American history has its figures of tremendous character and integrity and I’ve covered some of those. However, there are others who have been venal and corrupt. One of the most scandalous figures was of the Founding generation who was a general and politician and seemed to only ever act in his own interests. Although the name “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous with treason, maybe the name “James Wilkinson” should be as well. This was a man who President Theodore Roosevelt said, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character” (NPS).
Wilkinson had a long career in the military, serving in the Continental Army during the Revolution. At the age of 20 as General Horatio Gates’ aide, he was the one to report to the Continental Congress about the colonial victory in the Battle of Saratoga. He regaled the Congress with a tale that exaggerated his boss’s contribution and way overexaggerated his own contribution to the victory. Wilkinson was then promoted to brigadier general by the Congress, but this was regarded as way too much by Gates, who in the following year had him resign. In 1779, he was appointed clothier-general, but on March 27, 1781 resigned due to his “lack of aptitude for the job” (Linklater, 68).
The Spanish Conspiracy
Wilkinson opposed the adoption of the new constitution, as it served to delay the admission of Kentucky as a state. He saw himself as acting in the interests of the Kentucky region and himself by engaging in a plot to have Kentucky and the future state of Tennessee to become a state under Spain so they could have access to the Mississippi River, at the time under control of Spain which had blocked United States access. Wilkinson managed to get an audience with Louisiana Governor Esteban Miro, claiming that he could get the Kentucky and Tennessee regions to split off from the United States and managed to secure through the transmission of secrets to Spain exclusive trade rights in addition to a promise of a pension and a promise that the state would be English-speaking, and its citizens would be free to practice Protestantism. However, Wilkinson’s plan was thwarted as Kentucky politicians rallied against any idea of breaking off from the United States. Kentucky would be admitted in 1792.
Smear Campaign Against His Boss
In 1791, President George Washington had some choices of who to pick to be head of the new U.S. Army. He selected Major General Anthony Wayne over Brigadier General Wilkinson. Wilkinson had expected to get the position, having written to Miro, “it is most probable that I shall be promoted [to] the chief Command” (Harrington). Although he was polite and respectful to Wayne in person, he was behind efforts to push dissension over Wayne’s command in the ranks and he wrote an anonymous article published in a Cincinnati newspaper signed “Army Wretched” in which he claimed that General Wayne was a drunkard, incompetent, wasteful, and practiced favoritism (Harrington). In December 1792, Wilkinson accepted pay and a pension by Spain for giving away secrets rather than trade rights. Two years later, he was almost exposed when a courier carrying one of his payments was murdered by one of the Spanish boatmen and the money stolen. Although the other boatmen were arrested, the judge on the case was his lawyer and co-conspirator Harry Innes, and the man sent to translate the prisoners’ Spanish was sent by the Spanish government and left out any mention in his translation that he was carrying a payment for Wilkinson (Harrington). Wilkinson also wrote complaints to Secretary of War Henry Knox making accusations of Wayne he had written as “Army Wretched”. He had been unaware of Wilkinson’s intrigues until Secretary of War Knox made him aware of Wilkinson’s complaints in January 1795. Wayne was enraged, writing to Knox that Wilkinson was a “vile assassin”, “that worst of all bad men,” and “I have a strong ground to believe, that this man is a principle agent, set up by the British & Demoncrats [sic] of Kentucky to dismember the Union” (Harrington). He would eventually start to suspect that Wilkinson was in the pay of the Spanish and would make efforts to catch him red-handed. Wayne’s unexpected death in 1796 resulted in Wilkinson becoming the new commander and the investigation coming to a halt. Wayne was no saint himself, but he wasn’t a traitor. Wilkinson would be the chief officer of the United States Army from 1796 to 1798 and again from 1800 to 1812. As chief officer, he passed on numerous military secrets to the Spanish, including the existence of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Wilkinson advised the Spanish to intercept the expedition, and the Spanish Army attempted to do so, but they never found the expedition. Had they done so, the Lewis and Clark expedition would be known today to have “disappeared”. His intelligence also helped delay the annexation of Texas by the United States.
Participation in the Burr Conspiracy
Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804 began to conspire to hinder the growth of the United States to enhance his own political power. That year, he wrote a letter to British Minister to the United States Anthony Merry offering assistance to Britain to take western territories from the United States. The following year, he managed to convince President Thomas Jefferson to appoint James Wilkinson territorial governor of Louisiana. The two came to conspire together to stir up a conflict with the Spanish and use the army to conquer Southern lands for which Burr could rule his own country.
However, suspicions were growing about Burr and Wilkinson became convinced that the plot would fail, so he double-crossed him to save himself and altered a coded letter he presented to President Jefferson that although did not specifically reference Burr, the suspicion was already there and Wilkinson left himself out of it. The alteration of the letter would be discovered and this, along with a narrow reading of the Constitutional definition of treason, would result in Burr’s acquittal. President James Madison launched a court-martial against Wilkinson for treason and his conduct in the Burr trial, but he too was acquitted.
The War of 1812
At the start of the War of 1812, Wilkinson advised along with other generals guerrilla tactics against the British. President Madison opted for conventional warfare, which was a big mistake, as it resulted in the sacking of Washington. Wilkinson’s performance in command was mixed during the conflict. He would be succeeded in as head of the US Army in 1812 by General Henry Dearborn.
Wilkinson: A Murderer?
It is incredible enough that the head of the U.S. Army for FOURTEEN YEARS was a traitor, but was he a murderer too? Historian Kira Gale, who wrote Meriwether Lewis: The Assassination of an American Hero and the Silver Mines of Mexico (2015) certainly thinks so. There are several deaths that General Wilkinson may have been responsible for. He may have ordered the death by poisoning of his superior, General Anthony Wayne. Three months before Wayne’s death, Wilkinson wrote to his Spanish handler, Baron Hector de Carondelet, that “my views at Philadelphia are to keep down the military establishment, to disgrace my commander, and to secure myself the commandant of the army” (Harrington). Wayne was on the way to Philadelphia to answer accusations by Wilkinson and had been actively trying to catch him red-handed for being a Spanish spy, but he fell ill and eventually died on December 15, 1796. This was only four months after his forces had almost uncovered documentary evidence that would have proven that Wilkinson was a spy. The official cause was complications of “stomach gout”. President Washington likewise had his suspicions about him at this point, but Wilkinson automatically succeeded Wayne and he needed the support of the army, some members who had strong loyalty to him. Had Wayne produced conclusive evidence of Wilkinson’s treason, Wilkinson faced execution. Another figure that Wilkinson may have had murdered was Meriwether Lewis.
The death of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition was most mysterious. Although the official explanation behind Lewis’s death is suicide given the existence of a suicide letter, a letter by Captain Gilbert Russell as to his mental state and two prior suicide attempts, as well as other accounts of him being depressive. Lewis died on the Natchez Trace, a notoriously dangerous road as it was a hotspot for highwaymen, and he was accompanied on this trip by James Neelly, a Chickasaw agent in the employ of…you guessed it…General Wilkinson. What’s more, Lewis, who was an expert marksman, died of two gunshot wounds, first to the head and then the abdomen. How did he botch it the first time? Wilkinson did have motive to get Lewis out of the way…in 1807 President Jefferson replaced him due to his unpopularity among the area’s people as Governor of Northern Louisiana with Lewis, and in this capacity, he had access to Wilkinson’s records. Historian Kira Gale hypothesizes that Lewis was ordered killed by Wilkinson to prevent the exposure of corrupt land schemes he was perpetrating with Missouri mine operator John Smith T, and Lewis was traveling on the Natchez Trace to deliver mine records to Washington.
These are unproven, but are difficult to rule out completely given Wilkinson’s treachery and many connections. In 1815, he was discharged from the army and appointed Envoy to Mexico in 1816, in which he was the one to establish relations with the new nation of Mexico, which won its independence from Spain in 1821. He then requested a land grant from Mexico in the territory of Texas, but died in Mexico City in 1825 while waiting for the approval.
In 1854, Wilkinson was proven a traitor when Louisiana historian Charles Gayarre uncovered conclusive evidence in the Spanish archives in Madrid that he had been a paid spy for the Spanish Empire known as “Agent 13” and had received $26,000 in payments between 1787 and 1804. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner regarded him as “the most consummate artist in treason the nation has ever produced” (Gale). Wilkinson is now known as a treacherous scoundrel, but in his time he was not without supporters and co-conspirators. Some even thought him a hero during the Spanish Conspiracy for his advocacy for the Kentucky region. His treachery remains on display as a street in downtown Frankfort, an area which he owned at the time of its development, is named Mero Street, a misspelled commemoration of his first Spanish handler, General Esteban Miro. Wilkinson himself has a street in downtown Frankfort and a county in Georgia and Mississippi are named after him.
General James Wilkinson, the Spanish Spy Who Was a Senior Officer in the U.S. Army During Four Presidential Administration. Library of Congress.
Harrington, H.T. (2013). Was General Anthony Wayne Murdered? Journal of the American Revolution.
James Wilkinson. NPS.
Linklater, A. (2009). An artist in treason: the extraordinary double life of General James Wilkinson. New York, NY: Walker Publishing Company.
Moore, K. (2003). The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. History News Network.
Rice, H.A. (2017, October 8). Spanish Conspiracy. Tennessee Encyclopedia.
Savage, J.E. Scoundrels, and Statesmen: General James Wilkinson and the Spanish Conspiracy, 1787-1790. Hanover College.
The Burr Conspiracy. PBS.
Tucker, A. (2009, October 8). Meriwether Lewis’ Most Mysterious Death. Smithsonian Magazine.
Weems, J.E. Wilkinson, James (1757-1825). Texas State Historical Association.