In-depth portrait of the treasonous General James Wilkinson (1757–1825).
The historian Frederick Jackson Turner called Wilkinson “the most consummate artist in treason the nation has ever possessed,” and historian Linklater (The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity, 2007, etc.) builds a strong case that he deserved that title. Wilkinson had an impressive military career. He fought in the battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War, led troops during the War of 1812 and was appointed governor of the newly organized Louisiana Territory by President Thomas Jefferson. But throughout his life, rumors abounded that he was a spy for the Spanish. Four different presidents were informed of Wilkinson’s close Spanish contacts in New Orleans and Madrid, and four official inquiries were made to investigate accusations against him, but Wilkinson was repeatedly cleared of all charges. Later, he was accused of collaborating with Aaron Burr on a plot to create an independent nation in the West; he was court-martialed and cleared again. It wasn’t until decades after his death—when historians uncovered hundreds of documents detailing Wilkinson’s correspondence with and payment by Spanish handlers—that the extent of his betrayal was revealed. Linklater paints a colorful portrait of Wilkinson as an extraordinarily careful individual who frequently communicated with his Spanish contacts via codes and ciphers, and laundered payments through real-estate deals. But his motives for treason may have been more complex than mere monetary gain. Wilkinson, the author argues, also had a selfish and insatiable hunger for information and intelligence, and “possessed an exceptionally well-informed, clear-eyed view of the rapidly changing era in which he lived, and of the advantages to be wrung from it.”
A well-wrought study of far-reaching treachery in the early years of the United States.