- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AN ARTIST IN TREASON: THE EXTRAORDINARY DOUBLE LIFE OF GENERAL JAMES WILKINSON

By Andro Linklater

Walker and Co., $27, 400 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

The central core of any sociopath’s dark inner soul — be it an Adolf Hitler, a John DeLorean or a Bernard Madoff — is the desire to risk disaster, disgrace and punishment in the hopes of finding some final forgiveness. This is what makes them so dangerous, for in their wild thrashing about between the rush of taking the gamble and the frenzy of evasion, any bystander can become collateral damage. This tale of how the most powerful American general of his day almost destroyed the infant Republic is a real psychological thriller.

What makes this tautly written narrative so timely is that it reminds us that the myth of American Manifest Destiny and the virtuous inevitability of our sway over a continent is just so much hogwash. Indeed, there were perfectly intelligent figures in the early post-Revolutionary War days who saw the best use of the vast land beyond the Appalachians as properly (and more profitably) lying outside the restraining reach of the merchant nabobs, the dodgy financiers and grasping tax agents of the East Coast establishment.

What a piece of work was James Wilkinson. Author Andro Linklater makes a telling judgment about how this most powerful military figure of his day engaged for almost a quarter-century in spying for Spain while at the same time plotting with an almost unending cast of questionable characters in a series of plots to sever much of what later was known as the Louisiana Purchase from the United States, or alternatively to seize Mexico, or perhaps become president of the United States himself.

“To explain his taste for espionage, a CIA profiler might apply the four classic motives for treachery — money, ideology, coercion or excitement — and conclude that the general was driven by his fear of poverty and boredom. Probing more deeply, a psychologist might guess that the general’s infectious enthusiasm, intoxicating confidence, instinctive lying, and sudden contempt for rivals suggested a narcissistic personality,” Mr. Linklater states.

Like most narcissists, Wilkinson shuttled between intense devotion to patrons who hoisted him from genteel poverty to ever higher power, and abrupt, cold, and often brutal betrayal of those who had helped him. What’s fascinating about Wilkinson’s story is how aware so many of his mentors were of his duplicitous nature — from George Washington to his Spanish spymasters — but how they fooled themselves that they could control him.

The standard issue history taught us that Wilkinson was a peripheral character in the ill-conceived, certainly doomed 1804-05 plot led by President Thomas Jefferson’s ex-Vice President Aaron Burr to seize New Orleans, unhinge the Kentucky, Tennessee and Gulf Coast lands sold earlier by France, and either form a separate nation there or use it as a staging area for an invasion of Mexico.

Central to Wilkinson’s climb from genteel obscurity to notorious celebrity was his possession of the charm that convinces each potential victim that they alone have his complete trust and loyalty.

Wilkinson was born into a down-at-the-heels yet aristocratic Maryland tobacco planter family. With the help of better-off relatives, he scrabbled together the rudiments of a medical education. He was just 18, and within weeks of the battles at Lexington and Concord, he took his scant training with a local militia company and set off for Boston, where Washington was cobbling together the Continental Army; his blithe self-assurance and questionable credentials swept him into a captaincy of a new regiment of former New England militia men.

With no formal military training, Wilkinson proved very quickly to be a gifted staff officer for a rapidly passing parade of generals, starting with Nathaniel Greene, then on to Benedict Arnold during his campaign against Montreal in 1776, thence to Horatio Gates at Saratoga in 1777, with an interlude serving with Washington in the epic victory at Trenton earlier that year. In the process he had climbed to the rank of lieutenant colonel before he was 20 and was about to marry into one of Philadelphia’s wealthier Quaker family, the Biddles, and thus acquire money, station and connections.

Yet betrayal marked every upward step Wilkinson took. He was one of the sources through which Washington learned of the so-called Conway Cabal to replace him as commander with Gates. By 1781, even though he had reached the rank of brigadier general by age 25, Wilkinson resigned from the army and despite the backing of the ever-patient Biddle clan, found himself chafed by debts and frustrations. By 1783, with peace at hand, the promise of Kentucky beckoned. In an elegantly accurate description, Mr. Linklater observes, “Kentucky was destined to be bought.”

Before it could be sold off, Kentucky’s earliest settlers had to pry it away from the dead and corrupt grasp of the state of Virginia, which had sold off questionable leases and land titles in its bid to pay its own war debts. Wilkinson early on joined with a growing community of early arrivals to, first of all, sever ties with Virginia and then to prevent the interference of the national government in Washington. The entire region looked both west and south to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans for its economic markets.

But Spain, in those days, controlled the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico and had forts that interdicted shipping as far north as the Ohio Valley. Wilkinson adroitly offered his services to Spanish officials in New Orleans, and, just as quickly, he won their confidence and exchanged his sworn allegiance to Madrid in exchange for regular flows of money that were never enough.

He became Agent 13. Such was the Spanish confidence in him that the bribes continued even after he returned to army service, even after his elevation through breathtaking political seductions of Washington, John Adams and ultimately Jefferson, to the point that he was — at the same time — the top military commander of the U.S. Army, the military governor of the new Louisiana region, an active plotter in the Burr Conspiracy against both the U.S. and Spain, and ultimately, its betrayer. He was often unmasked but never convicted.

One comes away from this meticulously researched, well-written book with an unintended reconsideration of Benedict Arnold as America’s worst traitor.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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