I recently finished reading Andro Linklater’s fine biography of General James Wilkinson, An Artist in Treason. What a smooth operator Wilkinson was! Throughout his life, Wilkinson knew how to curry favor with powerful patrons. Despite decades of being in secret collusion with the Spanish government – he was known in Havana as “Agent 13” – Wilkinson still managed to hang on to his post as commanding general of the U.S. Army through four different changes in administration. The tale of how he did that is something worthy of Shakespeare.
Wilkinson was born in 1757 to an aristocratic Maryland family fallen on hard times. His father, a wealthy planter, fell into disastrous debt and died at the young age of 33, leaving his family to survive on the charity of relatives. Wilkinson idealized his father as the perfect country gentleman, seeming to harbor both resentment at the family’s diminished status and a ravenous desire to recreate his father’s wealth.
Wilkinson’s army career began during the Revolution, where he made a habit of cultivating powerful patrons who helped advance his own career. A smart and charming young man, brimming with confidence, young “Wilky” comes across as an 18th-century version of Eddie Haskell. Ironically, Wilkinson’s first mentor was the soon-to-be-turncoat Benedict Arnold, whom he dropped in favor of Horatio Gates when Arnold’s star began to fade. Gates became something of a surrogate father to Wilkinson, but that relationship also soured. When the young officer’s indiscretion inadvertently revealed the existence of a group of high-ranking generals known as the “Conway Cabal” who were conspiring to remove George Washington as head of the Continental Army and replace him with Gates, Gates tried to discredit Wilkinson to save himself. Wilkinson responded viciously, and the two men’s friendship ended in an ugly and theatrical duel.
Anybody but Wilkinson would have been cashiered at this point, but his charm and confidence – not to mention a modicum of ability, rare in the army in those years—made his military career all but unsinkable. After some time in civilian life following the revolution – a time when he made contact with Spanish officials in New Orleans and agreed to help advance The Spanish Conspiracy in exchange for cash – he rejoined the army in 1791, assuming he would end up its commander. Instead this job fell to “Mad Anthony” Wayne, whom Wilkinson hated as a bitter rival and relentlessly sought to undermine. It was not until Wayne’s death in 1796 that Wilkinson finally got his wish, ascending to the coveted post of “commander-in-chief” of the U.S. Army.
It is astonishing to realize that every president Wilkinson served under, from George Washington to James Madison, was well aware of Wilkinson’s vanity, treachery, and allegiance to the Spanish crown. In a time when the mere existence of a standing professional army was a matter of extreme controversy, Wilkinson’s predictability was a valuable asset. The men in the White House banked on the fact that if you stroked Wilkinson’s ego nicely enough, he would ensure that the army remained party-neutral and under civilian control.
The president who seems to have had the most smug certainty about Wilkinson’s pliability was Thomas Jefferson, who might have felt differently had he known that Wilkinson had tipped the Spanish government off to the fact that the Lewis & Clark Expedition would be passing through Spanish territory. The Spanish sent out three attempts under Captain Pedro Vial to kill or capture Lewis & Clark’s party. Had they succeeded, the history of U.S. western expansion might have played out much differently.
Even Jefferson’s certainty was shaken in 1806, when the president found himself waiting in trepidation to see whether Wilkinson would keep the army loyal to the United States or throw it behind the empire-building conspiracy of former Vice President Aaron Burr. Burr connived with Wilkinson and others in a scheme to raise a military force to separate the western states from the U.S. and invade Mexico. This was no pipe dream, but a well though-out plan that had the backing of political and military luminaries such as Andrew Jackson. But when plans went awry and Wilkinson knew his involvement was about to be exposed, he unceremoniously decided to save his own hide. Declaring himself the savior of the nation, Wilkinson threw Aaron Burr under the bus and exposed the conspiracy to the world.
Wilkinson’s talent for flattery and play-acting is on great display in these two passages from Linklater’s book, describing Wilkinson’s role as star witness in the trial of Aaron Burr. The first encounter between Wilkinson and Burr – betrayer and betrayed—was electrifying. Here is how author Washington Irving described the scene:
Wilkinson strutted into court and took his stand in a parallel line with Burr on his right hand. Here he stood for a moment, swelling like a turkey cock and bracing himself for the encounter of Burr’s eye. The latter did not take any notice of him until the judge directed the clerk to swear General Wilkinson; at the mention of the name Burr turned his head, looked him full in the face with one of his piercing regards, swept his eye over his whole person from head to food, as if to scan its dimensions, and then cooly resumed his former position, and went on versing with his counsel as tranquilly as ever. The whole look was over in an instant, but it was an admirable one. There was no appearance of study or constraint in it; no affectation of disdain or defiance; a slight expression of contempt played over his countenance.
And here is how Wilkinson described it, and a letter to President Thomas Jefferson:
I was introduced to a position within the bar very near my adversary. I saluted the bench and inspite of myself my eyes darted a flash of indignation at the little traitor, on whom they continued fixed until I was called to the Book; her, sir, I found my expectations verified—this lion-hearted, eagle-eyed Hero, jerking under the weight of conscious guilt, with haggard eyes in an effort to meet the indignant salutation of outraged honor; but it was in vain, his audacity failed him. He averted his face, grew pale, and affected passion to conceal his perturbation.
Despite Wilkinson’s testimony, Burr was acquitted. And in keeping with his reputation as a general who “never won a battle but never lost a court-martial,” Wilkinson survived an inquiry into his own role in the matter. But he fooled no one. The Burr conspiracy left an indelible stain on his high-flying but sordid career, which ended only when the U.S. military was completely overhauled after the War of 1812.
Linklater does a great job using Wilkinson’s life as an indictment of the entire era he represented – an era when the U.S. Army was amateurish, starved for cash and leadership, and heavily politicized. Of Wilkinson’s final court-martial –an inquiry into military blunders on the Canadian frontier during the war of 1812 – Linklater gives us this damning summation:
…with the hindsight of history, what seems overwhelmingly obvious is that the wrong accusations were leveled against him. Even the one charge of which he was certainly guilty, covert treachery to the United States, was less damaging than his overt and repeated betrayal of the army. Yet no court could try him for acquiescence in its political neutering and financial strangulation because the instigators were Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
These words are a fitting capstone to this shabby life story which is both tragedy and farce. It makes you give quiet thanks for our modern-day, well-trained, professional U.S. Army.
For more interesting reading on Wilkinson, I recommend our two novels, To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Wilkinson appears as a major character in each. I must say, I was gratified to read Linklater’s book and confirm that our characterization of Wilkinson was right on the money. It’s hard to get enough of this fascinating “finished scoundrel.”