Thursday, November 3, 2016

Margaret Shippen Arnold, Collaborator or Dupe? - Part I

By Lauren Gilbert

Margaret Shippen was born on July 11, 1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father Edward Shippen IV and her mother Margaret Francis Shippen were both of prominent families, who were married in 1753. Edward Shippen completed his law studies in London and received a royal appointment as judge of the admiralty in 1755. He held other political offices, including a place on the Provincial Council, and was a man of great influence and authority in the city. The Shippens had several children (either 9 or 10 depending on the account) of whom Margaret, known as Peggy, was the youngest surviving child. She enjoyed the usual activities of girls and women of her time: drawing, needlework and music. By all accounts, she was pretty and intelligent, and became her father’s favourite. Indulged and spoiled, she was known for her high spirits, and for the fierce tantrums she threw if crossed. As she grew and spent time with her father, she also enjoyed reading newspapers and developed an interest in politics. The growing dissatisfaction in the colonies, and the fomenting of revolution, must have been a topic of great interest and concern for her father and Peggy.

Peggy Shippen and her daughter, c 1783-1789

Judge Shippen and his wife hosted many parties and dinners, entertaining individuals from both sides. By most accounts, the judge was sympathetic to the colonists’ grievances but was not convinced complete separation was the answer. He and his family walked the edge of the political knife during the era. However, Peggy and her sisters enjoyed the social round, and made the most of it. In addition to her looks and intelligence, Peggy had, by all accounts, a great deal of charm and wit, and was very popular. Judge Shippen lost his appointments in the spring of 1776, when the Continental Congress, located in Philadelphia, resolved that appointments stemming from the Crown be ended. (It is worth noting that a significant number of Pennsylvanians were moderate in view, and not certain that complete separation from Britain was the best solution; there were also Tories who sided with the Crown. It is also important to note that many families were divided by their loyalties, with some members loyal to the British and others espousing the American cause.) George Washington, Benedict Arnold and others were well known in Philadelphia; it is known that the Shippens entertained George Washington at dinner in 1774. The young ladies of Philadelphia could have socialized with individuals of all persuasions, not least Peggy Shippen. General William Howe and his British troops took and occupied Philadelphia in September 1777. For many Philadelphians, protecting one’s own interest became the primary consideration, which resulted in social interaction with the occupying British.

By all accounts, many of the young ladies of Philadelphia enjoyed the attentions of the British soldiers, in their dashing red uniforms and in possession of funds to hold more elaborate entertainments than the American troops had been able to provide. (Accounts also contain notes of unkind comments made about girls and women loyal to the American cause who wore linsey-woolsey gowns, either because they could not afford stylish garb or as a political statement of their loyalty.) One of the officers in the British contingent was a certain Captain John Andre. Young, good looking, well-educated and charming, he was a favourite with the ladies, and paid a great deal of attention to Peggy Shippen (and several other girls as well). Social events abounded. Dinners, plays, and a theatre built by the British allowed for a hectic social whirl. However, issues within the British command resulted in General William Howe’s departure from his command and return to England in May of 1778. To send the general off properly, Captain Andre and the British officers planned a grand entertainment and ball called the “Mischianza” to be held May 18.

The “Mischianza” was to be a gala event. The ladies invited to attend were to wear elaborate gowns and headdresses, which would have been quite expensive. Of course, Peggy and several other young Philadelphia belles were invited. Attendance at this event, held in a time of war, was a controversial affair. Held during a time of war, such an elaborate entertainment was a stark and tasteless contrast to the destruction so prevalent in the country. The Quaker community disapproved of the extravagant (and rather risqué) costumes that the girls were going to wear. Of course, the political ramifications of all of the socializing with the British in general were another consideration. Although some accounts indicate that Judge Shippen changed his mind and would not allow Peggy to go at the last minute, Captain Andre’s own account in a letter to a friend indicates she was there. (For Judge Shippen, Peggy’s attendance would be a shrewd move if the British did win the war, which at the time seemed a strong possibility; facing Peggy’s disappointment and dealing with the probable exhausting tantrum certainly was another consideration.) The ball was held in a decorated ballroom, followed by fireworks, a supper, and another ball. The celebrations lasted until dawn; obviously, the “Mischianza” was the ultimate event.

General Howe left May 24, 1778 and was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton. Subsequently, in June, the British army left Philadelphia. (Tides were turning; the French had allied with the Americans earlier in 1718. Many loyalists left with the British.) Clinton took his troops, captives and followers to New York, which was still held by the British. This, of course, resulted in many partings of friends and lovers, including the parting of Captain Andre from Peggy Shippen and his other Philadelphia flirtations. At some point, he gave Peggy a gold locket with a lock of his hair, and it is believed that he maintained contact with Peggy after the British departed. Subsequently, the Continental Army returned to Philadelphia. Knowing the divisions and difficulties to be faced in Philadelphia, Washington offered command as military governor to Benedict Arnold, charging him to restore the peace. Benedict Arnold was a hero of the Revolution, and seemed an excellent choice for the position.

Benedict Arnold at this time was a handsome and charismatic widower of 37 years of age with three children. He was still recovering from serious injury to his left leg. His mother had come from a wealthy family, but his father squandered their money. Benedict left school at 16 to apprentice as an apothecary. He worked in New Haven CT as an apothecary and bookseller. He had served in the British colonial militia. He subsequently joined the Continental army of the Americans in 1775 in Massachusetts. In 1776, he had been courting a young lady named Betsey DeBlois, writing a formal proposal letter to her. However, she did not accept. By 1778, Benedict Arnold had earned acclaim as a hero for his role in the American victory at Saratoga in October of 1777, as well as other earlier battles. Unfortunately, he also had difficulties in dealing with others, prone to criticize and ridicule anyone with whom he disagreed. He was impatient and unwilling to put up with anything that did not fit what he deemed necessary or correct. He made a lot of enemies for himself because of these attributes within the military, the Continental Congress and among civilians. On May 30, 1778, he swore an oath acknowledging the United States of America as a free country, owing no allegiance to Great Britain and renouncing his obedience to the king and to Great Britain while swearing to defend the United States and serve in the office of Major General to his best ability. The American military contingent entered the city June 18, 1778.

Benedict Arnold (detail from mezzotint March 26, 1776

Although (as you have seen) I am not addressing the American Revolution in all of its complexities in this post, there are some points that must be understood. The Continental Congress provided little money and provided it irregularly for the upkeep of the Continental army. Officers put in much (if not all) of their own funds to maintain their men and keep things going. Many faced bankruptcy. Promised payments were in arrears, and there was a great deal of hardship. Like General Washington, Arnold had put in much of what money he had and had been awaiting repayment. It was not uncommon for individuals to try to recoup some of their losses by selling commodities themselves. It is also important to note that Joseph Reed, who was an attorney and delegate to the Continental Congress, was a former aid of General Washington and admirer of General Horatio Gates (a rival of Washington), was vice president of the Supreme Executive Council which governed the state of Pennsylvania, and was not predisposed to like Benedict Arnold.

Part II continues the story, looking at Benedict Arnold's career (click here).

Sources include:

Flexner, James Thomas. WASHINGTON The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
Stuart, Nancy Rubin. DEFIANT BRIDES The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married. Boston: Beacon Presss, 2013.
Find A “Margaret ‘Peggy’ Shippen Arnold.” Posted by Peggy, Nov. 28, 2009. HERE ;
"Benedict Arnold." (No name or post date.) HERE
Scandalous Women blog. “Treacherous Beauty: The Life of Peggy Shippen Arnold.” Posted Nov. 1, 2012 by Elizabeth Kerry Mahon. HERE “Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor Against the American Revolution” by Nathan Philbrick. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2016. HERE “Margaret Arnold.” HERE (No name or post date)
Penn University Archives and Records Center on line. “Edward Shippen (1729-1806).” HERE (no name or post date) “Benedict Arnold.” HERE (No name or post date)
Wikipedia. “The Philadelphia Campaign.” HERE

Images from Wikimedia Commons.


Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A NOVEL, was published in 2011. Her second, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in process for release in 2017. Visit her website HERE


  1. One thing that certainly convinced Benedict Arnold to leap into the British camp was when he was bypassed for certain command positions, especially that of the Southern Continental Army. Command of the Army was given instead to Horatio Gates, who proceeded to horrendously lose the Battle of Camden (August 1780), along with the Army. I can easily imagine the sneer on Arnold's face when he heard the news.

  2. He seems to have been bitter about many things, but I was surprised on how focused on money he was. Certainly he was far from the only officer sinking most, if not all, of his own funds into the effort and not receiving reimbursement.


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