This Day in History: James Wilkinson, the “other” Benedict Arnold
On this day in 1825, James Wilkinson dies in Mexico City. He has been called the “most notorious American traitor you’ve probably never heard of.” Another historian has called him the “the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed.”
He must have been! His questionable activities were not proven until decades after his death.
Wilkinson had his finger in many pies. Early on, he found himself in trouble during the Conway Cabal, an effort to have George Washington replaced as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He even had to resign from the army for a period of time. After the war, he went to Kentucky, which was then attempting to separate from Virginia. He found himself in debt, and he brokered a deal with Spain. That country was then still hoping to salvage some lands in North America for itself. Wilkinson attempted to help this effort by feeding Spain information about American activities on the frontier.
Among Spanish authorities, Wilkinson was known as “Agent 13.” He even swore an oath of loyalty to Spain!
“Born and educated in America,” he swore, “I embraced its cause in the last revolution, and remained throughout faithful to its interest, until its triumph over its enemies: This occurrence has now rendered my services useless, discharged me of my pledge, dissolved my obligations, even those of nature, and left me at liberty, after having fought for her happiness, to seek my own; circumstances and the policies of the United States having made it impossible for me to obtain this desired end under its Government, I am resolved to seek it in Spain.”
Apparently, Wilkinson did not do too much damage to the United States in the end. The closest that he came to inflicting permanent harm was when he told Spain about the Lewis and Clark expedition and suggested that armed patrols be sent to intercept them. Spain did this, but (fortunately) was unable to find the two explorers.
Through much of this time, Wilkinson remained in service with the U.S. Army. He served as Governor of the Louisiana Territory, and he even helped to expose Aaron Burr’s plot to set up an independent nation in the west. His contemporaries sometimes suspected that something was amiss, but no one could ever prove anything.
His biographer explains: “[T]hey can’t find his code. They can’t break the code, they can’t prove that he got paid. He faced about four or five public inquiries, two or three court martials, and each time he was found not guilty.”
When Wilkinson passed away, he was in Mexico City, attempting to get land grants. He wanted to be an empresario like Stephen F. Austin! He passed away before he received an answer on that score.
His treason was not discovered for decades, when some documents were finally found in old Spanish archives. For all intents and purposes, this little-known traitor had gotten off scot-free.
Andro Linklater, An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson (2010)