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More men are guilty of treason through weakness than any studied design to betray… François de la Rochefoucauld

There are at least two official stories of General James Wilkinson. First we have the caption of his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery:

Although largely forgotten now, Major General James Wilkinson committed more acts of treason than his former mentor, Benedict Arnold, ever did. Wilkinson shrewdly endeared himself to those in power, despite being considered an “unprincipled imbecile” by his contemporaries. Every president from Washington to Madison trusted him, and he was put in charge of the entire army. Unbeknownst to them, Wilkinson was a valued spy for the Spanish government. Wilkinson is also believed to have conspired with former vice president Aaron Burr in a plot to separate the western territories from the rest of the United States to create their own kingdom. When Burr was arrested, Wilkinson turned on his co-conspirator to save himself. Although Wilkinson was court-martialed, he was acquitted. In the end, charm could not save him from two failed invasions of Canada, and his military career ended in disgrace. Only after his death did his treason become known.


With far greater detail the U. S. Army Center for Military History enumerates his sins and his accomplishments:

JAMES WILKINSON was born in Calvert County, Maryland, probably in 1757; received his early education from a private tutor and later studied medicine in Philadelphia; served in Thompson’s Pennsylvania rifle battalion, 1775-1776; was commissioned a captain in the Continental Army, September 1775; served in the siege of Boston and with Benedict Arnold at Montreal; was aide to General Horatio Gates in early 1776, then served under General Washington in the battles of Trenton and Princeton at the turn of the year; was brevet brigadier general in the Continental Army, November 1777-March 1778, and concurrently secretary to the Board of War, January-March 1778; was forced by General Washington to resign both offices because of his part in the Conway cabal against the commander in chief; was clothier general of the Army, July 1779-March 1781, resigning as a result of irregularities in his accounts; married Ann Biddle, circa 1782; became brigadier general of Pennsylvania militia, 1782, and state assemblyman, 1783; moved to Kentucky, established trade relationships with the Spanish in New Orleans, and engaged in various intrigues; was a member of the Kentucky Convention of 1788 and advocated separation from Virginia; led a force of Kentucky volunteers against Indians north of the Ohio River, March 1791; returned to federal military service as lieutenant colonel commandant of the 2d Infantry, October 1791; was promoted to brigadier general and served on the frontier under General Anthony Wayne, commanding the right wing in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, August 1794; was the senior officer of the United States Army, 15 December 1796-13 July 1798.

JAMES WILKINSON was transferred to the southern frontier in 1798 and was designated to treat with the regional Indian tribes; was again the senior officer of the United States Army, 15 June 1800-27 January 1812; with Governor William C. C. Claiborne, shared the honor of taking possession of the Louisiana Purchase on behalf of the United States, 1803; was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory, 1805; was the subject of a congressional inquiry prompted by his continuing private ventures and intrigues, and was cleared by a court-martial ordered by President Madison in 1811; married his second wife, Celestine Laveau, 1810; was commissioned a major general in the War of 1812 and assigned to the St. Lawrence River sector, 1813; was relieved from active service but cleared by a military inquiry for the failure of the Montreal campaign; published his memoirs, 1816; visited Mexico in pursuit of a Texas land grant, 1821; died in Mexico City on 28 December 1825.


The latter is certainly more comprehensive and inspires us to wish to learn more about this sometime patriot and Linklater’s book perfectly fills that requirement. Apparently earlier definitions of patriotism were elastic enough to give the wink and the nod to opportunism so long as it did not become an overt effort to overthrow the government – really very little has changed.

An artist in treason: the extraordinary double life of General James Wilkinson New York: Walker, 2009 Andro Linklater Generals United States Biography,     Wilkinson, James, 1757-1825 Hardcover. 1st U.S. ed. and printing. viii, 392 p., [8] p. of plates: ill., maps; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG 

Patriot, traitor, general, spy: James Wilkinson was a consummate contradiction. Brilliant and precocious, at age twenty he was both the youngest general in the revolutionary Continental Army, and privy to the Conway cabal to oust Washington from command. He was Benedict Arnold’s aide, but the first to reveal Arnold’s infamous treachery. By thirty-eight, he was the senior general in the United States army – and had turned traitor himself.

Wilkinson’s audacious career as Agent 13 in the Spanish secret service while in command of American forces is all the more remarkable because it was anything but hidden. Though he betrayed America’s strategic secrets, sought to keep the new country from expanding beyond the Mississippi, and almost delivered Lewis and Clark’s expedition into Spanish hands, four presidents-Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – turned a blind eye to his treachery. They gambled that Wilkinson – by turns charming and ruthless -would never betray the army itself and use it to overthrow our nascent democracy – a fate every other democracy in the Western hemisphere endured. The crucial test came in 1806, when at the last minute Wilkinson turned the army against Aaron Burr and foiled his conspiracy to break up the Union.


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