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James Wilkinson

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James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson
6th Senior Officer of the Army
In office
December 15, 1796 – July 13, 1798
President George Washington
John Adams
Preceded by Anthony Wayne
Succeeded by George Washington
9th Senior Officer of the Army
In office
June 15, 1800 – January 27, 1812
President John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
Preceded by Alexander Hamilton
Succeeded by Henry Dearborn
1st Governor of Louisiana Territory
In office
President Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by William Henry Harrison
Governor of the District of Louisiana
Succeeded by Meriwether Lewis
U.S. Envoy to Mexico
In office
Preceded by John H. Robinson
Succeeded by Joel Roberts Poinsett
Personal details
Born March 24, 1757 (1757-03-24)
Near Benedict, Maryland
Died Did not recognize date. Try slightly modifying the date in the first parameter. (aged 68)
Mexico City, Mexico
Resting place Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel, Mexico City
Political party Federalist Party
Spouse(s) Ann Biddle Wilkinson, Celestine Laveau Trudeau
Children Seven
Profession Military

James Wilkinson (March 24, 1757 – December 28, 1825) was an American soldier and statesman, who was associated with several scandals and controversies.[1]

He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, but he was twice compelled to resign. He was twice the Senior Officer of the U.S. Army, appointed to be the first Governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1805,[2] and commanded two unsuccessful campaigns in the St. Lawrence River theater during the War of 1812. After his death, he was discovered to have been a paid agent of the Spanish crown.[3]


  • Personal life 1
  • Revolutionary War service 2
  • Kentucky ventures 3
  • Second military career 4
    • Rivalry with Wayne 4.1
    • Quasi-war with France 4.2
    • Service under President Jefferson 4.3
    • Connections with Aaron Burr 4.4
    • War of 1812 4.5
  • Last years 5
  • Legacy 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Personal life

James Wilkinson was born about three miles (5 km) northeast of Benedict, Maryland, on a farm south of Hunting Creek.[4][5] His grandfather had been sufficiently wealthy to buy a large property known as Stoakley Manor in Calvert County. The family felt that even though their property was smaller, they still fell in with a higher social class. James grew up with the idea that "the image of respectability excused the reality of betrayal". His father, Joseph Wilkinson, inherited the property but, by that time, the family was in debt. In 1764, Stoakley Manor was broken up and sold. His older brother, Joseph, inherited the property after his father died and, as the second son, James was left with nothing.

Historian Andro Linklater argued that his upbringing led to James' aggressive reaction towards insults of his behavior.[1]:7–14 His father had left with the last words of "My son, if you ever put up with an insult, I will disinherit you."

Wilkinson received his early education from a private tutor, funded by his grandmother; his study of medicine in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War.

Wilkinson married Ann Biddle of the prominent Biddle family of Philadelphia[6] on November 12, 1778 in Philadelphia. Wilkinson's marriage to the dynamic Biddle helped him develop his career as a politician and general.[7]:34 [8]:117 They had four sons,[7]:35–36 including John (1780–1796), James Biddle (c. 1783 – September 17, 1813), Joseph Biddle (1789–1865),[9] and Walter (born 1791). James and Walter both served as Captains in the US Army.

After Ann's death on February 23, 1807,[7]:36[10] he married Celestine Laveau Trudeau, daughter of New Orleans' 1812 mayor Charles Laveau Trudeau, on March 5, 1810, with whom he had three children: twin girls Stephanie and Theofannie, born January 1816, and a son Theodore, born 1819. Theofannie, his favorite, died in early 1822.

General Wilkinson died on December 28, 1825, at the age of 68. He was buried in Mexico City, Mexico.[5]

Revolutionary War service

Wilkinson first served in Thompson's Pennsylvania rifle battalion, 1775–76, and was commissioned a captain in September 1775. He served as an aide to Nathanael Greene during the Siege of Boston, participated in the placing of guns on the Dorchester Heights in March 1776, and following the British abandonment of Boston, went with the rest of the Continental Army to New York where he left Greene's staff and was given command of an infantry company.

Sent to Canada as part of the reinforcements for Benedict Arnold's army besieging Quebec, he arrived just in time to witness the arrival of 8,000 British reinforcements under General John Burgoyne – which precipitated the collapse of the American effort in Canada. He became aide to Arnold just prior to the final retreat and left Canada with Arnold on the very last boat out. Shortly thereafter, he left Arnold's service and became an aide to General Horatio Gates in August 1776.

When Gates sent him to Congress with official dispatches about the victory at the Continental Army. Gates soon had enough of Wilkinson, and the young officer was compelled to resign in March 1778. On July 29, 1779, Congress appointed him clothier-general of the Army, but he resigned on March 27, 1781, due to his "lack of aptitude for the job".[1]:68

Kentucky ventures

After his resignation from the Continental Army, Wilkinson reluctantly became a

Military offices
Preceded by
Anthony Wayne
Senior Officer of the United States Army
Succeeded by
George Washington
Preceded by
Alexander Hamilton
Senior Officer of the United States Army
Succeeded by
Henry Dearborn
Political offices
Preceded by
William Henry Harrison (District of Louisiana)
Governor of Louisiana Territory
Succeeded by
Meriwether Lewis
  • James Wilkinson, A Study in Controversy
  • Spaniards, Scoundrels, and Statesmen: General James Wilkinson and the Spanish Conspiracy, 1787–1790
  • Texas Handbook Online
  • Commanding Generals and Chiefs of Staff 1775–1995Wilkinson Bio in , a publication of the United States Army Center of Military History
  • Encyclopedia Louisiana
  • William Harrison Safford, ed. (1864). The Blennerhassett papers. Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin.  
  • "Wilkinson Portraits". Historical Society of Frederick County. Retrieved 2012-10-17. 
  • James Wilkinson at Find a Grave

External links

  • Linklater, Andro. An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson (Walker Publishing Company, 2009)
  • Narrett, David E., "Geopolitics and Intrigue: James Wilkinson, the Spanish Borderlands, and Mexican Independence", William and Mary Quarterly 69 (Jan. 2012), 101–46.

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Linklater, Andro (2009). An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. Walker Publishing Company.  
  2. ^ Bell, William Gardner (2005). "James Wilkinson". Commanding Generals and Chiefs of Staff: Portraits and Biographical Sketchs.  
  3. ^ "James Wilkinson at". Retrieved 2009-09-20. 
  4. ^ "James Wilkinson, portrait by Charles Willson Peale". U. S. National Park Service. October 9, 2001. Retrieved 2007-12-15. 
  5. ^ a b "Joseph & James Wilkinson Marker". Historical Marker Database. November 11, 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-16. 
  6. ^ Radbill, Kenneth A. (1978). "Quaker Patriots: The Leadership of Owen Biddle and John Lacey, Jr.". Pennsylvania History (Paper journal) 45 (1978): 48–49. 
  7. ^ a b c Hay, Thomas Robson, ed. (2006). Letters of Mrs. Ann Biddle Wilkinson from Kentucky 1788–1789. Kessinger Publishing.  
  8. ^ Wheelan, Joseph (2005). Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary. Carroll & Graf Publishers.  
  9. ^ Joseph Biddle Wilkinson at Find a Grave
  10. ^ "Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Online". The University of Nebraska. 
  11. ^ Slaughter, Thomas (1986). The Whiskey Rebellion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 55. 
  12. ^ Buescher, John. "Trailing Lewis and Clark". Accessed 12 July 2011.
  13. ^ "Cantonment Wilkinson (Helm) Site, Pulaski County, Illinois". Retrieved 2010-07-15. 
  14. ^ Southernmost Illinois History"Ohio River Valley Forts: Cantonment Wilkinsonville",
  15. ^ Wilkinson, James. "U.S. General James Wilkinson's Order Book, 1796–1808". Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  16. ^ Stewart, David O. (2011). American Emperor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 299.  
  17. ^
  18. ^ Elaine Lacoste (1997). Street Names & Picayune Histories of New Orleans. Ho'olauna Hawaii, Ltd.  ISBN 0-9656409-0-6
  19. ^ Hickey, Donald R. "The United States Army Versus Long Hair: The Trials of Colonel Thomas Butler, 1801–1805", Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 101 (October 1977): 462–74 (in print F146. P65).


See also

  • Wilkinson appears as a major character in the novel To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark, by Frances Hunter (2006 – ISBN 0-9777636-2-5), in which he draws explorer Meriwether Lewis into a conspiracy to separate the western territories from the United States.
  • Wilkinson also appears as a major character in Janice Holt Giles's novel The Land Beyond the Mountains which deals extensively with Wilkinson's participation in the issue of Kentucky statehood.

In popular culture

  • Historian Robert Leckie characterized him as "a general who never won a battle or lost a court-martial".
  • Historian Frederick Jackson Turner called Wilkinson "the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed".
  • Temple Bodley said of Wilkinson, "He had considerable military talent, but used it only for his own gain."
  • Frankfort, Kentucky's downtown was created from land owned by Wilkinson, and he designed the layout. A major street, which runs along historic Liberty Hall, was named Wilkinson Street.[17] (Liberty Hall's WorldHeritage article states that Wilkinson named the street himself.)
  • New Orleans has a short street called Wilkinson named for James Wilkinson, in the French Quarter near Jackson Square.[18] There is also a Wilkinson Street in Mandeville, Louisiana. Many of the oldest streets in Mandeville, close to Lake Pontchartrain, are named after prominent New Orleans residents of the late 18th and early 19th centuries or for Battle of New Orleans heroes.
  • Valdosta, Georgia, politician and railroad executive, but the latter Wilkinson was born decades after the county was created.)
  • Wilkinson County, Mississippi, is named for General Wilkinson, as well. It was there in the Old Natchez District that Wilkinson spent much of his time, allegedly plotting the Burr Conspiracy; Fort Adams (then an important U.S. Army post) was the most southwesterly point in the U.S. and the last American stop on the Mississippi River before entering Spanish territory.
  • Wilkinson was an avid supporter of the military's short-hair codes. He attempted to prosecute Colonel Thomas Butler, a veteran of both the Revolution and the Indian wars, for keeping his long hair. Colonel Butler died before the trials closed. He never did cut his long, braided queue prior to his death.[19]


According to Burr biographer David O. Stewart, Wilkinson was severely condemned in print by then-Governor of New York Theodore Roosevelt, some 65 years after the general's misdeeds, with this judgment: "In all our history, there is no more despicable character."[16]

Wilkinson's involvement with the Spanish (Agent 13) was widely suspected in his own day, but it was not proven until 1854, with Louisiana historian Charles Gayarré's publication of the American general's correspondence with Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Louisiana's colonial governor between 1785 and 1791. Other historians subsequently added to the catalog of Wilkinson's treasonous activities.

After the end of his military career, Wilkinson was appointed as U.S. Envoy to Mexico. This was during the period of the Mexican War of Independence against Spain, which was won in 1821. In that year, Wilkinson requested a Texas land grant. While awaiting the Mexican government's approval of his land scheme, Wilkinson died in Mexico City, where he was buried.

Last years

He was then assigned to the St. Lawrence River theater of war, following Henry Dearborn's reassignment. Wilkinson engaged in two failed campaigns (the Battle of Crysler's Farm and the second Battle of Lacolle Mills (1814)). He was then relieved from active duty, but he was cleared in a military inquiry. He was discharged from the Army on June 15, 1815. In 1816, Wilkinson published Memoirs of My Own Times, in a final attempt to clear his name.

Wilkinson was commissioned a major general during the War of 1812 on March 2, 1813. That same month, Wilkinson led the American force that occupied Mobile in Spanish West Florida.

War of 1812

He was removed from the Territorial Governor's office after being publicly criticized for heavy-handed administration and abuse of power (and replaced with Meriwether Lewis). Noting the lack of support for his new nation with Burr, Wilkinson revealed Burr's plans to Jefferson. Later, he had his own troops arrest Col. Burr.[15] Wilkinson testified at Burr's trial, arousing public accusations against him and inspiring two Congressional inquiries into his private ventures and intrigues. The revelations drove President James Madison to order his court-martial in 1811. He was found not guilty of the charges, on December 25, 1811.

In 1805, following the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Wilkinson Governor of the Louisiana Territory, despite his high-ranking military position. This was unusual; Jefferson gave Wilkinson a startling amount of power and authority. Wilkinson sent Zebulon Pike on expeditions in 1805 and 1806 to discover the source of the Mississippi River.

In 1804–05, he exchanged communications with Aaron Burr regarding Burr's conspiracy to set up an independent nation in the west. Some embittered associates (more specifically, Jefferson's cabinet members) later claimed that Wilkinson was the mastermind behind the plot of which Burr was accused. Others, namely author Theodore Crackel, played devil's advocate (Wilkinson's advocate), supporting Wilkinson's innocence and declaring that he was a scapegoat for Aaron Burr's reputation. (Crackel, Mr. Jefferson's Army, p. 132).

Connections with Aaron Burr

Wilkinson remained senior officer of the United States Army under President Thomas Jefferson. Along with Governor William C. C. Claiborne, Wilkinson shared the honor of taking possession of the Louisiana Purchase on behalf of the United States in 1803. At this time, Wilkinson renewed his treasonous relationship with Spanish colonial officials, offering advice to them on how to contain American expansion in exchange for the restoration of his pension. Among other things, Wilkinson tipped off the Spanish to the object of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Service under President Jefferson

Wilkinson served his second, longer term as Senior Officer of the Army from June 15, 1800, until January 27, 1812, when former Secretary of War Henry Dearborn was promoted to major general over Wilkinson.

Despite the end of the crisis in mid-1800 and Hamilton being discharged from the Army, Wilkinson, for unknown reasons, continued the plan for the establishment of the base which he named "Cantonment Wilkinson" after himself. Located in the Indiana Territory (now southern Illinois), the base operated from January 1801 to late 1802 before finally being abandoned. Archaeologists from Southern Illinois University have located the remains of this base, which is producing much previously-unknown information and artifacts from the daily life of the frontier army.[13][14]

Wilkinson was transferred to the southern frontier in 1798. During the Adams, died in December of 1799) and Alexander Hamilton. Among other duties, Wilkinson was charged by Hamilton with establishing a "Reserve Corps" of American troops in the lower Ohio River Valley, who would seize the lower Mississippi River Valley and New Orleans in the event of war with France and her ally Spain.

Quasi-war with France

In spite of Wilkinson's nearly-confirmed treason, upon Wayne's death he began his first tenure as Senior Officer of the Army, which lasted for about a year and a half.

Wilkinson proceeded to file formal complaints with President Washington, against Wayne and his decisions. Upon finding out about the complaints against him, Wayne decided to fight back, launching an investigation into Wilkinson's history with the Spanish. During all of this time, Wilkinson had renewed his secret alliance with the Spanish government (through the Governor of Louisiana Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet), alerting them to the actions of both the US and the French occupancy in North America. When Spanish couriers were intercepted carrying payments for Wilkinson, Wayne's suspicions were confirmed and he attempted to court martial Wilkinson for his treachery. However, Wayne developed a stomach ulcer and died on December 15, 1796.

Wilkinson developed a jealousy of Wayne, but he maintained an ostensible respect toward the general. However, upon Wilkinson's refusal of an invitation to Wayne's Christmas party, Wayne developed a full-fledged hatred for Wilkinson, deeming the refusal to be an act of disrespect. For example, Wayne had led the Legion Army against the Native Americans in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794. This battle was a huge victory for the United States, yet Wilkinson had criticized General Wayne's actions during the battle, simply to antagonize him.

When the United States government reorganized the Army as the Anthony Wayne. In the end, the cabinet chose Wayne due to Wilkinson's suspected involvement with the Spanish government. The cabinet promoted Wilkinson to brigadier general as consolation, since the President was aware of Wilkinson's fragile ego.

Rivalry with Wayne

In the Northwest Indian War, Colonel Wilkinson led a force of Kentucky volunteers against American Indians at Ouiatenon in May 1791. He commanded a follow-up raid that autumn, highlighted by the Battle of Kenapacomaqua. In October he received a commission to the U.S. Army as lieutenant colonel, commandant of the 2nd U.S. Infantry.

Second military career

However, by 1788 Wilkinson had apparently lost the confidence of officials in Spain. Miró was not to grant any of the proposed pensions and was forbidden from giving money to support a revolution in Kentucky. Furthermore, Wilkinson continued to secretly receive funds from Spain for many years.

Unable to gather enough support for his position at the convention, Wilkinson then approached Miró with a proposal. His intention was to obtain a Humphrey Marshall (who at one time was a bitter rival of Wilkinson's).

Leading up to Kentucky's seventh convention regarding separation from Virginia in November 1788, Wilkinson attempted to gauge the support for Kentucky to seek union with Spain. Wilkinson was not a highly honorable man, but his ability to win people over with his charm and sincerity got him elected committee chairman at the convention. He advocated for Kentucky to seek independence from Virginia first, and then to consider joining the Union of states as a second step. For many, joining the Union was conditional upon the Union negotiating with Spain to arrange free navigation on the Mississippi River, a contentious point which many doubted the eastern states would act upon.

Upon returning to Kentucky in February 1788, Wilkinson vigorously opposed the new U.S. Constitution. Kentucky had very nearly achieved statehood under the old Articles of Confederation, and there was widespread disappointment when this was delayed because of the new constitution.

In April 1787, Wilkinson made a highly controversial trip to New Orleans, which was the capital of Spanish colonial Louisiana.[1]:80 At that time, Americans were allowed to trade on the Mississippi River, but they had to pay a hefty tariff.[11] Wilkinson met with Spanish Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró and managed to convince him to allow Kentucky to have a trading monopoly on the River; in return he promised to promote Spanish interests in the west.[12] On August 22, 1787, Wilkinson signed an expatriation declaration and swore allegiance to the King of Spain to satisfy his own commercial needs.[1]:86 The "Spanish Conspiracy", as it is known, was initiated by Wilkinson's "First Memorial", a 7,500-word report written before he left New Orleans for Charleston, to the Spanish concerning the "political future of western settlers" and to convince Spain to "admit us [Kentuckians] under protection as vassals".[1]:85 This was encoded with myriad symbols, numbers, and letters that was decoded via a complex English-Spanish cipher code-named "Number 13", which became the basis for his pseudonym, "Agent 13".[1]:88

. Virginia (at that time, just three counties still belonging to Virginia) in 1784, and he was active there in efforts to achieve independence from Kentucky He moved to :62[1]

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