Heroes and Villains

Benedict Arnold’s Treason

An exploration of the virtue of integrity through the life of Benedict Arnold. Integrity is defined as telling the truth, exposing untruths, and keeping your promises. The life of Benedict Arnold demonstrates the opposite of this principle. In doing so it highlights the true worth of the virtue of integrity.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTION: How can we expand our understanding of a virtue by examining its opposite?

Before class, draft a list of “villains” – at least one for every 3 to 4 students. Use the Infamous Examples Cards, adding names that will be most relevant to your students.

Assign students to groups of 3 or 4. Distribute one Infamous Examples card to each group. Give the groups a few minutes to consolidate and discuss their knowledge about the person/people listed on their cards.

Have each group report to the class the name on their card and a brief statement explaining who that person (or group of people) is. (All are famous for acts of betrayal.)

Ask what the opposite of betrayal might be. (Loyalty, trustworthiness, honor, integrity)

Ask the central question: How can we expand our understanding of a virtue by examining its opposite? During this discussion, refer students to the names on their cards, asking them to describe our reactions to the betrayals and why we react in that way. Referring students to the names on their Infamous Examples cards, ask what the motives were for the betrayal. Ask how understanding the motives for non-virtuous deeds helps us to understand human nature. Ask how self-deception might lead us away from integrity. Ask if they believe that may have happened with any of the people on the Infamous Examples cards.

Post this definition of integrity: To tell the truth, expose untruths, and keep your promises. Ask for specific ways we can better understand or appreciate integrity through examples of betrayal. Ask if, based on these examples, human beings are fundamentally good, or fundamentally evil. (While human beings are imperfect, we also have the capacity to act virtuously.) To enliven the dialogue, you may want to ask how a character like J.K. Rowling’s Severus Snape fits into this discussion.

Transition to the Benedict Arnold narrative by asking students to name the infamous person from U.S. history whose name has become synonymous with treachery. (Benedict Arnold.) Ask students to tell what they know about Benedict Arnold.

Explain that they will now have the opportunity examine Arnold even more closely as the opposite of integrity, and to use him to figure out some reasons why people don’t always act with integrity.

About Launch Activities

The optional introductory activity above is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Lesson Background

During the first six years of the American Revolution, no one sacrificed more for the cause than Benedict Arnold of Connecticut. In 1775, he led a failed American invasion of Canada, in which the participants nearly died from starvation and exposure traversing the wilderness of Maine….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Martin, James Kirby. Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Martin, James Kirby. “Benedict Arnold’s Treason as Political Protest.” Parameters, 11:63-74.

Wallace, Willard M. “Benedict Arnold: Traitorous Patriot,” in George Athan Billias, ed., George Washington’s Generals. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1964. 163-92.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Below are corresponding literature and film suggestions to help you teach this virtue across the curriculum. Sample prompts have been provided for the key corresponding works. For the other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
Compare and contrast the actions of Sirius Black with those of Peter Pettigrew. What virtues does Black embody? Why is Pettigrew so loathed? Does Severus Snape act with integrity, or with honor? Can an act of betrayal ever be virtuous? Note: Also a 2004 film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, rated PG.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Was Brutus’s decision to join the conspirators an act of treason, or was he a man of integrity, acting to protect the republic from a would-be dictator? Did all of the conspirators have the same motivation? Could some have been acting out of virtue while others were not? Are there any principles so important to you that you would “betray” a friend for those ideals?

Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power directed by Michael Pack
Why might integrity have been of particular importance to Admiral Rickover? How was he perceived by some who worked with him? Can imperfect people still have virtues that benefit society?

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) directed by David Lean
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Houston and James D. Houston
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) directed by Frank Capra
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) directed by John Frankenheimer
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

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