Before the opening of the year 1814, England, exulting in victory on the Continent, had released some of her best regiments and ablest generals to fight her war in America. Madison and his cabinet soon saw that the strengthened forces of the enemy could not be defeated by political hucksters and military ignoramuses who were capable only of yapping on patriotism; they realized that they must replace Revolutionary heirlooms with young and vigorous officers who had lately performed with brilliance the tasks that their country had set them. Hence Henry Dearborn, Morgan Lewis, John Boyd, and others were relegated to unimportant positions. Into their places stepped men of stout hearts and clear vision. Jacob Brown and Andrew Jackson were promoted to the grade of major-general, Alexander Macomb, Edmund P. Gaines, Winfield Scott, and Eleazer W. Ripley to brigadier. Within a year, engagements at Chippewa, Lundy's Lane, Fort Erie, Plattsburg, and New Orleans had furnished glorious examples of their marked ability and stubborn courage. In this rebirth of our arms, Wilkinson played no part; he was only an angry, interested spectator. On April 11, he had received an order relieving him from command of the 9th District.1 Major-General George Izard, as the next ranking officer, became his successor.
Knowing that he must sooner or later face an investigation for his failures on the northern frontier, Wilkinson had previously asked for and had been granted a court of inquiry. Its personnel did not please him; compared with himself, the officers selected as his judges were much younger and of an inferior grade. The War Department then ordered a court-martial, which would meet some time when the large number of senior officers necessary for trying him could be assembled without injury to the service.2 Such an arrangement p307would mean months of delay; but in the interval a better solution of the General's case might arise, and the administration might be spared the embarrassment of having one of its stock skeletons paraded before the public eye. Wilkinson detested any delay; he felt that it was just a clever ruse to lay him disgracefully on the shelf while the war was being waged by those of less ability and experience.
While waiting for his trial, Wilkinson had been directed to choose Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Annapolis as his place of residence and there await orders.3 But he lingered at Fort George until about the middle of May. He then started for Albany, writing to Solomon Van Rensselaer to join him en route that together they might ride over the field of Saratoga, a place that kindled bright memories of brilliant exploits during the General's younger and happier days. Van Rensselaer was sympathetic, for he, too, had failed so far to win distinguished laurels in the last two years. After visiting him and other friends along the way, Wilkinson reached New York in "an elegant barge" during the first days of June.4 Here he found Morgan Lewis, then in charge of the city's defenses, a task assigned him after the failure of the offensive against Montreal. Their friendship, begun during the Revolution, had continued unbroken, and both found pleasure in being together. Mrs. Lewis, too, was comforting. Perhaps he would have enjoyed such hospitality longer, had he not received a letter serving him with "an arrest" and an outline of the charges that he would ultimately have to face.5 Under the circumstances, he decided to leave for Baltimore, from which he might easily go on to Washington, rejoin his family, and find out more about his ever darkening future.
Arriving at the Capital on June 26, 1814, Wilkinson continued there and in the neighborhood for the next few months. Restrictions governing his place of residence had been removed, for the War Department did not care to separate the General from the members of his family, who had been living comfortably in the city for some time.6
p308 Restless, angry, and ignored except by a few of his friends, he turned with bitterness on those who, he believed, had brought misfortune to him and his country. The Aurora and other anti-administration papers were vehicles for his tirades. John Armstrong, a favorite target, was denounced in private as a "vile, unprincipled villain" whose place no one would take on account of the critical state of affairs that had been created by the "folly and duplicity of his arrangements, and the disasters which await the headlong operations of Jacob [Brown] and others."7
Although the General's prejudice sometimes clouded his judgment, he still could estimate some situations correctly. As early as the 17th of July he foresaw that an attack on Washington was imminent and railed at the inadequate measures taken for defense. He himself could no nothing; he was sick and without command, his sword resting in the scabbard "to uphold the imposition of Armstrong and to gratify his malignant spirit."8 Never had he been so useless in a time of peril to the nation. He raged but to no purpose. When the battle of Bladensburg occurred, he offered to drive back the British or perish in the attempt.9 This offer may have been just a vainglorious gesture of a discarded old man. But had he been permitted to do as he wished, he would hardly have exhibited more ramifications of failure than did Brigadier-General William H. Winder with the Maryland militia.
The raid on Washington over, the curtain rang down on Armstrong. No later opportunity was given him to retrieve his ruined reputation as a military executive. In fact, he was repudiated sooner than Wilkinson. Scarcely were the ashes of the government buildings cold before the public, already incensed at failures elsewhere, demanded a sacrifice for this crowning act of incompetence. On September 27 Armstrong resigned as Secretary of War. Another earthworm that had come to the surface during the rain of opportunity, now sought obscurity.
With his archenemy Armstrong out of office, Wilkinson still faced a cheerless and uncertain future. To the frustration of his military hopes had been added a very personal loss during the middle of the summer. An infant of seven months, the firstborn child of his second p309marriage, had died, leaving "beloved Celestine" ill with grief and the General sorely distressed.10 He had regained only a little of his usual strength, and his small narrow world seemed to be breaking into bits. Tired of enforced idleness, he wanted to move about and visit his friends, gather evidence for his defense, and try the curative waters of Bedford Springs. But his household was economically and comfortably situated in the city, and it was expensive to travel with his wife and her sister, a negro maid, and a black boy or two, and support them in becoming style. For years his accounts with the government had been in a tangle, and now he had little money to spare. Hence, his family stayed at home while he wandered to and fro in Virginia and Maryland, feeling inconsolable because he was playing no part in the war. Going to Montpelier, Virginia, he importuned Madison to arraign him quickly or restore his sword.11 Weeks passed and his plea went unheeded. Then he went hunting in the mountains, thinking a jaunt of this kind and a diet of venison would tone up his health and quicken his spirit. Meanwhile he asked about winter accommodations for his dependents at Frederick, where, among his friends, his "devoted Celestine" might be spared many of the remarks that some of his caustic critics might make. What he wanted was two bedrooms, a dining room, parlor, and places for servants, horses, and coach; a "snug Box," if you please, where, if meals were not furnished, Celestine and her sister might prepare "neat, sweet, little French dinners" of their own.12 But a haven like this was not easily found, so they seem to have stayed in Washington or the neighborhood awaiting the time of the General's trial.
Wilkinson's court-martial first met at Utica, New York, on January 3, 1815. It was composed of thirteen generals and colonels. Major-General Henry Dearborn acted as its President; Morgan Lewis, next in rank, was senior member.13 These two and a majority of the others knew Wilkinson intimately because of years of service either with or under him.
At this time Utica was a village of about two thousand inhabitants and afforded poor accommodations for the officers and men concerned with the trial. Lewis was reduced to a single room, small enough for p310one; but when his body servant Stephen, an ex-slave, broke out with the measles, he, too, was moved in. The ex-governor and major-general was a kindly man, and he carefully waited on the old negro until convalescent. Then the two, master and servant, journeyed on to Troy, whither the court had moved in the hope of avoiding the "incessant storms" and obtaining better and less expensive quarters.14
On January 16 the court-martial resumed its sessions in the courthouse at Troy. There Martin Van Buren, a civilian, appeared as "special judge-advocate." Everet A. Bancker, who was the Army judge-advocate regularly assigned by the order convening the court, found himself merely an assistant. Van Buren's penchant for the party in power was self-evident. After he had deserted De Witt Clinton, the unsuccessful candidate for President, he had become an able supporter of Madison. With an eye to his own advancement, he was keenly sensitive to the administration's wishes. Wilkinson knew that all the craft of the "Little Magician" would be turned against him. Therefore, with justice on his side, he manfully objected to the appointment of Van Buren. The court sustained his contention; and, as a result, Bancker had to shoulder entire responsibility for winning a conviction of the prisoner on four charges and seventeen specifications.15
The indictments were entirely concerned with Wilkinson's career on the northern frontier since 1813. The majority of them were of a purely military character: they alleged that Wilkinson had delayed unnecessarily in leaving Fort George and Sacketts Harbor, that he had afterwards given proof of procrastination, poor tactical judgment, and neglect in the care of provisions and stores, that he had disparaged the Army and encouraged others to cowardice and disobedience of War Department orders, and that he was chiefly responsible for the fiasco at Lacolle Mill. To this list of shortcomings were added two very personal accusations: scandalous drunkenness and willful lying. To the entire lot, Wilkinson pleaded not guilty.
Poorly phrased and lacking in specific character, the indictments were extremely difficult to prove. Delays certainly had existed, but they were the results, not the cause, of widespread incompetence, and very probably would have been overlooked if the campaign had p311succeeded. No matter who commanded, they would have occurred, although unlikely to the same extent, for Wilkinson was entirely too cautious and did not appreciate the value of haste against the coming of winter. Unfortunately for himself, he was the highest ranking officer, and on him might be conveniently loaded the whole burden of delay. Even so, his former associates knew that Armstrong, Chauncey, Swartwout, and others had been anchor weights for some of his most spirited efforts. The members of the court could not apportion to each of these his share of guilt; they were trying Wilkinson alone, and, as most persons would have done under the circumstances, they found him not guilty.
Few were blind enough not to see that Wilkinson had contributed to a sluggish passage down the St. Lawrence. On occasions, his troops were scattered and entirely out of hand, and much time was lost before they could be reassembled. Nor did he calculate how rapidly the current would carry the flotilla and how slowly the flank-guard would move along the shore. In estimating a situation, he was seldom able to separate the wheat from the chaff in reports of the enemy. Few contemporary generals saw more dimly in the "fog of war." He was easily alarmed and made decisions quickly; and before he could recall erroneous ones it was too late. His corrective measures frequently increased prevailing confusion. In spite of these errors he might have gone on to victory had he possessed only sustained and inspiring leadership. The lack of this high moral quality produced disaster, particularly at Lacolle Mill, where the simplicity of his problem rendered his ignominious failure less excusable than in preceding operations.
For the great loss of provisions and stores, Swartwout and the system of supply must be held largely accountable. According to an agreement with the contractors, Isaiah and John Townsend, the government had to do the transporting of all rations down the St. Lawrence. This task fell on the officers and men of the Army, and they considered it just another job for the benefit of a few money-grubbing civilians. Swartwout supervised the loading in an indifferent sort of way: sometimes a boat was filled exclusively with bread, meat, or whisky. Contractors' agents, eager to make the bonus of one cent allowed for every ration issued, accompanied the troops. These subordinates were not numerous enough to attend to the business in hand; and, on occasions, only vinegar, soap, salt, bread, or whisky p312boats could be found when meat was sought for. Therefore officers and men helped themselves whenever they had inclination and opportunity, little caring how much they wasted. In the passage of the flotilla to Grenadier Island thousands of rations were destroyed by a violent storm. Looking after them was a thankless task to which few or none were definitely assigned. The contractors were not gravely disturbed, for they were allowed 12½ per cent for shrinkage, leakage, etc., and they might be paid on a larger scale if losses resulted from fire, water, the enemy, or troops of the United States. Swartwout gave receipts for provisions received at the depots, but received none in turn when agents withdrew them for issue. Afterwards they calculated how many they had issued and furnished him with a corresponding certificate. Thus Swartwout was cleared. The difference between the sum of the rations issued and the sum on hand from the original number stored at the depots was attributed to recoverable losses, and the Army was billed accordingly. As a consequence graft was common, soldiers were poorly fed, and the government paid excessively for what it received. This indefensible system was not to Wilkinson's liking, but he could do little to remedy it.16
Nor could the allegations be sustained that Wilkinson had been drunk, had lied about his orders, and invited others to cowardice. Reports were command that he had shown great exhilaration on the night of November 6 and 7, when several had listened with a tang of interest to a few dirty stories that he had pungently told. Always a fluent talker, perhaps a little stimulation did inspire risqué embellishments. Casually observing his loquacity and vivid manner, persons unacquainted with his character attributed both to only one cause — too much intoxicating liquor. This was the opinion of the farmer Thorpe when Wilkinson and a few others came to his house for shelter. On the other hand, never in all the rounds of investigation had Wilkinson been charged with drunkenness. Had his enemies been able to find a single instance of it, unquestionably they would have flaunted it before the public. As a matter of fact, Wilkinson in this respect was a person of moderation among his contemporaries. The idea seems unreasonable that he should break from his long established habits on a critical occasion when the flotilla was passing Prescott. p313Colonel Joseph G. Swift, later chief of engineers, whose veracity and knowledge of the facts cannot be questioned, declares the General's condition arose from taking too much laudanum, a stock remedy from alleviating bowel complaints from which most of the Army suffered. Such an explanation is more convincing than the contrary evidence produced by the enemies of the General and by those who knew little about him.17
When it came to the accusation that Wilkinson had lied in declaring that Armstrong had categorically ordered Montreal to be the first object of attack, the members of the court again rendered a verdict of not guilty. They were acquainted with Armstrong's methods. They knew he was not always truthful, that his orders were sometimes changed, frequently enigmatic, and once in a while verbally delivered. No one ever will know exactly what he said to the General; all can readily perceive that their common aim was to escape responsibility for the campaign's failure. In their welter of words one thing alone is clear: the offensive against Montreal would have been better off without the presence of either.
In respect to Wilkinson's advising cowardice, the prosecution had to base its case on a letter that he had written to Morgan Lewis on June 10, 1813, advising his old friend not to neglect personal safety in battle since his task was more to direct than to lead.18 Although this advice might well have been omitted, the War Department evinced a lack of good sense in spreading it broadcast. Whatever unfortunate implications the letter contained, Wilkinson had previously proved his bravery on many occasions. For this lapse in judgment he deserved being cautioned and having his letter censored,º but he should never have been court-martialed.
A somewhat similar procedure might have been employed in reference to the second specification of the third charge; namely, that of "damning the Army, the expedition, and himself" near Ogdensburg on the very same night that his tongue got to wagging with salacious yarns. At the time, the flotilla was attempting to sneak by Prescott; and, as he went here and there, he tried to correct the errors he saw, with compelling profanity. He was usually very casual about whom he damned, and on this occasion he showed no variation from habitual form except that he reserved for himself a proportionate share of his p314own abuse. His inhibitions were loosened, and he rejoiced to proclaim what a finished fool he was to head an expedition under the direction of Armstrong. This public outburst was unbecoming, especially from one who held the position that he did. On the other hand, Armstrong, as an old soldier, knew that, in war, moments arise when only by scathing abuse and personal violence are the lethargic stirred into action and the cowardly held in restraint. He knew that those who live in a small world of make-believe cannot fashion the patterns of conduct for men who run the gauntlet of battle. The action of the Secretary in drawing up this indictment against Wilkinson savored of persecution; it looked as if he were trying to magnify a common molehill into an unusual mountain for partisan purposes.
All of the above charges and specifications and others less important were carefully and impartially considered by the court. Wilkinson was given full opportunity for cross-examining the prosecution's witnesses and delivering his own extensive plea of innocence. He somewhat regretted that certain officers did not appear to give testimony for him, but the War Department insisted that they could not be spared from the work in which they were then engaged. Some, it seemed, were not especially eager to come, for the General had done them favors in the past and they did not care to show themselves apparently ungrateful by testifying in a way that might hurt his cause. The trial was long and tedious and did not end until the ice began to break and steamboats were seen again upon the Hudson. Not until the 21st of March did Henry Dearborn have ready the verdict — an honorable acquittal of Wilkinson on all charges and specifications. Shortly afterwards President Madison received the voluminous proceedings and began to read them carefully through. By this time he was well acquainted with Wilkinson's verbosity and could hasten through the distasteful task. On April 18, 1815, he took up his pen and signed them. Above his signature was this laconic comment: "The sentence of the court is approved."19
While Wilkinson's trial was going on, the War ended, and as a sequel laws were enacted for the reorganization of the Army on a peace-time basis. The act of March 3, 1815, reduced it to 10,000 men, who were to be commanded by two major-generals and four brigadier-generals.20 Consequently there could be retained in the service p315only 39 of the approximately 216 field officers and 450 of the 2,055 regimental officers. On Generals Brown, Jackson, Scott, Gaines, Macomb, and Ripley fell the unwelcome task of weeding out those considered less desirable.21 Those designated for discharge were to be given only three months' pay, no matter how long and honorable their service had been. On the older officers the law operated with cruel severity. They no longer possessed the physical stamina "competent to engage an enemy on the field of battle" — the standard that those sitting in judgment were directed to employ. A letter of Colonel Kingsbury is pitifully revealing:
"At the commencement of the Revolutionary War I entered the service of my country in which I have continued except [for] a few months at the close of the War and I am now at the advanced age of sixty turned out upon the world destitute of support with a large and helpless family and can expect no relief but from the Government whom I have served faithfully for more than forty years which is longer than any other officer or soldier in the United States."22
After his discharge, the colonel tried to earn something as a justice of the peace; almost nothing came from his efforts. Two of its well worn pages are partly filled with entries of fees since May 15, 1815; there are eleven all told and they amount to ninety-nine cents.23
Many other officers succeeded no better than Kingsbury in fitting themselves into the grooves of civilian life. As a partial consequence, they felt that the government had treated them shabbily, and bitterly voiced their complaints in the Aurora and other anti-administration papers. Wilkinson, of course, was in the number. Perhaps he had never entertained much hope of being retained after reading the provisions of the March law and finding out who were to compose the selection board. His discharge was none the less affecting when it came. Nearly thirty years of service, often spotted with failure but sometimes brilliant, honorable acquittals by court-martials, vindications by investigating committees, humiliating efforts to please the parties in power — all had availed him nothing; he was now let out by the back door and had to begin life over. His pride was hurt; he bitterly complained. Joining the "Association of Disbanded Officers,"24 p316he became an ardent crusader for their relief. Little good came from Wilkinson's efforts; adjustments were individual and had to be slowly and painfully made without any help from the government.
But the Democratic-Republicans, already preening themselves for the Era of Good Feeling, were disconcerted. They were plagued with his virulent comments and the embarrassing information that he scattered broadcast in letters and papers. Here was a man they would silence. Since he could not be intimidated, he might be bought off with kindness. "Have you been able to find any provision for General Wilkinson?" Madison inquired of Monroe.25 Between them, they admitted that his case was distressing. At a later date Madison continued: "I am willing to do the best we can for Wilkinson, and hope he may not frustrate our dispositions by insinuations or threats that must be defied. Whether he would suit at what you hint, I am at a loss to say."26 They soon found out; he tartly refused to be one of three on an Indian Commission.27 They thought he might be "touchy" about a return to the Canadian border where its duties would take him. They might have known that he was bitter from humiliation and his heart was full of hate. Dallas, the acting Secretary of War, was anxious. "General Wilkinson," he wrote, "has broken through all decorum, and indulges in the most malignant rage in every conversation. He will leave Washington next week to engage in active mischief elsewhere, his vehicle to be the Aurora. I wish you would provide for him abroad."28 Again they counseled together; they wanted to placate him with a dignified and remunerative position. What they had and would offer, he threw back in their faces. He did not want any "hush" money office; he was through with the Virginia dynasty; he detested their almsgiving proffers of peace.
The General had plans of his own; he wanted to complete his memoirs. He burned to express himself without the restraint that he might be expected to observe as a federal officeholder, although he never quite gave up the idea of getting once more on the government pay roll. Settling down near Philadelphia, he began the task of trying p317to correct the viewpoint of his "deluded country-men" in reference to the leading characters and events of his time.
The General was a news-hawk for sources, especially since his own ideas of truth and justice were to be established. He went over the battleground of Queenstown with Solomon Van Rensselaer, that of Germantown with another friend; he minutely studied these and other places of military importance and obtained proof of what actually occurred by interviewing not one but many an officer of the day.29 To assist him, friends and helpers searched reading rooms, pored over contemporary news files, hunted places where Congressmen were found, gathered information from old soldiers and faithful politicians, and checked and rechecked statements. In spite of his antipathy for the War Department, he called on it again and again for copies of its records.30
Sometimes visitors came and interrupted his work. They carried away with them a vivid picture of a round-faced, stocky man, knee-deep in papers that littered the floor, writing like one possessed.31 Celestine had left him, and gone to New Orleans as a passenger on the good ship Marmion. He missed her, wanted her; but she was more comfortable where she was, waiting the day of her confinement. He was then living modestly on five dollars a week, vigorously pushing a quill pen that never seemed to waver.32 For a while he lodged at Beggars Town (Bebberstown, Pennsylvania), and from here and elsewhere he wrote and rewrote to War Department officials for copies of papers that he needed to complete his narrative. Clerks were slow and appeared to have much to do. Burning with desire to quicken their efforts, Wilkinson explained to them his reasons for haste. "I have not a day to spare," said he, "from the labors necessary to protect my old age from penury — my humble means nor my time will permit longer delay." And "the press," he added, "has been stopped, at a considerable daily expense," for the lack of papers that have been requested.33
At the same time he was worrying because the War Department had not yet settled his accounts. He needed the three months' pay to which he was entitled when he had been discharged. And during p318his late campaign he had spent $3,317 as secret service money and paid out $4,006.14 for soldiers' damage to civilian property at French Mills and Chateaugay; besides there was $3,656.03 that had gone for the purchase of goods and services in the Southwest. Some items in the above amounts lacked Presidential approval, proper vouchers, and legal authority; and Wilkinson was called on for an explanation. He gave a plenty. He knew that, once these stoppages were removed, the old charges against him for fuel and transportation would be taken care of by the relieving act passed in his favor on July 1, 1812. He therefore went to Washington and skillfully pressed his case. About the beginning of the year 1816 he seems to have won a satisfactory settlement. Had he not been successful, he planned to petition Congress for relief.34
Thus, in spite of disappointing delays and financial tribulations, his work went on, page following page in rapid succession. Such progress had been made that on October 28, 1815, the following announcement appeared in Niles' Weekly Register:
"Literary — Mr. Small of Philadelphia, has issued proposals for publishing, in 3 vols. 8vo. a work entitled — Memoirs of my own times, by James Wilkinson, late major-general in the service of the United States; and the work will commence with the period of partial investment of the town of Boston, by the American Militia, in 1775, and terminate with the disorganization of the Army in 1815. Each volume to contain 500 pages, at $3 per vol. payable on delivery."
But not until April, 1817 were the volumes of his Memoirs ready for delivery. The narrative intended for posterity had been finished, "written with freedom and only regardful of the truth,"35 designed "to set forth every act of my life that may denote zeal or demonstrate patriotism."36 "Though with numerous blemishes," Wilkinson modestly admits, "it is approved by all persons except official sycophants — a testimonial for which I shall be remembered after the grave has received me, and my enemies are forgotten."37
The book is a rich personal document. Wilkinson struts across something less than two thousand pages in magnificent conceit. Maladjusted and irreconcilable, he would shine unblemished in a world p319of sin. Seizing upon his enemies' shortcomings, he describes them with almost iniquitous delight. To strengthen his own defense and his accusations against others, document after document swells the end of each volume. Usually these have been accurately printed, yet the inferences drawn from them are often no compliment to any one's logic. In all his croaking rhetoric, he is a virile, picturesque old general, a gossiping chronicler of unpolished and unexpurgated narratives in which most of the heroes of two wars are not effigies in cocked hats; they are men who are still alive as Wilkinson knew them, strong, violent, clashing forces that had wrecked his dreams of greatness.
In spite of the defects of haste, stalwart prejudice, personal animus, and an almost total lack of organization, his Memoirs met with heartening sales. By April 15, 1817, "the subscriptions had so far excelled the impression" that Wilkinson was having some difficulty in making distributions. With this encouragement, he toyed with the idea of writing more volumes and revising the ones already printed. His friends and admirers inspired him to do more. Dearborn wrote him a highly complimentary letter asking him "to go on and tell the truth of which they have been kept in the dark."38 The Aurora declared that the General had shown himself able to "unmask imposture in a spirit worthy of Sallust and with an energy worthy of Tacitus."39 Alexander Graydon, a friend and contemporary critic, thought the style was often lame and the narrative sometimes flat without "seducing embellishment." In spite of these defects, he still had kind words for the General:
"I must say that the General's work has improved my estimate both of his heart and intellect and that with all his vanities, his ambition and love of splendour, his heretofore faulty politics and management to stand well with the ruling power, his old age discovers a good deal of honorable and manly feeling, and shows a disposition to correct former errors."40
Others, however, were not so generous in praise. In 1820 the Literary and Scientific Repository and Critical Review published, as a leading article of the July issue, an essay on the General's Memoirs. Instead of being a literary criticism, it proved to be only a vehicle for a lengthy, heavy, and scandalous personal attack. Without any p320signature, it continued in the same abusive manner for three subsequent numbers. Then, without warning, its solid paragraphs suddenly stopped while the author, with grotesque efforts, attempted to conceal the fact that his publishers refused to have more of what he had written.41 Undismayed he returned to the attack twenty years later in a book of his own.
Wilkinson knew that John Armstrong was the hostile critic. He would have been disappointed without his attention. In 1816, the General had remarked, "I shall give Jack more than one topic to employ his Pen on, when my Books get out. . . . His abuse of me will not wipe out the infamy I shall attach to him."42 According to Wilkinson, Armstrong's later attack was made with "such acrimony and virulence" that its object was defeated. He was flattered that his "clumsy book" of Memoirs had attracted "the attention of a fiend." In retaliation he planned to publish a brief in his own defense, perhaps review the entire career of Armstrong.43
As it was, Wilkinson found himself too busy for incendiary polemics. His family needs were by no means covered by the generous pension that the Maryland legislature had almost unanimously voted him for Revolutionary services. It amounted to the half-pay of a colonel of dragoons.44 The expenses incident to his last court-martial and the publication of his books had been a heavy drain on his finances. And he had always chosen to be a prominent personage, a notable with a grand manner. As Poinsett observed, "he moved in the highest ranks of society."45 He had traveled far, and had always been careful to appear in a style befitting his position. He had loved laughter and good company, and had delighted to arrange an ostentatious background for his hospitality. Of course he had lived beyond his means, never hesitating in his demands on the future. Thus he needed all the profit that he could get from his Memoirs. With the assistance of others he tried to dispose of them privately in order to outwit "scoundrel booksellers." His scheme partly succeeded. Thanks to friendly and gratuitous aid he was able to collect ten dollars and a half for sets previously engaged and twelve to fifteen dollars for most p321of the rest.46 Three years later, when sales of his second edition began to slacken, he lowered the price to nine dollars on a hundred copies for which subscribers had failed to pay.47
In business and politics his energies were absorbed. True to form, he expressed himself without restraint upon the leading men and events of the day. Monroe was a "liar"; Jacob Brown, a "dirty dog"; Dallas, a "scoundrel"; Armstrong, a "rascal" — thus the roll-call of his enemies went on.48 For De Witt Clinton he had only flattering words, offering to support his candidacy for Governor of New York by writing articles in his behalf. In spite of Andrew Jackson's being an old enemy, he declared him possessed of more honor, independence, and patriotism than any of the others who were trying to be President. At Irish societies and political organizations, Wilkinson was often a guest, freely voicing his views. Wined and dined wherever he appeared, he was always ready with a hearty reply when flattering toasts to him were proposed. Happy at such gatherings in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere,49 he made the most of them, knowing that he would soon be far away from his friends in the East.
He was expecting to join his family soon in the Southwest. On June 7, 1817, the packet ship Orleans held out to sea with Wilkinson aboard as a passenger, and in about four weeks it reached the Mississippi.50 After disembarking, he departed in high spirits for the mouth of Wolf River, on the Bay of St. Louis, "to grow sugar cane and cotton," happily oblivious of the "miasmas" of the river bottom, that had so nearly spelled disaster for him eight years before. He must be at it, he said, clearing rich delta lands to keep good people warm, and to line his empty pockets.51 Cotton was then thirty-five cents a pound, sugar nine cents. Counting only ten or fifteen thousand dollars a year for net gain, surely in five years, or at the most seven, he would be able to return with his fortune restored and make fitting acknowledgements to his friends. He had hoped that his stanch supporter, Solomon Van Rensselaer, would join him, lured by the prospect of a profit of $5,000 the very first season. He did not come; p322he preferred to remain among the rolling hills of New York, where his ancestors had long lived in honor and comfort.52
Wilkinson's own plantation could scarcely be expected to yield these gratifying returns. He had paid $1,400 for it, giving only $400 in cash. It was a portion of the rich delta land of the Live Oak Grove estate, but not large enough to produce a handsome revenue, under the most favorable conditions.53 Nevertheless, Wilkinson liked to live there. In spite of illness and financial anxieties, he was enjoying a pastoral interlude of content such as he had not experienced in years. Celestine Trudeau was his "divine little creole." Truly French, she was obedient, courageous, self-forgetful, and charming — a wife whose virtues Wilkinson delighted to praise. He hated to be separated from her; while in the East he had kept her with him as long as he could. Then, attended only by her sister and servants, she had prepared to return to the home of her father in New Orleans. Wilkinson had arranged for their travelling with solicitous care, doing all he could for their comfort. They went by sea, and he engaged cabins and accommodations such as are necessary for "the sweetest female delicacy."54 Yet the voyage proved distressing. It was late summer and storms were frequent in the Atlantic and the Gulf. Celestine was also pregnant. Yellow fever prevailed, and slightly lesser plagues, those "epidemical visitations with which it pleased God to scourge" particularly the ports of the Southern coast. Five or six months after reaching New Orleans, she gave birth to a pair of charming daughters. They were born on January 23, 1816,55 and were given the names Stephanie and Theofannie,56 and were Wilkinson's superlative delight. When they were two years old and he had joined the family at New Orleans, he was still vastly proud: "Select two of your handsome boys for my angelic twins and we will mix the best Blood of America, England, and France." Along with this injunction to his old friend Thompson went news of his own domestic peace: "Adhering to my determination to make myself independent by exertion and industry, before I again go into the world, I decline all Company, refuse all public appointment, and in my Books, my Pen, my divine little Creole & our charming little Girls, I enjoy more tranquility p323[sic] & Happiness, than I have experienced in my variegated Life."57
In another letter of a somewhat later date, Wilkinson told of his literary aims. "I have not abandoned the idea of continuing my Memoirs," he says, "and am therefore desirous to collect every original scrap relative to Revolutionary transactions."58 He was elated because he had Washington's first Army order in manuscript. He was forever pestering his friends to obtain important data. He planned to write General Starrett and ask him about "a diagram of the Theatre and the merits of the military operations before Baltimore in 1814."59 He was bent on a task that would have daunted a much younger man. He hated to halt his pen after writing a mere two thousand pages; he wanted to round out what he had already written. He planned to enlarge his story of the Revolution, to describe the War of 1812 in greater detail, and sketch his own career from the time that he had resigned as secretary of the Board of War until the opening days of the Burr conspiracy. The volumes that he had published in 1816 covered "only a fifth" of his life; three more of about the same size should enable him "to render justice to the living and the dead, to record information for posterity."60 For the purpose, he had material on hand unknown to any one else. Unfortunately he never made use of it, for by 1820 his literary ardor had cooled. It was then that the agreeable gentleman and scholar, Darth Caldwell, visited Magnolia Grove Plantation. Shortly afterwards Wilkinson wrote to an old friend in Baltimore about the visit and the sale of a few remaining copies of his Memoirs.61 If he had been at work on another book, he would not have resisted the opportunity to say so.
His mind and energy were focused on another object. By 1820, ideas of democratic government had spread through France and the United States, and even to the Spanish possessions in America, each national group making its own interpretation of Republicanism. The force was contagious; Wilkinson felt a missionary urge. He hoped for American expansion, he wanted greater opportunities for commercial gain; but he looked for the two only after the South American countries had freed themselves from Old World tyranny. His spirit, p324ever volatile, burned to assist Mexico in her struggle for independence.
For a rôle like this Wilkinson was exceptionally fitted. Most of his career had been spent in dealing with the Spaniards. Although not speaking their language fluently, he knew how to control and circumvent them. Their minds were an open book to him. He resembled them greatly in the way that he sometimes contended for the appearance rather than for the essence of things. Americans generally offended the dons with their crudeness, but he charmed with the graceful ease of his manners and a meticulous consideration for their Castilian pride. Procrastination seldom caused him to worry, and often he chose the longest and most intricate path to an important objective. Careless with money, he generously spent his own or government funds — whichever came handy. Out of his long association with the Army he had learned the trick of producing impressions through colorful and ostentatious display. These characteristics were usually esteemed as virtues by the oversea children of Spain. In Mexico lay Wilkinson's opportunity; there strong men had risen to the pinnacle of success in the twinkling of an eye.
For years he had been in contact with filibusters who would overthrow the existing regime in the land of the Montezumas. In New Orleans was the Mexican Association, a group of business men who were trying to free Mexico. In Baltimore and Philadelphia he had become acquainted with many young patriots who were eager to overthrow tyranny in Latin America. Simon Bolívar, who justly won the title, "El Libertador," was probably one of them. He was a Venezuelan of excellent family, educated, an interested student of government, and one who had actually observed the French Revolution. In 1809 he had come to North America and traveled through the United States to see how a republic functioned. On his arrival in Venezuela, he had immediately identified himself with the revolutionists. Wilkinson's interest in Spain and her American dependencies, his own movements that year, as well as his familiar reference to Bolívar, bespeak early acquaintance.
Much the same can be said of Xavier Mina. After splendid resistance to French armies in Spain, he had suffered imprisonment in Vincennes at the hands of Napoleon. Then, disappointed with Ferdinand VII and his promises, he had fled of the London after a revolutionary fiasco in his native land. In 1816, accompanied by English and Italian followers, he had come to Baltimore, where he hoped to assist those p325already rebelling in Mexico. Here he purchased a brig that was to be converted into a vessel of war, and procured equipment, clothing, and food for his troops. When the expedition left Baltimore, in September, 1816, it consisted of two sailing vessels carrying two hundred infantry and a company of artillery, most of whom were from the United States. It was easy to find volunteers. The War of 1812 had left many out of the new economic system. Some were disappointed in the government they had fought to establish in 1775. Others had their idealism strangely mixed with a spirit of adventure. Whoever they were, they stood ready to proclaim liberty to the oppressed.
The Mexican Company of Baltimore sold arms and supplies to Xavier Mina, expecting him to pay for them as soon as circumstances would permit. José Manuel Herrera had also obtained munitions for the insurgents from Americans. Wilkinson had an interest in both these claims, although it may have been only his 15 per cent commission for collection.62 If he actually assisted in the acquisition of these supplies the proof is only circumstantial. Nevertheless, the members of the Mexican Company were his friends; and if any one in America could lay hands on old war matériel, Wilkinson could. Furthermore, the attention paid him on his subsequent visit to Mexico was more than his pleasing personality and his military title would justify. Apparently the Mexicans regarded him as a real godfather to the Revolution.
In helping them to freedom, Wilkinson discovered an agreeable outlet for his energies. He could not find it in his neighbors' worldly concerns — negroes and cotton. Though experienced in the handling of tobacco, he knew little about the cultivation of cotton. No matter how hard he tried, he never made his plantation yield a comfortable livelihood. Shortly after reaching Louisiana in 1816, he and his brother Joseph and others became interested in buying slaves in Maryland and adjacent states and selling them in Louisiana.63 Apparently Wilkinson shared only once in this sordid business. He hated the revolting aspects of slavery and inveighed against it. In 1821, he warned the people of Missouri against legalizing it. According to his opinion they were inviting a curse, they were reasoning with bias, they were actuated from habit, indolence, and a desire for ease. At the same time he called on his countrymen to hold fast to the Union — "the Rock p326of our Political Salvation." Its preservation meant more to those in the South and the West, though they were the very ones, as he thought, who were hastening its ruin through their "insatiate desire for limitless domain."64 A philosophy like this made only enemies in Louisiana; he found greater advantage in helping to spread ideas of a different brand.
In most of the important places where he had visited and had made strong friends, were influential groups who were interested in seeing Latin America win its independence. In New Orleans was the Association of Three Hundred, a group of Americans and Creoles interested in fostering commerce with Mexico, and purposefully effecting the spread of American ideas along with the sale of their merchandise. The business of outfitting Mexican rebel armies had grown to such proportions in New Orleans that both the Louisiana legislature and the United States Congress had passed laws to destroy it. In spite of legal handicaps it continued to flourish. In Philadelphia the press of Mr. Carey assisted in propaganda by publishing The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine. It was translated into Spanish and designed for "the particular use and benefit of Spanish America."65 A copy was sent to Stephen F. Austin, who was expected to present it to the governor of Texas for his perusal and then forward it to Mexico, "or where it may be most useful." In Baltimore existed the Mexican Company, from which filibusterers might obtain financial backing to carry out their designs. Planters along the lower Mississippi constantly heard of the rich land in the valleys of the Trinity, Brazos, and Colorado; they burned with desire to march out and possess it; Spanish ownership was no bar to their overweening cupidity. Thus Wilkinson could easily maintain contact with trouble-makers for Old World despotism in Latin America, either by writing to his friends in the East or by talking to his neighbors on adjacent plantations.
While many were centering their efforts on moving the United States border another step nearer the Pacific, Wilkinson, full of trouble, tried to find a part for himself in a world that seemed turning against him. "Hard labor with his own hands" had failed to line his empty pockets. His "divine Celestine" had been ill and suffered a miscarriage. When she had recovered and was "round and firm as a billiard ball," Wilkinson had a twenty-day siege of yellow fever, which p327left him "a mere skeleton." Neighbors were growing rich on cotton selling at thirty-five cents per pound, but he made little from his crops and trading ventures.66 During January, 1819, General Adair brought suit against him for false imprisonment during the Burr conspiracy. The Natchez court decided in favor of the plaintiff, and Wilkinson, without money to meet the judgment, was faced with a debtors' prison. In this predicament friends came to the rescue. They introduced a bill in Congress by the terms of which Wilkinson was given three thousand dollars, five hundred more than was actually necessary.67 The additional sum helped the frail old man, now sixty-three years old and working for his bread. In spite of troubles, his spirit was unbroken; and his mind was active as ever in plans for the future. One of them involved trying to get the pension of St. Clair, who had died, transferred to himself.68 Only Wilkinson would have entertained so unusual a notion.
While the court at Natchez was hearing General Adair's suit against General Wilkinson, there was a great stir along the southwestern frontier over the fact that President Monroe had signed away all claims to Texas. In Natchez a meeting of indignation was held and an expedition organized. Almost anything that would bring trouble to the "leather-headed ass Monroe" found favor with Wilkinson. When Dr. Long was chosen general of the invading force, Wilkinson's interest became deep and personal. Without strength or inclination to lead a campaign into Mexico or material resources to carry it on, Wilkinson made available his pen, influence, and all the lore of an old and far-traveled soldier to "the young Lion" of the battle of New Orleans. To this intrepid soldier, Wilkinson's niece, Jane H. Wilkinson, was already married. She and Wilkinson were both on hand while plans were ripening for the expedition to "jump off" from Natchez.
A republic, Texas by name, was to be established in the eastern part of the adjacent Spanish province. Once connections were made with the insurgents of Mexico, the republic would be a center from which to carry on a campaign to free the whole country. Long, a man of means in Natchez, staked his entire fortune on the result. After he had captured Nacogdoches, he found it necessary to leave for New p328Orleans to seek more capital. When he returned, his followers had scattered to the four winds. He had proved a better fighter than executive; he had trusted too much to the forms of government that he had set up; the men who had joined him were inherently filibusterers and adventurers, not colonists.
Long, however, was not to be stopped by the loss of his fortune or the failure of his first attempt. General Ripley, who had resigned from the Army, had recently turned to politics and the practice of law in New Orleans, and the new movement was guided by the united wisdom of himself and Wilkinson. To insure coöperation or, at least, recognition from the Republican Junta in Mexico, Ripley arranged for General Trespalacios, a recent exile in Cuba because of activities against the Spaniards in Mexico, to take nominal command. And Long, who appreciated the importance of connection with this most important group of revolutionists, submitted.
A constitution was adopted, probably of the joint composition of Ripley and Wilkinson. Ripley was invited by the Supreme Council of the Republic of Texas to become President and "ex‑officio Commander-in‑Chief of the armies and navies thereof." As head of the republic, so neatly laid out on paper, Ripley outlined and sent to Long the policy that he expected to pursue. He would cultivate peace, foreign trade, and religion. Education, manufacture, and agriculture, were to be encouraged. Roads would be built, canals dug, and the forests and waste places turned into plowed fields. Slavery would not be permitted. Ripley was a northern man and an idealist. Wilkinson was southern with practical ideas, thoroughly convinced of the evil effects of slavery.
Texas proved not so easy to reclaim as members of the expedition had hoped. Long's new establishment at Bolivar Point was again deserted by every one except his wife, her child Ann, and one small negro maid. He and his soldiers had advanced only to be captured by Spanish government troops. After the Treaty of Cordova, when Mexican independence had been made certain, they were escorted to Mexico City, where they were on the point of being rewarded as patriots when Long was shot by a Mexican sentry, a few days before the arrival of Wilkinson. Long's friends believed that death was due to assassination directed by Trespalacios, whom Americans had grudgingly made their leader in the recent expedition. In that capacity he had proved to be untruthful, and a dangerously ambitious trouble-maker. It was easy to see that the presence of Long interfered p329with his influence and advancement in Mexico. After he had been killed, Trespalacios was appointed Governor of Texas, thus receiving honors that rumor had already given to his rival.
General Ripley never came to Texas; his efforts for her independence now ended. An only son, however, was destined to take up his work, and be among the valiant few who died at Fannin's massacre in 1836.
Wilkinson's years of activity seemed definitely finished. It was not so; he was cherishing a great plan; he was determined to go to Mexico. He could not see Long play the rôle that he wanted himself. Yet neither separately nor together were his former business associates willing to finance for him a trip to Mexico. If they refused to consider him dishonest, they probably suspected him of being incapable, senile, and visionary. His uncertain health was definitely broken. His favorite of the angelic twins had died. His beloved Theofannie, as her father said, "was too good and too perfect for this world so God took her."69 Wilkinson had neither the means nor the desire to carry on further with the plantation.
In March, 1822, he sailed for Vera Cruz; he was going to Mexico, as he said, to improve his health. For his triumphant entry, sword, gold braid, and buttons were refurbished. There were newly tailored uniforms. His portrait of Washington by Stuart was packed to go with him.70 The old portmanteau was stuffed with notes on Mexican commercial relations, tariff reduction, tunnage, etc., and facts concerning Texas colonization — all to be brought forward at a convenient season. He wanted to be ready to discharge any kind of mission. The United States would be needing a representative in Mexico. That "ass" of a President might come to his senses and do something for him yet. Wilkinson would like being Minister to Mexico. He thought best to keep this hope of his to himself; he explained that he was going to Mexico for the sake of his health. He would probably be there a long while; bills were difficult to collect. He had a mass of them for the supplies that the Mexican Company of Baltimore had furnished to General Xavier Mina and his followers. If he succeeded in getting the Mexican Congress to pay them he would be given a commission of 15 per cent.71
Wilkinson left his family and his plantation in the care of his son, p330who with filial devotion later corresponded with the General about matters of business at home; as times became difficult for them both, the General quoted Scriptures for mutual consolation.72 Joseph Biddle Wilkinson believed in his father's plans, fully expecting success. Through his assistance and apparently that of the Mexican Company, the General went on his last, long journey in relative comfort.
He was going to a country rent with civil strife. On September 27, 1821, Agustín de Iturbide had been proclaimed "El Libertador," organizing the Regency of five members of which he was the de facto head. One of its members was O'Donojú, who had come over as Viceroy from Spain and, from necessity and convenience, had joined the patriots. After a constitution had been drawn up, Iturbide was proclaimed Emperor. On July 25, 1822, he was crowned with regal ceremony as Agustín I. During October he tried to create an "Instituting Junta" to take the place of Congress, which he dissolved. As a result he was forced to abdicate, and Congress appointed an Executive Triumvirate to assume the reins of control while a new constitution was written. In drawing it up Miguel Ramos Arizpe, leader of the Federalist group, played a dominant part. He was appointed head of the committee for an ad interim constitution, and produced in three days the "Acta Constitutiva."73 Under his leadership Mexico began to function under the Constitution of October 4, 1824. Guadalupe Victoria was elected as President. On November 25, 1825, the last Spanish soldier in Mexico, quartered at San Juan de Ulúa, surrendered.
They were in possession of the island fortress when Wilkinson appeared off Vera Cruz in April, 1822. They could readily train their guns upon the town or the approaches to it by water. Perhaps they prevented his ship from drawing up along the wharf and discharging her cargo and passengers. Perhaps customhouse officials objected. Whatever the reason, Wilkinson did not land for several days.74 He chafed at delay. His ship was no pleasant place to stay if it lay beyond the reefs, subjected to the rough water of the open sea. He was a poor sailor and usually fell sick in stormy weather. If it cast anchor p331in the lee of the island of San Juan de Ulúa, he was exasperated that he could not cross the •eight hundred yards or more of water and enter the old Spanish town with its thick gray walls of coral stone. He was eager to pass through its gates, follow the road westward through the shifting sand hills, ride past the mountain Orizaba, forever snow-clad and brilliant in a tropic sun. He was restless to be travelling to the heralds, where the climate was bracing and his business might be accomplished.
Panorama of Vera Cruz in 1846 from an old print in the Public Library of Vera Cruz, Mexico. Vera Cruz appeared almost the same in 1846 as when Wilkinson saw it in 1822.
While he paced the deck or lay in his cabin waiting to land, Wilkinson made notes for the "Observations" that he was to present Iturbide in November. In final form they concerned the existing evils of the Mexican tariff. Some of them were "those vexatious delays which merchants experience in the imperial custom's office, or through defect in organization of the service." To give point to his remarks, he told of the time when he "was a prisoner in the port of Vera Cruz"; he declared ships were detained for weeks before they were permitted to depart. To him the tariff was more than a political problem: it concerned the moral and social life of the swarming sans-culottes. The United States, he believed, could do much for her neighbors if only the Mexican trade laws were revised. Thus with an array of facts gathered far and wide over a long period of years, he argued for closer relations with the United States.75
Finally, after landing at Vera Cruz, he hastened on to Mexico City. Along the way he scattered advice freely, made friends, and stored his mind with facts that might help him later. About the 23rd of April he reached Puebla,76 a stronghold of Iturbide's supporters and the second largest city of all Mexico. Wilkinson decided to rest at this place three days before starting on the remaining •seventy miles of his journey; he wanted "to recover from an indisposition produced by fatigue." During his convalescence, he met Dr. Ramos Arizpe, an important official of the Cathedral. He had represented Mexico in the Cortes of León, when the Spanish constitution had been written, and had led a successful struggle for its application to Mexico. Through his influence "the meritorious O'Donojú" had come to Mexico as the last of the viceroys, turning patriot at Vera Cruz. Now O'Donojú had died, leaving a vacancy in the Regency, to which Ramos p332Arizpe's superior, the Bishop of Puebla, had been appointed. Ramos Arizpe was a statesman after Wilkinson's own heart, and a politician fit to give him a sensitive appreciation of the Mexican public. Their first meeting may have turned on constitutional comparisons. Significantly, the next year Ramos Arizpe was campaigning for a government by federation after the manner of the United States. Certainly the friendship between him and Wilkinson flourished with a constitutional bent. The General probably had a more powerful influence upon him than Austin is reputed to have exerted.
Austin took great credit for having sent Ramos Arizpe a copy of the United States Constitution. Ramos Arizpe's draft of the "Acta Constitutiva" does show points of resemblance with it. As a learned man and a student of government he was fully competent to make use of any American ideas that might be suitable for incorporation into Mexican law. Doubtless he adopted some of the suggestions of Wilkinson, who had a much wider and deeper knowledge of Spanish-American affairs than Austin. For this reason the General's indirect contribution to Mexico's constitution was probably greater. In apportioning credit to either of the two, it must be remembered that Ramos Arizpe was intelligent and did not need to lean upon others for intellectual guidance.
Wilkinson's connection with Ramos Arizpe apparently continued during the whole of his Mexican sojourn. As late as May, 1825, Baron de Bastrop was complaining to Austin of his influence. The "Plan of Colonization" sent by Ramos Arizpe to the first "constituent legislature" of the province of Texas, he said, was a piece of Wilkinson's work. The part of the "cursed plan" prohibiting slavery gave Bastrop "no end of trouble." "Wilkinson," he commented, "is like the dog in the garden, not being able to eat grass, he will not permit the ox to enjoy it either."77
When these remarks were made, Wilkinson was in Mexico City trying to get the government to pay in land the debts of the Mexican Company and others. He had reached there on April 28, 1822. Three days later Stephen F. Austin wrote that the General had the confidence of the Mexican government "to a high degree," received "distinguished attention," lived with the Captain-General of the province, and was visited by General Iturbide and members of the Regency.78 p333José Manuel Herrera was minister of state, the very same person who had purchased arms in New Orleans about the time of Long's first expedition. Perhaps he helped Wilkinson become favorably known to the existing powers in the capital. Being so well received induced Wilkinson to believe that he was especially qualified to discharge any mission that the United States government might entrust to him. He therefore wrote and offered his services. The President had nothing to suggest; a year later the same was true. Though disappointed, Wilkinson still could boast of the independence which he declared that he never would barter away for all the "gifts and graces" at the disposition of the "little Jesuit Madison or his Bifaced successor Monroe."79
Unquestionably Wilkinson stood well with the Mexican government, if not his own. One news item in the United States declared that he had "an office under Iturbide worth $15,000 per year."80 If, indeed, Wilkinson was one of his paid foreign advisors, the position permitted him to make no comment. At the banquet following the coronation of the Emperor, he was present.81 Three days before, Austin had forwarded to Iturbide a "Petition" and a copy of a "Memorial" to Congress. With these two important documents he thought best to include the letter of introduction that the General had given him.82 After A. C. Rodney, a member of Congress especially interested in South American affairs, had heard of Wilkinson's letter to Monroe, he forwarded to the President this interesting bit of gossip: "Wilkinson has prevented sending minister to U. S. after Minister has been selected."83 Rodney happened to be wrong. Wilkinson was on good terms with the minister-elect, and was anxious for him to be on his way; only the state of the Mexican treasury detained him.84
Wilkinson was learning and planning much; he thought of writing a history of Mexico that would correct some of the errors in Humboldt's work.85 His unused notes on the American Revolution were still available; the startling comparisons that he had observed in regard to the two American revolutions would furnish excellent copy. He p334knew intimately the men who had fought with Washington, and those who were driving Spain out of the New World were his frequent guests. Whether they were Mexicans or Americans, he judged them with unusual acumen.
From his first acquaintance Wilkinson was disappointed with Iturbide, who was to become Emperor as Agustín I. When the Emperor and his wife paid the General a call, he said nothing "worth recording." About a fortnight later, on May 11, 1822, Wilkinson avoided any characterization of the distinguished guest in a letter to Monroe.86 On the 1st of August he correctly described the political situation to De Witt Clinton. He told of his own efforts to play the rôle of a "minister of Peace," to conciliate the warring factions; he hoped that the Emperor would act "fairly, uprightly and justly," although his enemies charged him with the determination "to dissolve the Cortez, restore the Jesuits, and reëstablish the Inquisition." Any one of these errors, Wilkinson believed, would be the forerunner of the Emperor's downfall.87 Within a year his worst forebodings were verified. He declared Iturbide to be a man who had cheated his followers, more of "the Lamb than the Lion," "the Spinster than the Soldier," an unhappy combination of ambition and vanity, "a stranger to Integrity."88 To save himself Iturbide abdicated on February 19, 1824.a Although enjoying a comfortable pension as an exile in Italy and faced with a decree against his return, he had the temerity to attempt a coup after the manner of Napoleon and entered Soto la Marina, Mexico, in disguise. He was captured and almost immediately executed, July 14, 1824,b by order of the Congress of Tamaulipas.
Neither Wilkinson nor Stephen F. Austin had faith in the ability of the Mexicans to form a stable government. Austin's opinion of them was none to flattering. Of them he wrote:
The population, however, is very much mixed and a great proportion of them are miserably poor and wretched, beggars are more numerous than I ever saw in any place in my life — robberies and assasins [sic] are frequent in the streets, the people are bigotted [sic] and superstitious in the extreme, and indolence seems to be the general order of the day — in fact the City Magnificant [sic] as it is in appearance is at least a century behind many other places in point of p335intelligence and improvement in the Arts. The majority of the people of the whole nation, as far as I have seen them, want nothing but tails to be more brutes than Apes . . . thank God there are no Fryars [sic] near the Colorado, and if they come to distress me, I shall hang them for a certainty unless an army protects them."89
Wilkinson held similar views about the character and ability of the Mexicans. He declared, they "are resolutely determined to resist a despotism and yet are utterly! utterly! unqualified to organize, administer or enjoy a free republic — an idolatrous, ignorant, unmoral people, without disposition or capacity for rational Government founded on Liberty."90
From the spring of 1822 to the winter of 1825, a period of more than three years, Wilkinson saw first one, then another, Mexican faction rise and fall. He always managed to be on friendly terms with the one in power. He was at home in a government of military men. After years of experience he had finally added wisdom and persuasive graces to his unique personality. He had become a mellowed and discerning diplomat.
To escape the violence and pandemonium in the heart of the city Wilkinson retired to lodgings in a quiet and remote section of the city. Even there he was sought out by those who would recover claims against the government or who were asking favors or grants of land. The Capital was swarming with American and other foreign adventurers. Travelers and representative citizens sat round his hospitable board. Many others might have written, like Joel R. Poinsett, United States Minister to Mexico: "We stopped at the lodgings of our countryman, General W–––––, who received us in the kindest manner; he has been sometime here, and we sat up to a late hour, listening to his interesting account of the country."91
Wilkinson carefully avoided giving offense by associating with the enemies of the government. When Long and his followers were under the ban, he denied having any sympathy with them, although he had been of great aid to them in the past. In his "Reflections on the Province of Texas," prepared for Iturbide, he declared they were demoralized wanderers, "slothful, ready to vice, insensible to social affection and really permanent social life"; no one with any goodness p336or religion would associate with them, and Long, he added, was nothing but an "imposter." At the time of these strictures Long had been killed. Trespalacios, the probable instigator of his assassination, had been appointed Governor of the Province of Texas, and Wilkinson was trying to get a grant of land for himself in this very territory.
Toward the latter part of December, 1822, Wilkinson was hopeful of success: "I am making an effort to acquire a precious tract of land in the province of Texas divinely situated on the Coast of the Gulph with a good harbour & salubrious climate, with Fish and oysters at the Door and droves of Buffalo & wild horses in thousands on our rear. If I succeed I am desirous to make a settlement of the well born & break out the second year in extensive production of Sugar and Cotton — you will be permitted to introduce negroes — the voyage is only three days west of the Mississippi — say at Galvez Town . . . not a breath of this project because it may not succeed."92
If by "negroes" Wilkinson meant slaves, he showed that even in his old age he was willing to be inconsistent if himself or his friends benefited thereby. Perhaps his very inconsistency helped him to keep in favor with the Regency, the Constitutional Empire, the Instituting Junta, the Triumvirate, the Constituent Congress, the administration of Victoria Guadalupe, and various ad interim powers. Throughout the per covered by them all, he labored with patience and long-suffering to collect "Revolutionary debts" and to secure his "precious tract of land."
Though often duped by the Imperial and Republican governments and exhausted with anxiety, he continued his determination to serve the Mexican people. He sought to strengthen their connection with the United States. He tried to convert Iturbide to this idea, reminding him that the two countries should be bound together in "one body politic," neither trespassing upon the rights of the other.93 He wrote to De Witt Clinton expressing the hope that the "Guardian Angel of Columbia may extend her beneficient [sic] protection to an Idolatrous, Ignorant, unmoral People, without disposition or capacity for rational government."94 To Thomas Aspinwall, United States Consul at London, he hinted that there might be reasons to fear British and French efforts at joint control of Mexico; he thought p33715,000 of their troops could march unimpeded to the Capital after a single combat.95 Perhaps Wilkinson when Aspinwall to transmit this information back to the State Department at Washington. The Monroe Doctrine had not yet been proclaimed. After it had been, Wilkinson warned Jefferson on March 21, 1824, that a United States minister to Mexico was needed; he thought the British were exercising undue influence through their loans. In the same letter he expressed "the desire to behold the People of the Western Hemisphere a close knit League of National Republicans, Independent of European Alliances and Conexions [sic]"; he believed that the United States in concert with the "enlightened and virtuous few of Mexico could control the rest of the benighted inhabitants and keep them "within the pale of Republicanism." Bolívar, he declared, would be an efficient agent in promoting such friendly concert.96
During July, 1823, Wilkinson presented his large Stuart portrait of Washington to the Congress of Mexico. The time was opportune; the great Mexican Constitution was before the people for adoption. To them, only less than to Americans, Washington typified the great soldier and statesman who, after freeing his country, had preserved it from confusion and anarchy. His portrait would be a constant inspiration for others to emulate his distinguished example. The Mexicans were deeply appreciative of the gift, and Wilkinson was heartily thanked. Thus he deftly made friends for himself and the United States.97
He needed to be favorably and widely known. Congress was not moved entirely by the intrinsic merits of a case: the popularity of the petitioner was important. The character of claims for which Wilkinson sought adjustment varied. He wanted an appropriation for the "widowed children of two citizens of the United States," reimbursement of the Mexican Company for supplies it had furnished, disposition made of the flimsy bill of Cox and Elkins of New Orleans, a cash settlement of $15,000 for services rendered by some one else, possibly himself.98 These and other claims, some honest, others fictitious, Wilkinson handled with consummate skill. Working for others did not retard his efforts to obtain a princely grant for himself. Doing p338business like this in a foreign land was not easy. Changing administrations considered his claims and filed them away. Procrastination followed procrastination. Toyed with by some, duped by others, he still persisted. To his friends Samuel Smith and Thomas Jefferson he wrote in the early days of 1824, inveighing against the people and the government that had deceived him.99 He knew that he had only a short span of life remaining, and he yearned to spend it with his faithful Celestine, his charming Stephanie, and that interesting son Theodore, who was now only four or five. He did not care to remain longer in the barren Mexican uplands; he wanted to be back in the Valley of the Mississippi, where his friends were old and understanding.
Not until March 17, 1824, were there prospects that his business would soon be ended. Then a law was enacted establishing the principles on which his claims were to be adjusted. By its provisions the different states in the Republic could make their own dispositions covering their unoccupied land. On March 24, 1825, the empresario system was authorized. An empresario was none other than a promoter to whom the government gave a large tract of land contingent on bringing into Mexico a number of colonists in accordance with certain conditions. Wilkinson wished to obtain a grant in Texas, and here Trespalacios, for whom he had probably done favors, was Governor. The tide was beginning to turn in the General's favor. On September 1, 1824, he was able to write to his son Joseph that he had made a contract that would enable him to leave Mexico in two or three weeks.100 He may have thought best to abandon all the remaining unsettled claims except one for $15,000 in cash. This one, as well as the final details discovering others, detained him much longer than he expected.
While he waited, his never idle mind turned to a variety of interests. He investigated the possibility of silver mining in Mexico. The difficulties proved insurmountable; mines were inaccessible, machinery unobtainable, and potential competitors were established already in the industry. At one time he thought of buying mules and driving them overland to Louisiana, where they might be sold at a handsome profit. But such a business involved long, hard riding — and he was growing old. As a life member of the American Bible Society he p339requested a large number of Testaments for distribution among the ignorant and ungodly. Before they could be shipped, his work in Mexico had ended.101 When Stephen F. Austin started north in 1823, he and Wilkinson conceived the idea of selling thirteen-dollar watches to people along the way. Austin did the peddling. On reaching Saltillo he wrote back that the speculation on one side was profitable; he did not mention the buyer, whose thoughts may have been profanely different.102 From time to time Wilkinson wrote and told his friends of the plans that he was perfecting to colonize in Texas; their success, of course, depended on the grant of land for which he adroitly and continuously labored. When swindlers cheated him — and there were several — he tried to have them apprehended when they landed in New Orleans; they were a heavy tax upon his purse and patience. Although he lived modestly, he needed a small and dependable revenue, and sometimes he was hard put to get it.
During March, 1825, Wilkinson wrote in deep distress to his son Joseph, asking for a loan. For previous advances and what he hoped to obtain the General sent him a "grant for •100,000 acres" on either of two tracts that he expected to colonize. Both contained •something more than 5,000,000 acres; one was in the northeast corner of Texas, the other in the vicinity of Galveston Bay.103 Not to be thwarted by other empresarios or defeated by the well known trickery of Trespalacios, Governor of Texas and Coahuila, he planned to make his grants doubly sure through the influence of Joel R. Poinsett, who had arrived at the Capital in June as United States Minister to Mexico. He asked Poinsett for a letter of introduction to the Governor, and apparently it was given in the form desired.104 Still not confident that the government's promise to him would be fulfilled, Wilkinson continued in Mexico. As affairs turned out, he was unable to perform his own part of the bargain, and neither he nor his family profited from the magnificent estate that might have been theirs. His failure was not unusual. Stephen F. Austin was about the only one of the empresarios who really succeeded. Wilkinson's wife, Celestine, had to be content with a parcel of •one hundred and sixty acres that the United States gave her because of her husband's service in the Army.105
p340 If Wilkinson had kept strong and active, his last great enterprise might have ended happily. It was far otherwise. From the summer of 1825, the refreshing breeze of the highlands no longer lent vigor to his declining health. The chronic diarrhoea from which he had suffered for many years became more aggravated. Opium, the common remedy of the time, gave little relief. In December those near his "little villa on La Vega" failed to see him mount his horse and ride out for his morning exercise. He had taken to his bed and was daily growing weaker. Only large doses of opium eased his protracted pain. Celestine had come, but her efforts were unavailing. Three days after Christmas his friends stood by and closed his unseeing eyes. The General had finished his travels and had made his first and last surrender.106
He was removed to the home of Poinsett, and there gathered the distinguished of the city to pay their final tribute before his interment in consecrated ground. Friends would have buried him with military honors, but these were not permitted even to citizens of Mexico. The General's obsequies were therefore simple. Dr. Don Ciro Villaurutia read the service of the Catholic faith, and in the cemetery of the Archangel San Miguel the sexton placed a marker on a newly made grave. In time his remains, with those of others, were gathered up and indiscriminately buried in a common vault. Afterwards his countrymen were too late when they would have returned them to his native land; they could do nothing, only leave them beneath the floor of the Church of the Archangel San Miguel until the course of Earth is finished.107
1 To Armstrong, Apr. 12, 1814, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
2 Wilkinson, Memoirs, III, 492‑493; Niles' Register, Apr. 23, 30, 1814; Albany Gazette, May 5, 1814; Madison to Sec. of War, May 17, 1814, in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (Worthington ed.), III, 397‑398.
3 Sec. of War to Wilkinson, Apr. 28, 1814, in Memoirs, III, 493.
4 To Van Rensselaer, May 12, 1814, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library; Nicoll to Kingsbury, June 14, 1814, Kingsbury Papers, Vol. III.
5 To S. Van Rensselaer, June 8, 1814, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
6 To S. Van Rensselaer, July 17, 1814, Huntington Library and Art Gallery; Madison to Sec. of War, June 20, 1814, in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (Worthington ed.), III, 407; Wilkinson to Armstrong, June 16, 1814, Rawle Collection.
7 To S. Van Rensselaer, July 17, 1814, Huntington Library and Art Gallery.
8 To S. Van Rensselaer, July 17, 1814, Huntington Library and Art Gallery.
9 Memoirs, I, 760‑761.
10 To H. Lee, Aug. 12, 1814, Huntington Library and Art Gallery.
11 To Madison, Sept. 15, 1814, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.; to Williams, Oct. 3, 1814, Williams Papers, Vol. VI.
12 To Williams, Oct. 3, 1814, Williams Papers, Vol. VI.
13 Wilkinson, Memoirs, III, 4‑5.
14 Lewis to Mrs. Lewis, Jan. 5, 1815, in Delafield, Life of Francis Lewis and Morgan Lewis, II, 108‑109.
15 Wilkinson, Memoirs, III, 6‑22.
16 Swartwout's and James Thorne's testimony, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, III, 42‑72, 98‑106; Contract between Armstrong and Anderson, Feb. 25, 1813; and Thorne to Townsend, Oct. 28, 1813, Papers of I. and J. Townsend.
17 Testimony of King, Thorne, Walbach, Macomb, Bull, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, III, 73, 104, 144‑145, 163, 211; testimony of Swift, in Swift, Memoirs, 116.
18 To Lewis, July 6, 1813, in Memoirs, III, 115‑116.
19 Wilkinson, Memoirs, III, 496.
20 Callan, The Military Laws of the U. S., 234‑235.
21 Dallas, Life and Writings of Alexander James Dallas, 370‑375.
22 Kingsbury to Crawford, Apr. 16, 1816, Kingsbury Papers, Vol. III.
23 Account Book, Ibid.
24 Hay, "General James Wilkinson — the Last Phase," in Louisiana Hist. Quarterly, XIX (Apr., 1936), 410.
25 Madison to Monroe, Apr. 18, 1815, Monroe Papers (Library of Congress), Vol. XV.
26 Madison to Monroe, May 2, 1815, ibid.
27 Madison to Dallas, May 24, 1815; Dallas to Madison, May 27, 1815; Madison to Dallas, June 1, 1815; all in Dallas, op. cit., 427, 430‑432.
28 Dallas to Monroe, May 28, 1815, Monroe Papers (Library of Congress), Vol. XV.
29 Wilkinson to Van Rensselaer, Dec. 29, 1815, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
30 To Graham, Sept. 13, Dec. 16, 28, 1815, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
31 Hay, op. cit., 412.
32 To Dearborn, Mar. 17, 1817, Wilkinson Papers, Library of Congress.
33 To Graham, Dec. 16, 28, 1815, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
34 A copy of Wilkinson's account by Tobias Lear, Nov. 22, 1815; Worthington to Lear, Sept. 20, 1815; Wilkinson to Crawford, Nov. 22, 1815; Act of July 1, 1812 — all in W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
35 Wilkinson to Van Rensselaer, Feb. 14, 1817, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
36 To Madison, Apr. 5, 1816, Madison Papers, Vol. LVIII.
37 To (?) Apr. 15, 1817, Miscellaneous Papers, N. Y. Public Library.
38 Wilkinson to (?), Apr. 15, 1817, Miscellaneous Papers, N. Y. Public Library.
39 Hay, op. cit., 414.
40 Graydon to Lardner, May 5, 1817, Gratz Collection.
42 To Van Rensselaer, June 30, 1816, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
43 To Van Rensselaer, Jan. 16, 1821, Ibid.
44 Brumbaugh, Maryland Records, II, 408.
45 Fragment from the Poinsett Papers, Vol. II, Hist. Soc. of Pa. Library.
46 To (?), Apr. 15, 1817, Miscellaneous Papers, N. Y. Public Library.
47 To Thompson, June 7, 1820, Libr. of the City of Boston.
48 To Van Rensselaer, Dec. 29, 1815, June 30, Sept. 24, 1816, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library; to Van Rensselaer, Mar. 25, 1816, Darlington Papers.
49 Hay, op. cit., 412‑413.
50 The Aurora, June 9, 1817.
51 To Thompson, Jan. 14, 1818, Darlington Papers.
52 To Van Rensselaer, Mar. 10, 1817, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
53 Wilkinson, General James Wilkinson, Soldier and Pioneer, 32.
54 To Thompson, May 23, 1815, Gratz Collection.
55 To Van Rensselaer, Feb. 25, 1816, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
56 To Williams, Dec., 1822, courtesy of T. W. Streeter and T. R. Hay.
57 To Thompson, Jan. 14, 1818, Darlington Papers.
58 To Van Rensselaer, Dec. 14, 1819, Abstract in Henkel's Cat. No. 842 (1900).
59 To Thompson, Jan. 4, 1818, Darlington Papers.
60 To Dearborn, Mar. 17, 1817, Wilkinson Papers, Library of Congress.
61 To Thompson, June 7, 1820, A. L. S., Public Library of the City of Boston.
62 Goodwin to Wilkinson, July 15, 1822, Records Md. Court of Appeals, Hall of Records, Annapolis, Md.
63 Wilkinson to Van Rensselaer, Nov. 7, 1816, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
64 To Van Rensselaer, Jan. 16, 1821, Wilkinson Papers, N. Y. State Library.
65 Sibley to J. E. B. Austin, June 6, 1822, "Austin Papers," in Annual Report Amer. Hist. Assn., 1919, Vol. II, Part 1, p525.
66 To Thompson, Jan. 14, 1818, Darlington Papers.
67 Niles' Weekly Register, Jan. 23, 1819, and Annals of Congress, 16th Cong., 1st Session, 613, 619, 675, 678, 1298.
68 To Van Rensselaer, Dec. 14, 1819, Henkel's Cat. No. 842 (1900), p76.
69 To Williams, Dec., 1822, courtesy of T. W. Streeter and T. R. Hay.
70 To Monroe, May 11, 1822, Monroe Papers, Vol. XX, Library of Congress.
71 Goodwin and others to Wilkinson and Smith, July 15, 1822, Account Book, Md. Court of Appeals, Hall of Records, Annapolis, Md.
72 Wilkinson to J. B. Wilkinson, Mar. 24, 1825, courtesy of Mrs. W. H. Palmer, Jr., and T. R. Hay.
73 Priestley, The Mexican Nation, a History, 261‑262.
74 Sibley to J. E. B. Austin, June 6, 1822, Annual Report Amer. Hist. Assn., 1919, Vol. II, Part 1, p525.
76 Reilly to Hawkins, Apr. 26, 1822, in Annual Report Amer. Hist. Assn., 1919, Vol. II, Part 1, p500.
77 Bastrop to S. F. Austin, May 6, 1825, Ibid., 1088.
78 Austin to Hawkins, May 1, 1822, Ibid., 504‑505.
79 To Aspinwall, Apr. 17, 1823, printed in Bulletin N. Y. State Library, III, 362.
80 Draper MSS. 5 J 16, State Hist. Soc. Wis.
81 National Intelligencer, Oct. 12, 1822.
82 Austin to Iturbide, May 25, 1822, "Austin Papers," in Annual Report of Amer. Hist. Assn., 1919, Vol. II, Part 1, pp518‑519.
83 Rodney to Monroe, July 13, 1822, Monroe Papers, Library of Congress.
84 To De Witt Clinton, Aug. 1, 1822, Clinton Papers, Columbia Univ. Library.
85 Clinton to Wilkinson, July 29, 1823, Ibid.
86 To Monroe, May 11, 1822, Monroe Papers, Library of Congress.
87 To Clinton, Aug. 1, 1822, Clinton Papers, Columbia Univ. Library.
88 To Aspinwall, Apr. 23, 1823, printed in Bulletin N. Y. State Library, III, 362.
89 S. F. Austin to J. E. B. Austin, "Austin Papers," in Annual Report Amer. Hist. Assn., 1919, Vol. II, Part 1, p531.
90 To Clinton, Aug. 1, 1822, Clinton Papers, Columbia Univ. Library.
91 Poinsett, Notes on Mexico, etc., 63.
92 To Williams, Dec., 1822, courtesy of T. W. Streeter and T. R. Hay.
94 To Clinton, Aug. 1, 1822, Clinton Papers, Columbia Univ. Library.
95 To Aspinwall, Apr. 17, 1823, printed in Bulletin N. Y. State Library, III, 361‑363.
96 To Jefferson, Mar. 21, 1824, Jefferson Papers, Vol. CCXXVI.
97 Mateos, Historia Parlamentaria de los Congresos Mexicanos, II, 451, 457.
98 Hay, "General James Wilkinson — the Last Phase," La. Hist. Quarterly, XIX (Apr., 1936), pp429‑430.
99 To Smith, Jan. 27, 1824, Amer. Art Assn. Cat. No. 376, Apr. 13, 1921; to Jefferson, Mar. 21, 1824; Jefferson Papers, Vol. CCXXVI.
100 Wilkinson to J. B. Wilkinson, Sept. 1, 1824, Files of T. R. Hay.
101 Hay, op. cit., 433‑434.
102 S. F. Austin to Wilkinson, May 11, 1823, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
103 To J. B. Wilkinson, Feb. 25, Mar. 24, 1825, Files of T. R. Hay.
104 To Poinsett, July 9, 1825, Poinsett Papers, I, 179.
105 Hay, op. cit., 435.
106 Daily National Intelligencer, Feb. 11, 20, 1826.
107 Gulf Coast Historical Magazine, I, 288; Senate Executive Documents, No. 6, 42nd Cong., 3rd Session.
a Probably just a slip in Jacobs' notes, but Iturbide abdicated on March 19, 1823. By February 1824, he had already arrived in Italy (August 2, 1823), found it inconvenient, roamed around Europe, and "settled" in London, where he was preparing to return to Mexico.
b The date of his death is wrong in the text (possibly just a typographical error): he landed in Vera Cruz on July 14, 1824, and was apprehended the same day, but was executed on July 19.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 16 Jun 13