One of the fascinating things about the history of the United States is the unusual cast of characters who played decisive roles in the formation of the nation – it is fair to say that the United States was founded by a blend of rebels, dreamers, plotters, visionaries, vagabonds, and scoundrels. Above is one who fits in the last category, if one is being kind, James Wilkinson, born in 1757 and deceased in 1825. Wilkinson began his career with the United States during its nascent years, serving initially as a Captain, and then being swiftly promoted to Colonel, during the opening years of the American Revolution. In 1777 Wilkinson was charged by General Gates to carry the official dispatches back to the Continental Congress informing them of the major American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in New York. Wilkinson completed his assignment, after a small delay to handle personal matters in Philadelphia, and while providing his report to the Congress of what happened he just happened to mention how incredibly brave and awesome he was at the battle. Incredibly brave and awesome. Carried the day brave and awesome. But such flat out lying is understandable in a young and ambitious twenty year old and completely justifies his being promoted to Brigadier General by the Continental Congress and enraging other, more senior Colonels. It also helped Wilkinson took part in a conspiracy to get General Washington tossed out as the Commander of the American Army, by 1778 Wilkinson feel in position due to General Gates having enough of his activities. The Congress made Wilkinson a general in the supply services but he resigned the position.
But his career of messing with the United States had only just begun, in 1782 Wilkinson took a job as a general in the Pennsylvania militia and in 1783 served as a state assemblyman, but in 1787 he took a “special trip” down to New Orleans. The purpose of his mission was to negotiate access for Kentucky to the Mississippi River – at the time Kentucky being a territory that was part of Pennsylvania and the Mississippi’s mouth being under the control of Spain, which also controlled New Orleans. (Don’t ask.) Wilkinson took this opportunity to try to hook up a deal with Spain, if they provided him with a “consideration” (money, property, position) he could ensure that Kentucky, rather than becoming a new state in the United States, instead peeled off and became a territory of Spain instead. Wilkinson swore an oath of loyalty to Spain where he got the cool code name Agent 13, in reference to the secret code he used to communicate with Spain. His plans with turning Kentucky into part of Spain failed and he didn’t get his money, but Wilkinson escaped being caught in his acts of questionable loyalty and was promoted to a position as commander of the entire United States army instead. Wilkinson held this position from 1800 till 1812 when his lack of military skill and the demands of an actual war finally led to his being put in a lesser command, and later removed from the army entirely. (He faced a court martial after losing two battles in the War of 1812 but was, of course, found innocent.) In 1803 Wilkinson was the official who formally took ownership of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States from France (again, don’t ask) – Wilkinson took advantage of this trip to hook back up with his Spanish buddies and offer to sell state secrets in exchange for getting his pension back. (Which he totally did for another twelve years.)
In 1804 Aaron Burr (pictured above) decided that he had had enough of his political career being in free-fall and, after serving as the third Vice President of the United States, decided to pursue his own “questionable” venture in the western territories of the United States. Burr traveled in the Ohio Territory and the Louisiana Territory talking to people about some interesting thoughts he’d had – about how the federal government was no longer following policies that really favored the west, about freedom, and about maybe organizing some other political arrangements in the western territories. Was Burr advocating these areas secede from the United States and form a new nation? Well, at his treason trial it was never really clear and he was acquitted, so from a legal perspective no. But during his time working on this project Burr made a special friend who worked to help him in…whatever he was planning, a powerful general by the name of Wilkinson. Wilkinson though decided, when the situation didn’t seem to be going his way, to cut his losses and provide evidence of Burr’s treasonous activities. This included a helpful letter Wilkinson wrote that he said was a “copy” of a letter Burr had sent him asking him to help in treason, an action which of course horrified Wilkinson to his core. Sadly he had lost the original of the letter but the copy had been made at the time and was most accurate. The courts threw the copy out and Wilkinson was humiliated for this interesting evidence admission.
Of course Wilkinson remained in command of the United States army even after this got out, personally I’m guessing because the federal government somehow lacked other people with military training.
Finally after being relieved of his command in the War of 1812 Wilkinson quietly faded into obscurity…which is of course a falsehood. He actually wrote his memoirs trying to clear his name and in 1821 traveled to Mexico and attempted to get the government there to give him a special land grant in Texas. He died in Mexico waiting for approval of his request. His activities as a spy were finally proved in 1854 when a Louisiana historian found letters in Wilkinson’s handwriting documenting his activities on behalf of the Spanish crown.
James Wilkinson – definitely one of our more “colorful” founding figures.