In my battered copy of Arthur Schlesinger’s Almanac of American History, James Wilkinson, commanding general of the United States Army, is introduced, with professorial blandness, simply as the man who, in November 1806, “reveals the Aaron Burr conspiracy to carve out an empire in the American Southwest and Mexico.
But in his wonderful novel Burr, Gore Vidal pulls the middle-aged general snorting and belching into the spotlight and sits him down on the other side of the table for the reader to see: “a fat, soft man with loose jowls and a concentrated fierce gaze, rather like that of a sow about to cannibalise her piglets.” Wilkinson’s once clear voice, Vidal notes, “had grown harsh from drink.” He “guzzled port.” He wears a fantastically elaborate blue-and-yellow uniform he had designed himself, “calculated to make a Napoleonic marshal look drab as a Jesuit.”
In the novel Burr studies his old friend and drinking companion and shakes his head sadly: “I cannot think why Jamie was always so plausible to others, including me. If ever any man looked and acted the part of a scoundrel it was he.”
Plausible he certainly was. As the Scottish writer Andro Linklater makes clear in his fascinating new biography, for most of his life and for most people, James Wilkinson possessed a very real, nearly irresistible personal charm. It made him at the age of 20 the youngest general in the Continental Army. In 1778 it brought him the hand of the “adorable” (Linklater’s word) Ann Biddle and a connection to one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Pennsylvania. And after the war, in his land-buying ventures in Kentucky and his tobacco speculations in New Orleans, Wilkinson’s warmth and personal appeal, Linklater dryly observes, were “literally as bankable as cash.”
And yet, even as Wilkinson rose during George Washington’s presidency to become the senior general in the peacetime army — making him, if not quite a Founding Father, at least a Founding Patriot — at the same time he became, quite deliberately and for money, a spy for the Spanish government, known in its secret records by the James Bond-like tag of “Agent 13.”
Linklater narrates this extraordinary story with clarity and verve. He begins with Wilkinson’s spectacular career in the war — a career that apparently brought him in touch with everyone who mattered. He served with Washington at Boston and at Valley Forge, he knew Burr and Alexander Hamilton well, he was with Benedict Arnold in Canada and General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. In the first sign of his double nature, the “cold detachment that underlay the vanity, energy, and extravagance,” as Linklater puts it, Wilkinson calmly undermined Arnold’s own career in order to advance his own. And after Saratoga, either through double-dealing calculation or drunkenness, he passed along a version of Gates’s subversive criticism of Washington, thus igniting the complicated series of duels, explosions, and intrigues known to historians as “the Conway Cabal.” (Linklater’s is the clearest account of that mare’s nest that I have ever read.)
Linklater is fully alive to the irony of Wilkinson’s relationship with the traitor Arnold. It serves as a nice transition to Wilkinson’s own treasonous alliance with the Spanish authorities in the Louisiana Territory, then part of the Spanish Empire, though shortly to be ceded to France. He writes shrewdly about Wilkinson’s possible motives — his vanity, his expensive wife, his amazing incompetence with money (a trait he shared with Arnold). He is entertaining on late-18th-century spycraft: silver coins hidden at the bottom of tobacco casks, secret codes based on a Spelling Dictionary. But more importantly, he puts Wilkinson’s melodramatic life as a double agent into a larger and compelling historical context of two over-arching themes.
The first of these is the fragility of the new Republic, the widespread uncertainty that the nation so boldly created by the Revolution could actually endure. The shrewdest political minds, Linklater points out, worried that “the ramshackle constitution created by the Articles of Confederation seemed more likely to destroy the Union than hold it together. ” Fear of disunion and dissolution was what drove Washington and others to support a new constitution and a far stronger federal government. And it was a reasonable fear — in the years following the Revolution, the whole vast territory west of the Alleghenies seemed at times a hotbed of schemes for breaking away from the Atlantic states and establishing new, independent political entities. (As late as 1797 Senator William Blount of Tennessee was discovered plotting with the British to seize New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley.) In the crucial decade of the 1790s, what Wilkinson had to offer his masters in Madrid was the prospect of using his military position (and charm) to induce the restless Kentuckians to leave the Union — their reward would be free trade on the Mississippi — and join the Spanish Empire, where his own reward would be money or high office, or both. It was no accident that the general first became a secret agent in the summer of 1787, while the Constitutional Convention was underway.
His “Spanish Conspiracy” was not a secret long. Almost from the start, Wilkinson’s vanity and greed exposed him to suspicion, suspicion that reached as high as Washington himself. But though the new president was inclined to believe the whispers and open accusations against his general, he chose to do nothing. And this puzzling inaction leads directly to Linklater’s second major theme: the long-standing tension in the early Republic between the need for a professional military and the nearly universal conviction that, as Congress declared in 1784, “[s]tanding armies in times of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican government, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, and generally converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism.”
Or, to put it another way, like every president who followed him, Washington wanted a senior general who would be at once effective and compliant — a general firmly under civilian control. But also like everybody else, Washington failed to appreciate both Wilkinson’s guile and greed and Aaron Burr’s limitless ambition. For sometime in 1804, not long after he shot down Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Burr launched his own version of the Spanish Conspiracy with an astonishing plan to take New Orleans by force, drive westward through Texas, and establish himself as ruler of a new Mexican Empire. To do this he needed Wilkinson’s army. And for a few days in 1806 he almost had it.
Linklater’s version of this oft-told story is complex and exciting. He juggles smoothly his Shakespearean cast of minor characters, which ranges from the huffing and puffing Andrew Jackson of Nashville to the hissing and sneering John Randolph of Virginia, and his chapter describing Wilkinson’s ultimate decision to betray Burr rather than his country builds to a genuinely dramatic moment. At first the general jumps this way and that, balancing his interests and his bank account, watching over his dying wife, sending secret messages sewn in a lieutenant’s moccasin to President Jefferson in Washington. As Burr maneuvers, Wilkinson hesitates which way to throw his support — he actually writes the operatic words “The plot thickens” to a confederate — before, to the surprise of almost everyone, he finally chooses patriotism over conspiracy. “During those days,” Linklater says, when it seemed possible that Burr’s scheme would indeed take hold and split the country in two, it is not too much to say that “Wilkinson held the fate of the United States in his hands.”
The rest of the book carries us through Burr’s trial for treason, the open doubts and derision Wilkinson’s behavior excited (not doubting in the least, John Randolph called him “the mammoth of iniquity”), and his long downward spiral in the army, culminating with his ragged, uneven performance on the Canadian front in the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson comes off badly in these pages — secretive, vengeful — and James Madison, the president who ultimately removes Wilkinson from command, not much better. Wilkinson’s last years were spent — another irony — in Mexico, where his personal charm and his splendid uniforms led to a brief career as military consultant to the fleeting reign of the Emperor Agustin. He died in Mexico City in 1825, at the age of 68. In almost the only omission in his exemplary history, Linklater neglects to tell us what was inscribed on the tombstone. If Benedict Arnold or Aaron Burr had had their way, it might likely have been a line from Hamlet: Here lies proof that “one can smile, and smile, and be a villain.”