An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Life of General James Wilkinson

Author: Andro Linklater

Pages: 400

Release Date: September 29, 2009 – Walker & Company

ISBN – 978-0802717207

An Artist in TreasonIf you have never heard of James Wilkinson, and you probably have not, I recommend you read An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater.  He is probably the most interesting figure from the revolutionary era that no one has ever heard of. 

James Wilkinson served in the Continental Army during the early part of the Revolutionary War before being forced to resign.  In 1783, he moved to Kentucky where he advocated Kentucky’s separation from Virginia and established trade relationships with the Spanish in New Orleans.  In 1791, he returned to federal military service and was promoted to brigadier general and fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.  He became the senior officer of the United States Army in 1796 until 1798 when George Washington replaced him.  In 1800, he again became the senior officer in the Army, a position he maintained until 1812.  Throughout his career he faced three Court Martials and four congressional investigations, it was said that, “He had never won a battle but never lost an inquiry” (312). 

Throughout his career, Wilkinson was accused of being in the pay of the Spanish and working against the interests of the United States.  At the time, many people believed he was involved in the Burr Conspiracy to seize the western portion of the country and parts of Mexico, but he betrayed Burr by revealing his plot to Jefferson and denying all involvement in the conspiracy. 

At the time of his death in 1825, he was considered a distinguished soldier.  History would have remembered him as a somewhat minor member of the founding generation.  Or it least that is how he would have been remembered.  In 1888, 200,000 documents from the Spanish American empire were sent from Havana to Madrid and historians began to go through them in the early part of the 20th century.  Amongst these documents, historians found confirmation of the old allegations.  Wilkinson, or as he was known to the Spanish, Agent 13 had been on the Spanish payroll.  Amongst the documents were hundreds of letters, reports, and assessments exchanged between Wilkinson and his handlers in New Orleans, their supervisors in Havana, and Imperial officials in Madrid. 

General Wilkinson not only passed on his country’s strategic secrets, he sought to detach Kentucky from the Union and ally it with Spain, and wrote detailed plans advising the Spanish authorities on the best way to prevent American expansion beyond the Mississippi river.  He alerted Spanish authorities to the expedition mounted by Lewis and Clark to explore the American west.  Spanish cavalry patrols were dispatched to intercept the expedition but were unable to locate it. 

Mr. Linklater has written a compelling book about an interesting character and has made good use of the many sources available.  Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in early American history, the early U.S. Army, or a good story.

I received this book as an ARC from Walker Books.