonies. Franklin said of her, “Frugality is…a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.” Thanks to Deborah’s help, Franklin retired early and focused on his inventions and politics. As Franklin became more famous, she entertained the crowds who dropped in to see him and bragged about how quickly she could make cakes for surprise visitors.

Franklin’s notoriety and love of politics led to subsequent trips to London where he represented the Pennsylvania Assembly. Deborah had no intention of coming with him. Instead she ran the postal service in his absence and bought more real estate. She even kept the family home safe from a mob that suspected Franklin of supporting the Stamp Act. Though she sent the children away, she stood her ground. She wrote Franklin, “Cousin Davenport came…Towards night I said he should fetch a gun or two as we had none. I sent to ask my brother to come and bring his gun also…I ordered some sort of defense upstairs such as I could manage myself. I said, when I was advised to remove, that I was very sure you had done nothing to hurt anybody, I had not given offense to any person at all, nor would I be made uneasy by anybody…but if anyone came to disturb me I would show proper resentment.” With the help of a few friends, Deborah saved the home, much to the pride and delight of her husband.

Both husband and wife seemed to sense that Philadelphia gave Deborah her own identity as a businesswoman and Franklin’s partner, whereas in London she would only be the wife of her famous husband. Enjoying his public life, Franklin did not return from London, even when he learned Deborah had a stroke. When she passed away Franklin came home to manage his interests and began to appreciate his “old and faithful companion.”