A most despicable man

"In all our history, there is no more despicable character," Theodor Roosevelt.
"The only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain," John Randolph of Roanoke.

The above quotations are problably not the assessments of your character, you will be looking for. But it is what one man got. The first one years after his death, but the second while he was very much alive. And it wasn't a nobody that was assessed like that, which may be deduced from who said so. At the time of his statement, Theodor Roosevelt was Governor of New York and the same year he became Vice President and months later President of The United States. John Randolph of Roanoke was a wealthy planter and congress man and at the time of his statement, foreman of the grand jury that was considering an indictment of Vice President Aaron Burr.

But who were they referring to? The name of the man was James Wilkinson, and he was an important man in his lifetime.

The man

James Wilkinson was born in Maryland in 1757 to relatively wealthy parents. Some sources claims that he "a poor kid from the east", but that's not true. It's true though that his grandfather had been even wealthier than his father, but the family was in no way poor. His father was a merchant and a planter and he made sure that James, who was the second son, had private tutors in his home. Later he studied medicine at University of Philadelphia but his studies were interrupted by the American Revolution.

In 1778 James married Anne Biddle in Philadelphia and the couple had four children. Anne died in 1807 and in 1810 he married Celeste Trudeau with whom he had three children. His favorite was one of his twin daughters, Theofannie, from his second marriage. She died in 1822 only six years old, and her death took a great toll on him, and he died only three years later in 1825.

Before his death he reached the rank of major general in the army, was Senior Officer of ther Army twice and Governor of the Louisiana Territory.

Military career

James Wilkinson as Brigadier General.

Wilkinson entered the war on the rebel side in the war with Great Britain. He joined Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion in 1775. In September of that year he he received a commission as captain in The Continental Army. He served as an aide to General Nathanael Greene during the siege of Boston. When the British left Boston he went with the army to New York, where he left the service of Greene and was given the command of an infantry company. The company was sent to Canada to reinforce the troops of Benedict Arnold at the siege of Quebec. Arnold was at that time still a respected general in the continental army. When Wilkinson's company arrived, the British force had just been reinforced with 8.000 troops under command of General John Burgoyne and the Americans had to withdraw. Wilkinson was appointed aide to Arnold and the two of them left Canada on the last ship that left Quebec after the failed siege. Shortly after this he left the service of Arnold and therefore his career was not influenced by Arnold's later betrayal. Instead Wilkinson became aide to general Horatio Gates (who later would get his own problems). Together with Gates (and Arnold as well) he participated in The Battle of Saratoga, which was won by the the Americans, not least due to Arnold's efforts. Gates claimed the honor though, and sent Wilkinson off to congress to report on the outcome of the battle. Wilkinson was in no hurry to deliver the messages though, as he had some private business to take care of first.

When Wilkinson finally showed up in Congress he took the opportunity to improve on the story of his own his own efforts and he took credit for the results achieved by other officers. With additional support in a letter from Gates, this resulted in Wilkinson being promoted to brevet brigadier general. This promotion meant that he was promoted ahead of several older and more experienced officers, and the promotion caused an uproar among Continental Army officers. In the battles of Trenton and Princeton in late 1776 he had served directly under George Washington. Being only 20 he was appointed secretary to the Board of War in september 1777. It was around this time, that he started a (probably false) rumor that he was part of the so-called Conway Cabal, a conspiracy to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates. Gates got enough of Wilkinson and made him resign his post in March 1778. Wilkinson told Washington of Gates' involvement in the Conway Cabal and Gates also had to resign from the Board of War and accept an assignment as commander of the Eastern Department in November 1778 while Wilkinson was appointed  Clothier-general of the Army by Congress in July 1779. In March 1881 he resigned this position, officially due to his "lack of aptitude for the job", but more likely he was forced to resign as he was accused of corruption.

Pennsylvania and Kentucky

After leaving the Continental Army Wilkinson was appointed Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania militia i 1782. The next year he was elected to the the legislative assembly of said state. In 1784 he moved to what was then known as the Kentucky District, and settled near present day Louisville. He founded present day state capital, Frankfort, when he bought 260 acres of land on the north side of the Kentucky River and established a plantation there. He soon became a wealthy farmer and merchant and he had a large influence in the area. He was advocating that Frankfort should become the capital of USA, and he was also working on getting the Kentucky District (then only three counties) to get independence from Virginia. In 1787 he travelled to New Orleans, a Spanish colony at the time. He met with the Spanish governor and talked him into giving the Kentucky District exclusive rights to the trade along the Mississippi River.

In February 1788 he returned to Kentucky, where he vigorously argued against a new constitution for the United States. Kentucky had applied for statehood, but Wilkinson was sure, that the decision would be postponed until the new constitution was ratified. As it turned out Wilkinson proved to be right, as the district didn't achieve state rights until 1792. Instead Wilkinson advocated a new idea that Kentucky should form a union with Spain, but he couldn't get general support for this, even if his arguments were that the inhabitants of Kentucky would gain a large market for their goods in New Orleans and other parts of the Spanish controlled south. Although the people of Kentucky rejected the idea, Wilkinson still enjoyed enormous respect in the district. At the 7th Assembly of the Kentucky  Convention he was elected president of the convention. During the convention he argued once again that Kentucky should secede from Virginia. This time he suggested that after the secession Kentucky should apply for statehood in The United States on their own account. As he didn't succeed convincing his fellow Kentuckians this time either, he took the matter in his own hands. He contacted the Spanish governor in New Orleans and suggested that Spain should grant an area of 60.000 acres for him and his followers, where they could settle under Spanish protection if they had to flee USA. Once more he didn't succeed and the venture turned out to be much less lucrative for him, than he had expected.

Back to the army

The Battle of Fallen Timbers

In 1785 what is later become known as Little Turtles War, The Northwest Indian War and The Battle for Ohio broke out. It was a war between USA on one side and a loose confedration of about 20 tribes of Native Americans, known as The Western Condfederacy. Among the hostile tribes were the Shawnees, the Lenape, the Wyandottes, the Chickamauga Cherokees, the Iroquoise Confederation and others. It was generally a battle of control of a territory that included all of Ohio and parts of Indiana and Illinois. The war lasted until 1794. In 1791 Wilkinson accepted an appointment to Lieutenant Colonel in the regular army, and he commanded a force of Kentucky volunteers, who fought the indians at the village of Ouiatenon in present day Indiana. Later the same year he lead a raid against the indians culminating in The Battle of Kenapacomagua. After the battle he was put in charge of the 2nd US Infantry Regiment. Shortly after he was once more promoted to brigadier general, and was under consideration for a role as commanding officer of the US Army, when the army was reorganized as Legion of the United States, but Congress chose Anthony Wayne instead. Wilkinson commanded the right flank during The Battle of Fallen Timbers i 1794, which proved to be the last battle of the war. Along the way he used much of his energy to create distrust against Wayne, both amongst the men and among the politicians in charge. He wrote several letters to George Washington protesting against Wayne and his decisions during the battle even if the battle was a great victory for the army. Wilkinson was busy plotting to become leader of the army himself, but without much luck at the time.

In 1796 Wilkinson was made Commandant of Detroit and he gained fame and popularity, when refused to lead an uproar against USA among the inhabitants of the Natchez area in present day Mississippi. When General Wayne died in 1796 Wilkinson was appointed Senior Officer of the Army, a title corresponding to modern day Chief of Staff of the United States Army, making him supreme commander of the army. At that time the title automatically went to the highest ranking officer in the army, and that was Wilkinson. In 1798 he was replaced by George Washington, who had served his time as president and now returned to the army. Washington had a higher rank as Lieutenant General as Wilkinsons rank as Brigadier General. When Washington died in 1799 he was replaced as Senior Officer by Major General Alexander Hamilton, who no longer served as Secretary of the Treasury and had returned to his army position.

In 1797 and 1798 Wilkinson was busy creating hostile feelings against USA among both the Spanish who controlled the Missisippi Valley, and the Native Americans who actually lived there. He worked against the survey of the US Border that had been initiated by Congress and he managed to delay the man responsible for the project, Andrew Ellicott for several months. All the same time he sent one of his own employees, Philip Nolan, out to survey the areas west of the Mississippi River.

A short detour

In 1798 Wilkinson was transferred to the southern frontier. During the "quasi war" with France he was third in command of the US Army after Washington and Hamilton. After Washington's death, Hamilton charged Wilkinson with establishing a reserve corps and build a base in the lower Ohio Valley, and be ready to conquer the lower Mississippi and New Orleans in case of a real war with France and Spain, who where alllied at the time.

In the  1800 presidential election Hamilton, who was a federalist, worked on defeating not only his opponents from the Republican Party and the so-called Democratic Republicans, but also the candidate from his own Federalist Party, The president in power, John Adams. The election ended in a tie between Vice Pesident Thomas Jefferson (Republican) and Aaron Burr (Democratic Republican). Hamilton used his personal influence to ensure that Jefferson was elected, not his personal foe, Aaron Burr. Hamilton didn't like Jefferson either, but as he said "At least he is honest." The way the electional system worked then, meant that whoever came second in the election would serve as Vice President, and that title went to Burr, much to Hamiltons dismay. Four years later Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but that's a story for another time.

Senior Officer once more

In 1800 after the election Hamilton resigned from the army and Wilkinson was once more appointed Senior Officer, a post he kept until 1812. Even if the "quasi war" with France was over Wilkinson, continued the plans for the establishment of a base in the lower Ohio. He named the base "Cantonment Wilkinson" after himself. The base was located in what was then the Indiana Territory (present day southern Illinois). The base wasn't abandoned until late 1802. Some researchers claim, that Wilkinson planned to use the base as a stronghold for a raid of the south.

In 1803 USA purchased The Louisiana Territory from France. The territory included the whole drainage area of the Mississippi River. In 1800 France had gotten the area from Spain via the Third San Ildefonso Treaty, a secret treaty between France and Spain. The appointed American governor of the new territory, William C. C. Claiborne, was escorted to New Orleans by Wilkinson and his troops. They took possession of the area and Wilkinson established his headquarters in New Orleans. In 1804 the territory was divided in two districts. William Claiborne was appointed govenor of the southern district (almost the same as present day Louisiana), named The Orleans District, while Amos Stoddard was appointed govenor of the much larger northern district, The Louisiana District. Stoddard didn't serve long, but was replaced by later president William Henry Harrison, who was only president for one month before his death in 1841. But back to Wilkinson.

Map of US territories in 1809. The Louisiana Territory almost doubled the area of The United States when it was purchased from France in 1803.The Orleans Territory, The Mississippi Territory, The Indiana Territory and The Michigan Territory were all parts of The Louisiana Territory at the time of the puschase.

In 1804 and 1805 Wilkinson conspired with Vicepresident Aaron Burr to create an independent state in the western parts of the Louisiana district. In 1805 the Louisiana District changed status from district to terrirtory, and president Thomas Jefferson appointed Wilkinson governor of the new territory. Wilkinson found out that he couldn't gather support for a secession of the western part of the territory. In 1806 hi disclosed the plan to the president, claiming that Vice President Burr was the mastermind behind the plot. Other partners in the crime though claimed that Wilkinson was the true mastermind, not Burr. Anyway Burr was accused and during the trial against him, Wilkinson became a witness for the prosecution, and it was on that occasion that John Randolph expressed the quotation in the beginning of this article. And he didn't even know the worst about Wilkinson yet.

Part of the agreement between Burr and Wilkinson was that Wilkinson should conquer Mexico and make this country part of the new country the conspirators were about to found. Wilkinson sent a man, Zebulon Pike south to survey the best route for the army, but before he returned, Wilkinson had already disclosed the plot. A line of court martials was held against Wilkinson and other co-conspirators, but all were rejected due to lack of evidence. Wilkinson's reputation was badly damaged though.

In 1807 Wilkinson was removed from his post as governor on grounds of abuse of power and excessive use of force. He was replaced by famous explorer Meriwether Lewis. Wilkinson was not happy about this decision, and he was definitely no fan of Lewis. Historian Kira Gale even think that Wilkinson may have been behind the mysterious death of Lewis in 1809. More of that in a future article. No suspicion against Wilkinson was ever brought forward in his own time. The revelations from the trial against Burr meant that new hearings of Wilkinson's involvement was carried out in Congress in 1810, and in 1811 president James Madison ordered a new court martial against Wilkinson, but on December 25th court once again found him not guilty.

In 1812 war broke out between USA and England and Wilkinson returned to his posting as Commander of New Orleans. A short while later he was promoted to Major General. In spite of this promotion he had to turn over his title of Senior Officer of the Army to Henry Dearborn, former Secretary of War. Dearborn was promoted to "Senior Major General", a new title invented just for him by President Madison, who didn't want Wilkinson as supreme commander. Instead Wilkinson was made responsible for the defense of Mobile in what was then known as Spanish West Florida, present day southern Alabama). Later he was transferred north to the St. Lawrence River Sector. Here he commanded his troops in two battles, The Battle of Chrysler Farm and The Battle of Lacolle Mills. Both battles were lost and also in the Montreal Campaign he failed miserably. He was removed from active duty, while he was investigated. Once more he was acquitted, but he had to leave the army in disrepute. This contributed to historian Robert Leckie (a bit unfair) called Wilkinson: "A general who never won a battle and never lost a court martial."

An artist of treason

In 1816 Wilkinson published his memoirs and in 1821 he left for Mexico, where he tried to persuade the Mexican government to grant him a extremely large tract of land in Texas. He would make this land an independet state with no connections to USA. The Mexican government considered the proposal for a long time, and all the while Wilkinson stayed in Mexico City. Here he died in 1825, 68 years old, before the government had come to a decision. Wilkinson was buried in Mexico City.

During most of his time in the western USA Wilkinson was suspected by some people of working with Spain, but there was never any proof. In 1854, almost 30 years after Wilkinson's death, part of his correspondance with Mexican governor Esteban Miro was published. From these letters it became clear that not only had he cooperated with Spain, he had also been a paid secret agent under codename "Number 13". Already during his visit in Mexico City in 1787 he had made an arrangement with the governor to promote Spanish interests in the western territories and in August of the same year, he had signed a paper, in which he gave up his US citizenship and swore loyalty to the Spanish King. Most of his later actions must be seen in the light of him actually working for Spain - also in the 12 years he was supreme commander of the US Army. Historian Frederick Turner has said about Wilkinson, that he was: "the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed". During a later visit to Mexico City he was granted a $57.000 pension by the governor, but later the same year the Spanish government decided not to pay him any more. In spite of this Wilkinson was paid personally by Governor Miro at least until his death 1795. Officially Wiklinson always worked against Spanish interests, so he probably hedged his bets, so he would come out on top no matter who won an eventual war between USA and Spain.

In 1793 he disclosed to Spain, that General George Rogers Clark was making plans for an attack on New Orleans. Clark was the older brother of explorer William Clark and one of the best revolutionary war generals. During the North West Indian war (see above) Clark succesfully commanded a force of 1,200 volunteers, but Wilkinson spread the rumor that Clark was often drunk while on duty. When Clark heard of these accusations he demanded a formal hearing, but his request was turned down by the Virginian governor and Clark's actions was condemned by the Virginia Council. Wilkinson's attack on Clark caused Clark biograpther Temple Bodley to say of Wilkinson: "He had considerable military talent, but used it only for his own gain."

Wilkinson had success in slandering his competitors without getting in trouble himself, and even after his death and the 1854 revelations the "Wilkinson-Effect" worked. In spite of his treason he preserved the confidence of great personalities like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Wilkinson was in many a very remarkable man! Some researches think that he was neither caring for US or Spanish interests, but only his own, and that his sole ambition was to become leader of a country he could call his own.

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