One of the nation’s hallmark beliefs, bequeathed to the citizens of the United States by the founders, is the firm commitment of civilian control of the military. George Washington certainly believed in it; so did rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. So too, did Alexander Hamilton and a host of others. That is, except for one of the least well-known founders, James Wilkinson. As commander of the U.S. Army in the early republic he aided in the so-called Burr Conspiracy that sought by military action to establish a separate nation in the Louisiana territory. This very fine biography of Wilkinson relates his life and career.
Some might question my assertion that Wilkinson was one of the revered founders of the United States, but he was a Revolutionary War general and a hero in the War for Independence. He also became in 1796 general in command of the regular army and after Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte, Wilkinson was named territorial governor of northern Louisiana. But Wilkinson was also a traitor who was a spy on the Spanish payroll, with the code name of Agent 13, and a co-conspirator with Aaron Burr in a supposed plot to overthrow constitutional rule in the Louisiana Purchase territory during the first decade of the nineteenth century.
James Wilkinson (1757–1825) has only had a few biographies dedicated to his life and career, and that is probably appropriate. M.R. Werner’s 1941 biography, The Admirable Trumpeter, surprisingly not mentioned in this book’s otherwise extensive bibliography, exposed both Wilkinson’s propensity for conspiracy and deception as well as his positive accomplishments. This modern biography by writer Andro Linklater recites what we already knew about Wilkinson and his intrigues as well as adding to it additional details on his colorful career.
Despite genuine skills Linklater generally agrees with historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of Wilkinson as “the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed,” even using part of this quote in his title for this book. Other historians have also characterized James Wilkinson in equally colorful language that Linklater might have appropriated in his title. Robert Leckie called him “a general who never won a battle or lost a court-martial—an allusion to Wilkinson’s two trials, one for bribery in 1811 and a second for dereliction of duty in 1815. He was acquitted both times. In addition, Temple Bodley once appropriately concluded about Wilkinson: “He had considerable military talent, but used it only for his own gain.” Andro Linklater would agree with all of these assessments.
Reading this book makes one want to take a shower afterward, as he brings to life all of James Wilkinson’s foilables, follies, and chicanery. He was both charming and ruthless in equal parts and seemingly at any point in his dealings with others, and this comes through well in An Artist in Treason. It is an outstanding reading experience.
Of course, the centerpiece of An Artist in Treason is Wilkinson’s role in the plot by ex-Vice President Aaron Burr to what was believed an attempted split of the Louisiana Purchase, or at least a sizable chunk of it, from the United States and establishment of a separate nation on the frontier. Burr organized a cabal of disaffected politicians, military officers, planters, and businessmen to take possession of Louisiana and perhaps Texas and other parts of the Southwest.
The details of the Burr conspiracy are masked in the mists of time; Burr claimed he was undertaking filibuster operations in Spanish territory and meant the United States no harm. As Linklater makes clear Wilkinson helped Burr garner troops and materiél for a campaign against the Spanish certainly, and perhaps also the United States.
When this conspiracy became known, President Thomas Jefferson had Burr arrested and tried for treason. Wilkinson turned against Burr, and was the star witness in his trial. Few accepted Wilkinson’s story of the Burr Conspiracy in totality, thinking it an attempt to shift blame for his actions to further personal ambitions, and Burr was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Linklater dramatically captures the charm that Wilkinson could exude and shows how he used it to advantage to return to a place of trust after the trial. Andro Linklater’s biography of General James Wilkinson is an elegantly written account of the life of a scoundrel who used his position to gain wealth and privilege in both the U.S. and New Spain. It is an elegantly written and argued book.