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.
Further Reading on James Wilkinson
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).