Most of those who were friends of the first four Presidents were not far travelers within the limits of their country; they seldom ventured out of the State that had given them birth. Few cared to suffer the hardships of crossing the Appalachians or to incur danger from Indians beyond the Mississippi unless they were dominated by a great personal desire or acting under government orders that they could not readily evade. For the general population, New Orleans, Detroit, and Albany were merely geographical expressions — outposts on the periphery of a wilderness that only pioneers were wont to explore. The more conservative who succeeded in meeting competition along the eastern seaboard did not harken to the call of cheap lands across the mountains or in the fecund river valleys of the Southwest unless the spirit of adventure conquered the discerning judgment that had created their opulence. In time, these who remained at home became more set in English patterns; even their passing was marked by tombstones cut like those in quiet country churchyards across the sea. The frontier, with its years of hardships, was for hardy young men who yearned for a greater and more exciting future than that which their drab and conventional birthplaces indifferently offered them. They were the more daring few who cleared and plowed under new lands and created a virile democracy. For their less aggressive countrymen they won an imperial domain. In payment they demanded the elimination of certain outworn political theories and social practices. As frontiersmen they were concerned with essentials; they had slight esteem for convention; they created a type distinctly American. To critical foreigners these representatives of new ideals of living often appeared gross, frequently dishonest, commonly illiterate, and generally egotistical beyond limit; in their myopia they overlooked those worthier qualities of bravery, open friendliness, tenacity of purpose, and a heartening confidence in all the vicissitudes of life. Of the many able men in the early days of the United States not a few displayed several of these estimable qualities while they lagged little behind their critics in culture and Old World vices.
p. x James Wilkinson was such a one. Possessing a formal education somewhat better than that of the successful planters of his day, he supplemented it by extensive travel and a wide range of friends throughout a long and active career. From 1777 to 1825 there were few persons of importance within the United States whom he did not claim sooner or later as friend or enemy. He made both easily. Simultaneously, no significant event in the United States escaped his comment, and often he was personally concerned in it. Moving constantly from place to place, he was hailed as the bearer of the latest news from where he had last raised his marquee or found shelter in the home of friends; and if he did not tell profusely what he knew in person, he wrote it verbosely by letter. He seldom judged men or things without bias, and often judged them so hastily that his opinion is of little value; he was, in fact, a strong partisan and a sturdy advocate, and if it redounded to his personal advantage he could do much for those whom he liked. Whatever he did was usually embroidered with ballyhoo: he was a great showman, never disturbed by a sense of modesty. Habitually vigorous in manner and speech, he seldom failed to make an impression and often gained stanch adherents for his cause. Open-handed with what he had, he was chronically in need of money to support his entertaining and display, but he was consistently casual concerning the sources from which his funds came. If the Spaniards, for example, were willing to pay for information and advice, he did not hesitate to give both, although he commanded the Army of the United States; if his own government could be induced to pay a questionable item, he did not hesitate to include it in his vouchers. Loyalty to his friends and his government endured only so long as his personal interests were served. This cardinal weakness has raised against him a great mountain of odium that some persons have obviously tried to heighten. His faults were so numerous and striking that one need never consult the chronicles of the prejudiced in order to add interest to the story of his colorful career. Were he nothing more than the peerless archvillain that John Randolph and others have painted, even the dull-witted must wonder why Washington, John Adams, and Jefferson allowed him to be commander of the Army for nearly twenty precarious years of the Republic.
In time of war Wilkinson proved unfit for high military command. His ability was not pronounced in the conduct of active operations; p. xi it lay in a sort of practical diplomacy, often dubious in its ethics though usually acceptable in his time. His conclusions were not arrived at by the careful process of synthetic reasoning; they were based more frequently on a superficial examination of information that was easily available but not always true. He did not weigh right or wrong in an apothecary's scales. Had he insisted upon a finely measured and unbending justice he would not have been acceptable to those along the Mississippi and the Ohio; for their rules of conduct were sometimes as rude as their clothes and as rough as the houses that they built and the food that they ate. They were concerned with the fundamentals of living and whether or not a few more Spaniards or Indians were robbed or killed or cheated mattered little to them so long as they were permitted to follow unhampered their own ways of life on the rim of the wilderness. Wilkinson's knowledge of these adventurers and the country that they would possess was exceeded by few, if any, of the Presidential advisers. Since some of the most pressing problems of the first three administrations concerned the frontier, Wilkinson proved of distinct help in solving them. Oftentimes, though very ruefully accepting the task that the President, his commander-in‑chief, assigned him, he did not dare to rebel openly like those who were controlled only by ties of a common political faith. If failure attended his efforts, no particular odium fell upon the party in power: it was regarded as just another Army blunder. If he met with success, the administration might claim it as another reason for continuing things as they were. Wilkinson was an energetic helper in this species of partisan propaganda. As a clever politician he skillfully catered first to the Federalists, then to the Democratic-Republicans, convincing both of his friendship and ability to serve them. Unfortunately he can never be properly appraised until the history of the early Army is completely told and the valley of the Mississippi surrenders a few of its long-held secrets of intrigue.
Whatever success this biography attains in solving the riddles of Wilkinson's character is largely due to the cheerful and intelligent assistance of many scholars. Nevertheless, to none of them are to be imputed errors of fact or opinion that this book may contain. Particular thanks are due to Mr. T. R. Hay, Great Neck, New York, who has often given me the results of his own study of Wilkinson's part in American history. My sister, Miss Elizabeth C. Jacobs, Marfa, Texas, has unselfishly collaborated with me on the last chapter and p. xii great improved others by careful revision. To Major Charles W. Elliott, U. S. A. (Retired), I am under great obligation: he has frequently furnished me with necessary data, he has constantly helped me with his broad scholarship and stimulating criticism. Professors Ralph V. Harlow and Gaston Moffatt, both of Syracuse University, have given me much appreciated encouragement and advice. Professor I. J. Cox, Northwestern University, has lent me valuable manuscript material and suggested to me where more of it might be found. Messrs. T. E. Roberts and H. C. Durston, of The Manlius School, have read my manuscript and made valuable suggestions. In the same way my wife, Beryl Martin Jacobs, has made a distinct contribution. She has also relieved me frequently of the tedium incident to writing and given me a more human understanding of the story that I have endeavored to tell. Commander Theodore Wilkinson, United States Navy; Mrs. Nancy Hamilton Allen, New Orleans; and Mrs. Thomas B. Mackall, Mackall's Landing, Maryland, have kindly supplied information about General Wilkinson's family. I am also under obligation to a number of others for helpful notes or manuscripts: Mr. C. W. Andrews, Syracuse, N. Y.; Mrs. C. G. Brandon, Natchez, Miss.; Mrs. Elvert M. Davis, Philadelphia, Pa.; Miss Laurie Gray, Gray Court, S. C.; Mr. George Middleton, Washington, D. C., Mrs. W. H. Palmer, Jr., St. Davids, Pa.; Mr. E. A. Parsons, New Orleans, La.; Mr. Thomas W. Streeter, Morristown, N. J.
The following institutions and persons associated with them have been uncommonly kind in assisting my research:
Library of Alabama Polytechnic Institute
Miss Mary E. Martin
American Antiquarian Society
Mr. Robert W. G. Vail
Library of the Army War College
Washington, D. C.
Colonel Hjalmar Erickson, U. S. Army (Retired)
Miss Nannie Cramer Barndollar
The Public Library of the City of Boston
Mr. Zoltán Haraszti
Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo, N. Y.
Mr. Robert W. Bingham
Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
Mr. Francis J. Audet
Chicago Historical Society
Mr. L. H. Shattuck
Miss Alice Daly
Public Library of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio
Miss Mary R. Cochran
Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.,
Dr. J. Franklin Jameson
Dr. Thomas P. Martin
Connecticut State Library, Hartford, Conn.
Mr. George S. Goddard
Miss M. E. Case
The Filson Club, Louisville, Ky.
Miss Ludie J. Kinkead
Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery
San Marino, Calif.
Mr. Reginald Berti Haselden
Kentucky State Historical Society
Mrs. Jouett Taylor Cannon
Hall of Records, Annapolis, Md.
Miss Elizabeth W. Meade
Massachusetts Historical Society
Mr. Julius H. Tuttle
The Library, United States Military Academy
West Point, N. Y.
Lieutenant-Colonel Elbert E. Farman, U. S. Army (Retired)
Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Mo.
Miss Anne Kinnaird
The New York State Historical Association
Ticonderoga, N. Y.
Mr. E. P. Alexander
The New York Historical Society, New York City
Mr. Alexander J. Wall
The New York Public Library, New York City
Mr. Victor H. Paltsits
Miss M. C. Weaks
New York State Library, Albany, N. Y.
Mr. James I. Wyer
Miss Edna L. Jacobsen
The Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.
Mr. George B. Utley
Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Ill.
Mr. Theodore W. Koch
Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio
Miss Eleanor S. Wilby
The Oneida Historical Society, Utica, N. Y.
Mrs. Thomas D. Watkins
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Dr. Julian P. Boyd
Miss Mary M. Townsend
Miss Catherine H. Miller
State Library of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Mr. Curtis W. Garrison
Library of the American Philosophical Society
Miss Laura E. Hanson
Library of the University of Pittsburgh
Mr. Howard Dice
Library of Syracuse University, Syracuse, N. Y.
Mr. Wharton Miller
Mrs. Ida O. Benderson
Mrs. Emilie Du Bois Benedict
State Library and Historical Commission
Miss Harriet Smither
Library of the University of Texas
Mr. J. Haggard-Villasana
Ticonderoga Museum, Ticonderoga, N. Y.
Mr. S. H. P. Pell
Old Records Section, Adjutant-General's Office,
War Department, Washington, D. C.
Mr. Charles E. Gause
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Miss Annie A. Nunns
Several publishing companies have allowed me to make use of copyright material: The Burrows Bros. Co., Cincinnati, Ohio; Dodd, Mead, New York; Houghton Mifflin, Boston. This courtesy has saved me much inconvenience and is greatly appreciated.
James Ripley Jacobs
The Manlius School
Manlius, N. Y.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 16 Jan 17