Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Artist in Treason

Patriot, traitor, general, spy: James Wilkinson was a consummate contradiction. Brilliant and precocious, at age twenty he was both the youngest general in the revolutionary Continental Army, and privy to the Conway cabal to oust Washington from command. He was Benedict Arnold’s aide, but the first to reveal Arnold’s infamous treachery. By thirty-eight, he was the senior general in the United States army—and had turned traitor himself.

Wilkinson’s audacious career as Agent 13 in the Spanish secret service while in command of American forces is all the more remarkable because it was anything but hidden. Though he betrayed America’s strategic secrets, sought to keep the new country from expanding beyond the Mississippi, and almost delivered Lewis and Clark’s expedition into Spanish hands, four presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—turned a blind eye to his treachery. They gambled that Wilkinson—by turns charming and ruthless—would never betray the army itself and use it to overthrow our nascent democracy—a fate every other democracy in the Western hemisphere endured. The crucial test came in 1806, when at the last minute Wilkinson turned the army against Aaron Burr and foiled his conspiracy to break up the Union.

A superb writer and superlative storyteller, Andro Linklater captures with brio Wilkinson’s charismatic ability to live a double life in public view. His saga shows, more clearly than any other, how fragile the young republic was and how its strength grew from the risks its leaders faced and the challenges they had to overcome.
Wilkinson is one of those early fascinating Revolutionary figures that I've always wanted to know more about. I'm glad someone has taken the time to ferret him out.


  1. He's an interesting writer. He wrote a book I've been meaning to read on the "measuring of America."

    He then wrote a book about one of the Pennsylvania land surveyors, "the fabric of America."

    The surveyor apparently crossed paths with Wilkinson, which is now his next book.

    Definitely a historian worth looking into.

  2. Another Roosevelt book:

  3. Dr Church: TRAITOR!

    ''Church had been placed at the head of an army hospital for the accommodation of twenty thousand men, and till this time had seemed a brave and zealous compatriot of Warren and the other leading men of the time. Soon after his appointment, he was, however, detected in secret correspondence with Gage. He had entrusted to a woman of his acquaintance a letter written in cipher to be forwarded to the British commander. ''

    Benedict Arnold was not alone. Money, greed, and ambition stimulated these traitors to betray their country.

    Bring on the hangman!

  4. Well, when things were still so very much up in the air, do the terms "traitor" or "betray their country" really apply? (Or were you being facetious?)

    Linklater was on BookTV re this book this past weekend and what a sophisticated smoothie he is. Not sure I'd plunge into the book, but sure did enjoy listening to him.