BOOK REVIEW: An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater
Reviewed by Raymond Dague
posted January 16, 2010
If you like your history of the American founding which exalts only virtue, General James Wilkinson will not be to your liking. Heroes are by definition virtuous and exceptional. But history is not made only by heroes. In Wilkinson’s case it was made by one who was conniving and deceitful. He committed treason, but was never held to task for it, despite many knowing about it. He was an O.J. Simpson of his day who used his popularity and celebrity and glad-hand manner to charm people, and was able to use the legal process to dodge the bullet of being held to task for his misdeeds. All this despite widespread belief in his guilt.
Wilkinson’s star first rose when he played a role at the Battle of Saratoga as the deputy adjutant general of the continental army’s field commander, General Horatio Gates. Wilkinson, then a 20 year old lieutenant colonel, was a gregarious fellow who easily ingratiated himself with his superiors, and rose in standing and office accordingly. It was perhaps a sign of his future life as a traitor that he worked closely with Benedict Arnold at Saratoga. Both men were insecure and ambitious for recognition as they tried to claw their way to the top rungs of military command in the continental army. The difference between them was that Arnold was a brilliant and courageous leader of men in battle. Wilkinson on the other hand, both at Saratoga and for all of his military life, was a military bureaucrat who engaged in networking and organization. He knew little of military tactics or strategy, or if he did, he never exhibited them on the field of battle. He spent much of the war as the “clothier general,” organizing supplies for the continental army, a job which he performed poorly.
After the Revolutionary War he tried his hand at commercial ventures. He was not very successful there either, and always spent more money than he made. After the Revolution enterprising men saw promise in the lands west of that spine of mountains which divided the new American states from the western lands. Wilkinson was one of them, and went to Kentucky where he bought land for speculation and sold goods consigned by Kentucky farmers to the merchants of New Orleans. This required him to navigate the Mississippi River past the Spanish fort at St. Louis and to deal with the Spanish. And deal he did. The Spanish empire controlled commerce on the Mississippi in the late 1780s. He did what he thought prudent to advance his commercial interests. As Wilkinson wrote in a formal document to the Spanish on August 22, 1787, he was “transferring my allegiance from the United States to his Catholic Majesty.” So began his life as a spy for pay.
Wilkinson’s relationship with the Spanish as “Agent 13" yielded payoffs from the Spanish for information about what the new American government was doing. He plotted to cause Kentucky and the other western lands to secede from the United States and align with Spain. Later in the 1800s he conspired with Aaron Burr (another scoundrel and traitor) to make the western states a sovereign county independent of the United States. But Wilkinson, true to his life as a deceiver and turncoat, always stabbed these fellow schemers in the back when he saw possible failure in these plots. He ultimately backed the right horse by switching his allegiance back to the United States and betrayed his co-conspirators. He did all of this while an officer, general, and ultimately the “commander in chief” of the army of the United States.
When rumors of his payoffs from the Spanish circulated, and these rumors plagued him his whole life, he claimed that this was money for goods sold. When rumors of his foreign allegiances and his plotting with Burr surfaced, Wilkinson snowed people with more deceptions. He survived three trials by court marshal using good lawyers, his effusive personality, and good connections to beat the rap for his betrayals.
It is easier to read the biography of a hero than one of a scoundrel. Linklater’s well researched and very readable book on General James Wilkinson reminds us that the founders of our nation were not all good guys. The author’s meticulous research uncovers documents from Spanish archives unread for 200 years which prove Wilkinson to have been a traitor to his country. Lots of people believed this in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but Linklater proves it. The author even includes an interesting appendix in this biography to explain the complex code which Wilkinson used to write his messages to the Spanish, as well as an appendix which records the records of payoffs.
Linklater’s biography of Wilkinson reminds us that the figures of history were not all patriots who exuded virtue. Some served the newborn nation with grievous flaws. Wilkinson was one such man. He was faithful to his wife and good to his children, and he made friends with many. But he lied and stabbed many former friends in the back, and came perilously close to destroying the new United States in its infancy. Only his self interest and his fear of failure brought him back from the edge of full-blown treason like his old friend Benedict Arnold.
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