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.
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.
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.
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). □
WILKINSON, JAMES. (1757–1825). Continental officer, scoundrel. Maryland. Wilkinson, who was born in Benedict, Maryland, had just finished his medical studies and opened a practice in Monocacy, Maryland, when the war began. As a volunteer in William Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment from 9 September to 1775 to March 1776, he joined the forces investing Boston, where be volunteered to join Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec. In the course of the march he became friends with Arnold. Having been promoted to captain of the Second Continental Infantry in March 1776, Wilkinson remained with Arnold until December 1776, when the latter had reached Albany after the retreat from Canada. Briefly a member of General Horatio Gates's staff, Wilkinson was again promoted, this time to lieutenant colonel of Thomas Hartley's Continental Regiment on 12 January 1777 and served as deputy adjutant general of the Northern Department from 24 May 1777 to 6 March 1778. He figured in the actions at Ticonderoga in July 1777 and Saratoga on 7 October 1777.
Named by Gates to take the news of the Saratoga surrender to Congress, Wilkinson did not reach York, Pennsylvania, until 31 October, and did not make up his written report until 3 November 1777. The 20-year-old aide had stopped off in Reading, Pennsylvania, for some courting, and while at the headquarters of General William Alexander he dropped a bit of gossip that brought the Conway Cabal to a head. Wilkinson's degree of personal involvement in the cabal is not known.
Young Wilkinson was an unpopular man in York for having kept Congress writhing on a rack of suspense. They took a dim view of Gates's request that he be breveted brigadier general, but on 6 November they granted the request and tried to calm the outraged uproar in the army by appointing him secretary to the new Board of War In an effort to vindicate himself from the accusation of betraying the confidence of Gates, Wilkinson threatened to fight a duel with General Alexander, and a duel with Gates was called off at the last minute. Wilkinson resigned from the Board of War on 29 March 1778. His letter of resignation was so insulting to Gates that Congress ordered it destroyed.
Appointed clothier-eneral of the Continental army on 24 July 1779, Wilkinson resigned on 27 March 1781 because of irregularities in his accounts. While in uniform Wilkinson had proved himself guilty of intrigue and excessive drinking; now he added greed to the list of his vices. Just before resigning, he married Ann Biddle, daughter of the wealthy Quaker merchant, John Biddle.
After the war, Wilkinson entered into intrigue on an interstate and even international scale. He moved to Kentucky in 1784, using his wife's money to purchase land. He soon became prominent in trade and politics, supplanting George Rogers Clark as leader in that region. In the Spanish Conspiracy—the purpose of which may have been to set up a separate republic in the West allied to Spain, or may have been a plot to force the admission of Kentucky to the United States—he appears to have intrigued both with and against Spain. Wilkinson swore allegiance to the king of Spain, for which he received an annual pension of $2,000. Thinking they were aiding his efforts to attach Kentucky to their empire, the Spanish opened the Mississippi River to American traffic. In 1791 Wilkinson applied for a military commission, was made lieutenant colonel commanding the Second U.S. Infantry on 22 October 1791, and served as second-in-command to Anthony Wayne in his operations against the Indians. Appointed brigadier general on 5 March 1792, he intrigued against Wayne even while serving under his command during the campaign that culminated in the battle of Fallen Timbers (30 August, 1794), where Wilkinson demonstrated bravery. Wilkinson succeeded Wayne as commander in chief on Wayne's death in 1796, passing on information to the Spanish while commanding the American army. As governor of Louisiana (1805) he became involved in the Aaron Burr conspiracy, disclosed the plot in which he was an accomplice if not the originator, evaded the persistent efforts of Congress to prove his complicity, and in 1811 won acquittal at a court-martial (an outcome regretted by President James Madison). Restored to command, he was made a major general on 2 March 1813, but so mishandled the northern campaign of the War of 1812 that he was called before a court of inquiry. In 1815 he was exonerated, although not returned to duty, and on 15 June 1815 was honorably discharged.
Wilkinson settled in New Orleans after the war, where he ran through his remaining resources. In 1822 he went to Mexico City as an agent for the American Bible Society, but was actually seeking land grants in Texas. Wilkinson died there on 28 December 1825. As one writer put it: "It is not certain whether the Mexican climate or the use of opium did more to hasten his end" (Nickerson, p. 428).
SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict.
Hay, Thomas R., and M. R. Werner. The Admirable Trumpeter: A Biography of General James Wilkinson. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, & Company, 1941.
Jacobs, James. Tarnished Warrior: Major General James Wilkinson. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.
Shreve, Royal O. The Finished Scoundrel. Indianapolis, In.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1933).
The Wilkinson Papers. The Chicago Historical Society.
revised by Michael Bellesiles