Matthew Barzun

U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom

WORDS MATTER, TURNCOAT EDITION

Like any diplomat, I’m a big believer in the power of words and I occasionally write and speak on the importance of choosing the right ones.  I try not to be school ma’am-ish about it and it’s fun for me to see words appropriated in different ways.  But sometimes word choice can be a little baffling.  Here’s one example that I see on days when I’m creeping along with the traffic home from Grosvenor Square:

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It’s one of the historic plaques you see on buildings all over London. Now, if you’re British, you may not know who Benedict Arnold was - at least that’s what my informal survey of UK-born friends tells me.  If you’re American, however, you most certainly do.  Arnold lives forever in infamy as our most famous traitor. (He was an American Continental Army hero from the Battle of Saratoga and others, then later collaborated with the, ahem, enemy until an attempted sabotage effort was discovered.)

So to be honored as a loyalist to the revolutionary cause is stretching it somewhat to say the least.  I even got out of the car to take a closer look, just to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  But, sure enough there it was: American Patriot.  One British friend to whom I expressed my exasperation wryly pointed out that perhaps a comma had faded out over time so it originally read, “American, Patriot.” Clever, but careful inspection reveals no such missing punctuation.  And if it were merely a case of treachery being in the eye of the beholder, then surely it would have been “British Patriot.”

Examination of the flags at the bottom of the plaque offers a clue that the intent was perhaps more pointed.  They are the Union Jack and a standard of Colonial (i.e. British) America. Could it be a case of the bitters? Well after Arnold’s death, did his patrons still refuse to consider the United States a legitimate nation?

So I’m asking for your help.  Do you know the authors of the plaque and their motives?  Let us know here.  We’ll post the answer as an addendum and I will be forever grateful for the satisfaction of my curiosity.  We’ll even post any good theories - even if just for entertainment’s sake.

Whatever the case, this conundrum offers an interesting study in forgiveness and moving on.  While it may be that the creators of the plaque still had some bitterness - and, after all, a war had been fought - it is notable and fortunate that “Benedict Arnold, American Patriot” is today a curiosity and not a point of contention.  In fact, as I like to mention often, I think it’s important to the health of a living, breathing partnership between the UK and the U.S. that we don’t paper over the cracks in our common history.  The more authentically we regard it, the more we can both appreciate the unique nature of our special relationship.

On the other hand, American forgiveness for Benedict Arnold may take more time.  Encyclopedia Britannica explains that after switching allegiances in 1779, “his name became an epithet for traitor in the United States”.  Some 235 years on, it still is.

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