When Peggy Shippen, the celebrated blonde belle of Philadelphia, married American military hero Benedict Arnold in 1779, she anticipated a life of fame and fortune, but financial debts and political intrigues prompted her to conspire with her treasonous husband against George Washington and the American Revolution. In spite of her commendable efforts to rehabilitate her husband’s name, Peggy Shippen continues to be remembered as a traitor bride.
Peggy’s patriotic counterpart was Lucy Flucker, the spirited and voluptuous brunette, who in 1774 defied her wealthy Tory parents by marrying a poor Boston bookbinder simply for love. When her husband, Henry Knox, later became a famous general in the American Revolutionary War, Lucy faithfully followed him through Washington’s army camps where she birthed and lost babies, befriended Martha Washington, was praised for her social skills, and secured her legacy as an admired patriot wife.
And yet, as esteemed biographer Nancy Rubin Stuart reveals, a closer look at the lives of both spirited women reveals that neither was simply a “traitor” or “patriot.” In Defiant Brides, the first dual biography of both Peggy Shippen Arnold and Lucy Flucker Knox, Stuart has crafted a rich portrait of two rebellious women who defied expectations and struggled—publicly and privately—in a volatile political moment in early America.
Drawing from never-before-published correspondence, Stuart traces the evolution of these women from passionate teenage brides to mature matrons, bringing both women from the sidelines of history to its vital center. Readers will be enthralled by Stuart’s dramatic account of the epic lives of these defiant brides, which begin with romance, are complicated by politics, and involve spies, disappointments, heroic deeds, tragedies, and personal triumphs.
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Read an Excerpt
Love stories from eighteenth-century America are rare and often fragmented. Fortunately enough of the correspondence of Lucy Flucker Knox (1760–1824) and Margaret (Peggy) Shippen Arnold (1760–1804) has been preserved to trace their controversial marriages and dramatic lives.
Born four years apart to wealthy parents in pre–Revolutionary Boston and Philadelphia, Lucy and Peggy were intelligent, well-educated girls. As each developed into an attractive teenager in the mid-1770s, the political ferment of the American Revolution reached the boiling point. In the midst of that turmoil, both might have married men of their privileged class and led docile, if historically invisible, lives.
Thankfully that did not happen. As the title of this double biography, Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married, implies both teenagers bucked social convention. One married radical patriot and poor bookseller Henry Knox in 1774; the other wed the then-military hero Benedict Arnold in 1779. Coupled with the young women’s fateful marriages was their feistiness. Under different circumstances, Lucy and Peggy might have become friends.
For generations, the books devoted to the Founding Fathers and the Revolution’s military leaders have dismissed both women as mere footnotes to history, either as laughable or trivial helpmates married to Knox and Arnold. A close examination of their lives tells quite a different story, revealing Lucy and Peggy as remarkably resilient women who intimately witnessed and participated in the Revolution’s turbulent course. The same spirit that impelled the annually pregnant Lucy to follow Henry Knox through the Revolution’s army camps also drove her mirror opposite, Peggy, to support Arnold’s betrayal of America and subsequently troubled life in England and the loyal colonies in North America later known as Canada.
Superficially Lucy’s patriotism seems as commendable as Peggy’s treason is condemnable. Yet that is not quite fair. For all our glorification of its origins, the Revolution was not universally supported by the American colonists. An estimated one-third of those living in America’s thirteen states in the years following the Battle of Lexington and Concord doubted the wisdom of independence from the mother country. Some citizens remained Loyalists. Others, unnerved by the economic hardships of the war, hedged, declaring themselves neutralists. It was thus natural that as an enamored eighteen-year-old bride, Lucy would side with her husband, Henry Knox, to support the American Revolution. It was equally understandable that the teenaged Peggy Shippen would sympathize with her politically disappointed bridegroom, Benedict Arnold, to betray America to the British.
That twinned blend of youthful defiance and dedication to their men, though a hallmark of adolescent passion in any age, drew me to research the lives of Lucy Flucker Knox and Peggy Shippen Arnold in the context of the American Revolution. At first I suspected that the two women must have met. Arnold, after all, had gallantly escorted Lucy and her toddler from New Haven in late spring 1778 to join her husband in Valley Forge.
Eight months later, Henry Knox rode to Philadelphia to meet with Congress. From there he enthusiastically wrote his brother about Arnold’s engagement to the wealthy, beautiful, and accomplished Peggy Shippen. Lucy, however, had not accompanied him; then in the last weeks of pregnancy, she had remained in the Knoxes’ temporary home near the Middlebrook army camp. As their lives diverged, the two women had no other occasion to meet, although they knew about each other through their husbands. Nor have letters between Lucy and Peggy subsequently been discovered.
Defiant Brides, nevertheless, traces Lucy and Peggy’s initially parallel lives, from those as smitten newlyweds to mature wives and mothers. While researching this book I found several frustrating gaps in each of set of their correspondences. Lucy rarely wrote to anyone other than her husband, and then only when separated from him during the war. Today, most of her letters are preserved in archives, especially at the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Peggy’s correspondence from her youth and the early years of her marriage was lost, a consequence of Shippen’s decision to destroy it to protect her from accusations as Arnold’s co-conspirator. Fortunately, the Shippen family began saving Peggy’s letters after the September 1783 Peace of Paris, which formalized the British surrender. Today the Historical Society of Pennsylvania retains Peggy’s correspondence from the last twenty-one years of her life. Many of those letters also appear in Lewis Burd Walker’s 1900–1902 series in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.
During the Revolution, Lucy and Peggy stood on opposite sides of the political schism, one as a staunch patriot, the second as a spy; one in shabby homespun, the other in silken English gowns; one in a log hut, the second in a luxurious townhouse; unwitting counterparts who lived dramatically different lives in the service of connubial love.
As women, their personal evolutions also stand in sharp relief. Subsequent to the Revolution, the exiled Peggy endured hisses and taunts as a suspected accomplice to Arnold’s treason; crossed the Atlantic three times; excused her husband’s public, often fractious enmities with peers and business associates; and, after his 1801 death, resolutely paid off his debts. During those same years, Lucy’s devotion to Knox, her legendary hospitality, the deaths of ten of her children, and her obsession with cards transformed her into a superficially formidable, but ultimately sympathetic, character.
Their attitudes towards their husbands were equally contrasted. Although lamenting her separations from Knox during the war, Lucy refused to be intimidated by his promotions as General George Washington’s chief of artillery and brigadier-general of the Continental army. In one of her letters, written during the siege of New York in 1777, she insisted upon having an equal voice in their marriage. Bluntly, she wrote that Knox must not “consider yourself as commander in chief of your own house, but be convinced . . . that there is such a thing as equal command.”
1. In contrast was Peggy’s solicitous attitude towards Arnold—“the General,” as she referred to him. During the tense days preceding a July 1792 duel in London between the contentious Arnold and the feckless Earl of Lauderdale, the frightened Peggy practiced restraint. To do so, as she later wrote her father, Judge Edward Shippen, in Philadelphia, had required “all my fortitude . . . [to] prevent [me from] . . . sinking under it, which would unman him [Arnold] and prevent his acting himself.”
2. Their marital styles were as significant as their political sensibilities. As the following pages reveal, Lucy, for all her patriotism and personal losses, was a temperamental, often difficult mate; Peggy, a shrewd accomplice to Arnold’s treason, endured emotional and fi nancial hardships with genteel restraint. It was my hope that their pairing in Defiant Brides would transcend the coincidence of their “defiant” marriages to reveal how lapses in one of them inadvertently highlighted admirable traits in the other.
Is treason or betrayal of others forgivable if the rest of that person’s life seems admirable? Do sacrifices for patriotism—or for any other pro-social cause—excuse selfishness or insensitivities towards a loved one? To make such judgments must be left to you.
My goal was to capture the lives of Lucy Flucker Knox and Peggy Shippen Arnold beyond their iconic portraits as patriot and traitor, respectively, and depict them as human beings, as vulnerable, fallible, and praiseworthy as we are today.
Table of ContentsList of Internal Pictures
Part I: DEFIANT BRIDES
Chapter 1: “The Handsomest Woman in America”
Chapter 2: “The Best and Tenderest of Friends”
Chapter 3: “The Delight, and Comfort of her Adoring General”
Chapter 4: “Our Sweetest Hopes Embittered by Disappointment”
Chapter 5: “Fortitude Under Stress”
PART II: TENDER WIVES
Chapter 6: “ As Good and innocent as an Angel”
Chapter 7: “A Momentary Pang”
Chapter 8: “Haste Happy Time When We Shall Be No More Separate”
Chapter 9: “Yet We Wade On”
Chapter 10: “ My Regret at this Cruel, Dreadful Separation”
PART III: SHADOW SISTERS
Chapter 11: “Illusive Bubbles”
Chapter 12: “ An Irresistible but Invisible Force”
Chapter 13: “ I Do Not Suffer My Spirits to Overcome Me”
Chapter 14: The Brides’s Legacies
What People are Saying About This
“An ingenious means of bringing new life to the oldest story in our nation’s past: the American Revolution from the perspective of the young and clear-sighted wives of generals Benedict Arnold and Henry Knox. Tracing the parallel lives of two couples with conflicting loyalties, Nancy Rubin Stuart achieves a you-are-there verisimilitude in Defiant Brides that is rare and not to be missed.”
—Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller
“In this lively double-biography, Nancy Rubin Stuart reveals the resilient lives of a leading patriot and a notorious Loyalist: both of them women.
Lucy Flucker Knox and Peggy Shippen Arnold deftly performed the parlor politics that helped to shape the American Revolution in surprising ways.”
—Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812
“Written with verve and compassion, Nancy Rubin Stuart’s portrait of two extraordinary marriages of the American Revolution offers a valuable and moving reminder that even in the most dramatic of public events, private passions prevailed and participants remained, first and foremost, husbands and wives.”
—Marla R. Miller, author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America
“A captivating look at two marriages, marked by bold rebellion and fierce loyalty. The wives of traitor Benedict Arnold and Revolutionary hero Henry Knox never met, and died an ocean apart, but Stuart’s story of their marriages, full of love, passion, betrayal, and disappointments, reads like a Hollywood script.”
—Betty Boyd Caroli, author of First Ladies
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There must be something in the air. This is the second book that I have read in the past few weeks that is primarily focused on correspondence of the focal characters. In a uniquely parallel perspective of two contemporaries, we follow the stories of Peggy Shippen Arnold, wife of Benedict, and Lucy Flucker Knox, wife of Henry. Both men are familiar to everyone who is familiar with the American Revolution, although in most accounts of the time the women’s contributions to the course of history are often ignored in their entirety. A solid grounding in research, providing a curiously parallel track of the lives of these two women allows the reader to enhance their knowledge of some key players in the Revolution, from a different perspective; bringing freshness to the male-dominated history that we are all familiar with. I don’t know that I saw either woman as particularly defiant, perhaps in marrying beneath their established social strata, or in their determination to persevere all the challenges thrown at them in their positions of helpmate and supporter of their husband’s activities. While there is a subtle lean on the part of the author to suggest Peggy Shipton Arnold is more deserving of recognition and a revamp of her image as wife of the most infamous traitor of the time, it did not distract from my reading. Perhaps it is so, far easier to be associated with a man and a name that is not reviled, but the relationship that was detailed between Lucy and Henry Knox was one that felt most modern and contemporary, despite the conventions of the day. This book was an interesting read, providing volumes of information without reading like a history text: annotations are peppered throughout and give additional information, while the reproductions of portraits give face to the people featured in the book. The deft handling of the two stories, to compare and contrast their lives serves to enhance both their stories and is an elegant introduction to their lives. I received an eBook copy from the Publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.