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James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson (1757-1825), an American army general and frontier adventurer, was deeply involved in western land intrigues with Spain and in Aaron Burr's scheme to disrupt the Union.

James Wilkinson was born in Calvert County, Md. His father, a successful planter, died when James was seven. After schooling with a private tutor, he studied medicine in Maryland and then in Philadelphia. In 1775 he returned to his home state and opened practice. Medicine, however, was too tame for the restless and ambitious Wilkinson. The American Revolution provided the opportunity to enter into the military and begin his permanent career.

Career in the Revolution

After some involvement with the Maryland militia, Wilkinson was commissioned captain in the Continental Army. He demonstrated a remarkable capacity for ingratiating himself with men of influence, and his rise through the ranks was meteoric. By December 1776 he was a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp to Gen. Horatio Gates, the commander of Continental forces in the Northern Department and a man who was to prove Wilkinson's frequent benefactor. Largely through the good offices of Gates, Wilkinson was named deputy adjutant general for the Northern Department. In November 1777, just 20 years old, he was appointed brigadier general. When Gates became head of the Continental Congress's Board of War, Wilkinson followed him as secretary. During the next several months, however, a rift developed as a result of rumors Wilkinson apparently spread concerning Gates. The immediate consequence was that Wilkinson resigned from the Board of War.

In July 1779 Wilkinson obtained the potentially lucrative post of clothier general for the Continental forces, but within a year he resigned under fire for suspected irregularities in accounts. In November 1778 he married and settled on a farm in Bucks County, Pa. During the next several years, he was returned for two terms to the Pennsylvania Assembly, the only political office he seems ever to have held.

Spanish Intrigue

By early 1784 Wilkinson had sold his Pennsylvania properties and moved to Kentucky, where he became involved in continuous and deepening controversy as he engaged in a series of intrigues with the Spanish authorities in New Orleans. His maneuvers were probably motivated mostly by his never-ending quest for financial gain and his compulsion to fashion roles of importance for himself.

Persuading Spanish authorities that certain American groups were conspiring to occupy Spanish territory in Louisiana and the Floridas, Wilkinson explained that opening the Mississippi River to western trade would encourage separatist tendencies among western settlers. If he was granted a monopoly of this trade, he suggested, he could promote Spanish interests. As a result, he briefly secured the monopoly, took an oath of allegiance to the Spanish monarchy, received the promise of an annual pension, and secured a permanent loan of $7,000. By 1791, however, the Spanish apparently suspected that his promises exceeded his capacity to deliver and revoked his trade monopoly.

His debts mounting rapidly, Wilkinson liquidated his personal affairs and returned to military life in March 1792 as brigadier general in the American army. In the fall of 1796 he became commandeer of all western forces. Though rumors of his Spanish dealings circulated back east, tangible proof of wrongdoing was lacking. Moreover, President George Washington wanted peace with Spain and believed Wilkinson might serve as an effective intermediary with the Spanish in the southwest.

By the end of 1796, Spain had dispensed some $32,000 to Wilkinson for his services (which included reporting on American troop movements and plans), but his personal finances remained shaky. Under fire for irregularities both in Army contracts and his personal land speculations, Wilkinson's luck nonetheless continued to hold. In 1801 he was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to deal with some of the southern Indian tribes and two years later helped take formal possession of Louisiana from France.

Burr Conspiracy

During the winter of 1804/1805, Wilkinson began his fateful relationship with Aaron Burr. His actual involvement in the Burr conspiracy to separate western lands from the Union remains somewhat unclear. It is known that he corresponded frequently with Burr and was privy to the vice president's plans. In 1805 he furnished Burr with a barge, escort, and letter of introduction to the Spanish officials at New Orleans. Later, in his position in St. Louis as governor of the upper Louisiana Territory, Wilkinson was visited by Burr and then kept in regular communication with him.

As Burr's intrigue deepened, however, and as Wilkinson found his own name listed in western newspapers as one of the conspirators, he pulled back. To disentangle himself, Wilkinson sent a rather frantic and effusive letter to President Jefferson, proclaiming his loyalty and warning of Burr's plans. In return, Wilkinson received an order to proceed to New Orleans, where, in a characteristically aggressive and high-handed manner, he readied the city's defenses, placed suspected Burrites under military arrest, and sent a small force upriver to intercept Burr himself.

At the trial following the collapse of the conspiracy, Wilkinson's involvement with Burr and the Spanish government came to the surface, and he narrowly escaped indictment. In several congressional investigations and courts-martial, he was formally acquitted, but the suspicions surrounding his career were too great, and he was removed from command.

Many of Wilkinson's last years were spent composing a turgid three-volume defense of his career. He died in Mexico City on Dec. 28, 1825.

Further Reading

Thomas R. Hay and M. R. Werner, The Admirable Trumpeter: A Biography of General James Wilkinson (1941), is the most balanced and judicious of the biographical studies. Useful for Wilkinson's military exploits is James R. Jacobs, Tarnished Warrior: Major-General James Wilkinson (1938). See also John E. Weems, Men without Countries: Three Adventurers of the Early Southwest (1969). □

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Wilkinson, James

James Wilkinson, 1757–1825, American general and one of the most corrupt and devious officers in the nation's early army, b. Calvert co., Md. Abandoning his medical studies in 1776 to join the army commanded by George Washington, he served as a captain in Benedict Arnold's unsuccessful Quebec campaign. Later he was Gen. Horatio Gates's deputy adjutant general in the Saratoga campaign and was given the honor of bringing to Congress the news of General Burgoyne's defeat. Congress censured Wilkinson for delay in carrying the dispatch but rewarded him by promoting him to brigadier general (1777) and making him secretary to the board of war (1778), a position he was forced to leave because of his implication in the Conway Cabal. He was (1779–81) clothier general of the army but resigned when charged with irregularities in his accounts.

Wilkinson moved to Kentucky in 1784. Shortly thereafter, he became a key figure in the plan to induce what was then the SW United States to form a separate nation allied to Spain. Wilkinson apparently took an oath of allegiance to Spain, received a Spanish pension of $2,000 (and later $4,000) a year, and acted as a secret agent of the Spanish government for many years. To the Spanish authorities in New Orleans he represented his agitation for the separation of Kentucky from Virginia as part of the secession scheme; there is no indication, however, that he revealed any such motivation to the Kentucky conventions, in which others had expressed sentiments in favor of a separate republic of Kentucky.

In 1791, Wilkinson reentered the army as a lieutenant colonel, and in 1792 he again attained the rank of brigadier general, serving under Anthony Wayne. On Wayne's death (1796) Wilkinson became (1797) commander in chief of the entire army, even though he was still in the pay of the Spanish. While governor (1805–6) of the Louisiana Territory, he became involved in the schemes of Aaron Burr. Alarmed when he realized that his association with Burr was common knowledge, Wilkinson informed President Jefferson that Burr was plotting to disrupt the Union. Although he was chief prosecution witness at Burr's trial, he narrowly escaped indictment. Subsequently (1811) he was cleared, but just barely, by an army board of inquiry. In the War of 1812 as supreme commander on the Canadian frontier, he failed signally in the campaign to take Montreal and was relieved of his command. Once again an official inquiry left him untouched. He wrote Memoirs of My Own Times (3 vol., 1816) in an attempt to answer his many critics. He died in Mexico, where he spent his last years.

See biographies by J. R. Jacobs (1938), T. R. Hay and M. R. Werner (1941), and A. Linklater (2009); J. E. Weems, Men without Countries (1969).

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"Wilkinson, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wilkinson-james

Wilkinson, James

Wilkinson, James (1757–1825) American general. He served in the American Revolution, but was forced to resign (1778) because of his part in the Conway Cabal. In 1784, Wilkinson moved to Kentucky and joined a conspiracy with the Spanish governor of Louisiana to gain trade monopolies for himself and to give Kentucky to Spain. Returning to the army, he was quickly dismissed after failing to capture Montréal in the War of 1812.

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"Wilkinson, James." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Wilkinson, James." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wilkinson-james