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Today in History - October 2

Major John André and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold

On October 2, 1780, British intelligence officer Major John André was hanged as a spy in Tappan, New York. Captured on his return to New York City by American militiamen fighting in the War of Independence, Major André was found to have papers hidden in his boot concerning Continental army Brigadier General Benedict Arnold‘s negotiation for the surrender of West Point. (Arnold had recently been appointed commandant of the fort at West Point.)

The Honorable the Congress have been pleased in just Abhorrence of the perfidy of his conduct to pass the following Act…Resolved, That the Board of War be and hereby are directed to erase from the register of the names of the officers of the army of the United States, the name of Benedict Arnold.

George Washington, October 19, 1780, General Orders. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. Manuscript Division

André Monument, Tarrytown, N.Y. c1903. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

General George Washington designated a board of officers to hear the case. André was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death.

The Capture of Andre 1780. New York: Currier and Ives, c1845. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

Arnold, motivated by greed, by his opposition to the French alliance of 1778, and by his resentment towards authorities who had reprimanded him for irregularities during his command in Philadelphia, had maintained a secret correspondence with Major André since May 1779. On September 21, 1780, Arnold had agreed to surrender West Point to the British in exchange for 20,000 pounds.

Upon hearing of André’s arrest, Arnold fled to the Vulture, a British warship on the Hudson River. That same day, he wrote to General Washington, begging mercy for his wife, Loyalist sympathizer Peggy Shippen Arnold:

I have no favor to ask for myself, I have too often experienced the ingratitude of my Country to attempt it: but from the known humanity of your Excellence I am induced to ask your protection for Mrs. Arnold from every Insult and Injury that the mistaken vengeance of my Country may expose her to. It ought to fall only on me. She is as good, and as Innocent as an Angel, and is incapable of doing wrong.
Letter, Benedict Arnold to George Washington Pleading for Mercy for His Wife, 25 September 1780. (George WashingotnPapers). Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division

Unaware of her participation in her husband’s duplicitous dealings with the British, Washington provided an escort for Mrs. Arnold back to her family home in Philadelphia. Authorities in that city forced her to flee to her husband in New York where he was shunned as a traitor by British officers.

During the remainder of the Revolutionary War, Arnold served as a brigadier general in the British army, leading raids on Virginia and Connecticut. After the surrender of the British army at Yorktown in October 1781, he and his family moved to England, where he died in 1801. In the United States, his name became synonymous with traitor.

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Thurgood Marshall

On October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a United States Supreme Court justice. Long before President Lyndon Johnson appointed him the first African American Supreme Court justice, Marshall had established himself as the nation’s leading legal civil rights advocate.

George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James M. Nabrit, Congratulating Each Other, Following Supreme Court Decision Declaring Segregation Unconstitutional. Associated Press, 1954. The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Prints & Photographs Division

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908, Marshall graduated with honors from Lincoln University and received his law degree from Howard University in 1933, ranking first in his class. He soon joined the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and between 1940 and 1961 headed the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In 1954, Marshall achieved national recognition for his successful argument before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Supreme Court’s decision in this landmark case overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1889) by ruling that public school segregation was an unconstitutional violation of the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The Court’s unanimous decision in the case surprised many, including Marshall, and lent enhanced legitimacy to this major development in constitutional law. The Brown decision, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, brought the demise of a web of state and local laws which had bound African Americans to second-class citizenship.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and four years later President Johnson named him Solicitor General of the United States before appointing him to the Supreme Court. Marshall spent nearly twenty-five years on the Court, continuing to play a leading role in the legal fight to end racial discrimination in America by working to solidify the Brown decision and other civil rights victories through a series of judicial remedies.

Thurgood Marshall, 1908-1993. Paul Conrad, artist; LA Times Syndicate, January 26, 1993. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Prints & Photographs Division

Justice Marshall retired in 1991 and passed away on January 24, 1993. The Library’s Manuscript Division holds significant collections of his personal papers, both in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Collection and the Thurgood Marshall Papers. Although these collections have not been digitized, there is considerable information available through the Library’s Web site about Marshall and the civil rights era:

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