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Bill Thayer

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James Wilkinson

A Study in Controversy

[image ALT: A painted head-and‑shoulders portrait of a florid man with receding and greying sandy red hair, in an 18c military uniform with prominent gold epaulets. It is the American Revolutionary War general James Wilkinson.]

General James Wilkinson as painted by Charles Willson Peale, 1797. The portrait is currently (2006) part of the Independence National Historical Park Collection in Philadelphia.

Photograph in the public domain:
by the National Park Service, an agency of the U. S. Government.

The basic facts of General Wilkinson's life are fairly straightforward: poor boy born in 1757 on the East Coast, enlists in the rag-tag American revolutionary army and becomes a general at age 20. Finds Kentucky more to his liking, fights to get his new home a square deal, negotiating with Americans who controlled the influx of immigrants and with Spaniards who controlled the mouth of the Mississippi and thus the exports and economic life of the territory. Like Daniel Boone, a fellow Kentuckian originally from eastern Pennsylvania, he moves west again at the end of his life: Texas and more negotiating with Spaniards; dies in 1825 in Mexico City, where he is buried.

It is, however, the interpretation put on this life that divided his contemporaries; and continues now to divide historians, even more fiercely if that were possible. Was he involved in the so‑called Conway Cabal which sought to replace Washington by Gates as commander-in‑chief during the Revolutionary War? Did he sell himself to the Spanish, and was he their agent in any modern sense? Did he conspire with Aaron Burr to carve out a fief for him in the western territories of the fledgling United States? Did he arrange to have Meriwether Lewis murdered?

Everyone agrees that Wilkinson's genius lay in plotting and dissimulation; the question is whether the man was a traitor to that new American republic, which is by far the majority opinion, based on documents that have slowly seeped out of Spanish government archives. Details though are still very hard to come by as well as contradictory, and the cast of characters arrayed against Wilkinson are themselves an unsavory lot. My edition (1975) of the Encyclopedia Britannica calls him a double agent: it's a tempting solution, and certainly gives the feel of his life and that of those with whom he dealt.

The most puzzling thing is that a man later called by a historian "the most consummate artist of treason that the nation ever possessed" should have retained the unwavering support of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and should have held a series of prestigious posts in the government of the United States, with correspondingly heavy responsibilities, including that of Commander of the Army and Governor of the Louisiana Territory; and that, though tried in court several times, he was always completely cleared: this in the face of a very public, vociferous opposition with no shortage of people to accuse him of various crimes.

The primary sources on James Wilkinson extend to many thousands of documents of all kinds, the principal being much given to writing, and others to writing about him: a correspondent has sent me a list running to 1,764 letters, reports, court transcripts, army orders, legislative material, contemporary news articles — and cheerfully reminds me that the inventory is no doubt woefully incomplete. The man has attracted, and such a mass of information requires, many experts devoting years of their lives to getting at a shadow of the truth. Some of these experts are represented onsite; for the reader then to judge, insofar possible:

[ 353 printed pages, presented in 15 webpages;
8 maps and 14 other illustrations ]

James Ripley Jacobs' Tarnished Warrior is still the standard biography, if such a thing is possible with this man; scholar­ly, neutral in tone, and proceeding from one unsavory plot to the next. Here and there a glimpse of a figure of some charm, and there's no denying he loved his wives.

[ 3/9/06: at least 4 chapters ]

The majority opinion, that Wilkinson was a scoundrel, is that of the historian Charles Gayarré — his is the portrait you see to the left — who, in the archives of Spain in Madrid, first dug up Wilkinson's correspondence with the Spanish governors of Louisiana. Although his book is a general History of Louisiana, he is understandably proud of his scoop and conscious of its value, and thus goes into the general's career at great length, quoting his finds in extenso. It makes for well over a hundred pages of fascinating reading, starting at Vol. III, p194, and more in Vol. IV.

[ 88 printed pages, presented in 4 webpages ]

The general's defense was taken up in 1917 by his confusingly eponymous great-grandson James Wilkinson, in a paper in Vol. I, No. 2 of the Louisiana Historical Quarterly. The essay is disorganized, diffuse, repetitive, sometimes irrelevant and crankish; but for all that, its author makes a number of good points, and cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Here is a quartet of typical items:

[image ALT: A close-up of a collection of papers spread out on a table. It is the icon used on this site to represent my American History Notes subsite.]

[ 8/22/11: 4 articles: 69 pages of print ]

Wilkinson and the Beginnings of the Spanish Conspiracy (AHR 9:490‑506) tells how the general sold the Spaniards in Louisiana, more or less, on a project to separate Kentucky from the United States; the author shows it wasn't their idea, but Wilkinson's.

If Americans were forbidden to descend the Mississippi past the confluence of the Ohio, a fortiori to trade with Louisiana, just how did Wilkinson manage to travel down the river with a load of cargo? Arthur Preston Whitaker investigates: James Wilkinson's First Descent to New Orleans in 1787 (HAHR 8:82‑97).

The Pan-American Policy of Jefferson and Wilkinson (MVHR 1:212‑239) is as straightforward an account as possible of the convoluted diplomatic finagling with Spain that Jefferson set Wilkinson to in the last year of his administration — much of it to do with Florida.

Digging in the Mexican state archives, Herbert Bolton found two memos written by Wilkinson towards the end of his life: James Wilkinson as Advisor to Emperor Iturbide (HAHR 1:163‑180). In them the general argues for reducing tariffs in order to clean up employee corruption, facilitate trade and increase the government's income; and for settling Texas with good Louisiana Catholics, else the province will eventually be overrun by American troublemakers (primary source; in Spanish).

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Site updated: 1 Apr 18