An Artist in Treason

The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson

by Andro Linklater

Hardcover, 392 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $27 | purchase

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Title
An Artist in Treason
Subtitle
The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson
Author
Andro Linklater

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Book Summary

SUPERANNO Presents the first modern biography of the greatest traitor—and one of the most colorful characters—in American history. Patriot, traitor, general, and spy, James Wilkson 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. A superb writer and storyteller, Linklater captures with brio Wilkinson's charismatic ability to live a double life in public view.

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James Wilkinson rose to the rank of brigadier general during the Revolutionary War, and after a break from military service was commissioned a major general in the War of 1812. Walker & Company hide caption

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Excerpt: An Artist In Treason

An Artist in Treason

The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson


Walker & Company

Copyright © 2009 Andro Linklater
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1720-7

Contents

East of the Mississippi River.......................viiWest of the Mississippi River.......................viiiIntroduction: A Test of Loyalty.....................11 The Penniless Aristocrat..........................72 Citizens and Soldiers.............................153 Wooing General Gates..............................244 The Triumph of Saratoga...........................335 Betraying General Gates...........................446 Love and In de pen dence..........................607 The Kentucky Pioneer..............................718 Spanish Temptation................................819 Cash and Conspiracy...............................9310 Enshackled by Debt...............................10311 A General Again..................................11312 Discipline and Deceit............................12413 Poisoned Victory.................................13414 The Battle for Command...........................14015 Death of a Rival.................................14816 The New Commander in Chief.......................16317 Ellicott's Discovery.............................17718 The Federalist Favorite..........................18219 Jefferson's General..............................18820 Agent 13 Reborn..................................20221 Burr's Ambition..................................21422 Betrayer Betrayed................................22523 The General at Bay...............................23824 His Country's Savior.............................24725 The General Redeemed.............................25626 Two Traitors on Trial............................26427 The War with Randolph............................27628 Madison's Accusations............................28929 The Last Battle..................................30130 The Changing of the Guard........................312Acknowledgments.....................................329Appendix 1..........................................331Appendix 2..........................................333Notes...............................................335Bibliography........................................367Index...............................................377

Chapter One

The Penniless Aristocrat

Excess was bred into him. It showed in his large aspirations, his wild expenditure, his undisciplined behavior, and his gigantic autobiography. In Memoirs of My Own Times, James Wilkinson spread himself across more than two thousand highly colored pages, but, as he confessed to friends, he had still only been able "to glance at one fifth of my public life."

A tendency to grandiose living was habitual in the society into which he was born on March 24, 1757, the colonial aristocracy of Mary land planters. His grandfather Joseph Wilkinson, a tobacco merchant from En gland, had arrived in the province in the early years of the eighteenth century. This was the era when Europeans suddenly realized that the great landmass of British America contained uncountable acres that could be surveyed and converted into property. Anyone with enough money to pay his passage might hope to own an estate that would have made him a squire or a petty lord in Europe. The result was a growing flood of immigrants, especially to the middle colonies of Mary land, Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia, that threatened to engulf the proprietorial rights of the great families, the Calverts, the Penns, and the Fairfaxes, who had overall possession of the land.

A sharp divide soon opened up between the established settlements near the coasts and rivers, where the ground was already measured out by the proprietors for sale or rent, and the interior where the poorer immigrants settled, often squatting rent-free on territory beyond the proprietors' control. Banditti was the word commonly used to describe these savage incomers, mostly Presbyterian Scots-Irish from Ulster and Germans from the Palatine state in the Rhine valley, who occupied the land as though it were their own. William Byrd of Virginia compared them to "the Goths and Vandals of old," while in Pennsylvania James Logan, in charge of the Penn family's affairs, complained of the disrespect "these bold and indigent strangers" showed for eighteenth- century conventions, "saying as their excuse when challenged for titles [to property], that we had solicited for colonists and they had come accordingly."

Joseph Wilkinson had money enough to buy a plantation of almost nine hundred acres in Calvert County, a thumb of coastal land bordered on the east by Chesapeake Bay and on the west and south by the slow waters of the Patuxent River as it broadened into the bay. The location ensured that his family would grow up with values quite distinct from the egalitarian and rebellious impulses of those farther west.

The Calverts, who owned Mary land, maintained better control than their neighbors the Penns. As early as 1718, the assembly, under presure from Charles Calvert, the earl of Baltimore and "Absolute Lord and Proprietary of this Province of Mary land," passed legislation requiring each county to employ a team of nine public surveyors to parcel out the land. The best of it was sold in large units, as much as ten thousand acres to the nobly born or well moneyed, but a hundred acres of indifferent soil were available free to a single individual who paid his or her own passage or worked for a number of years as an indentured servant. Although frequently breached, this plan proved surprisingly effective as social engineering and helped bring about the growth of a society with class distinctions as well-defined as in aristocratic England.

"The Manners of Mary land are somewhat peculiar," a bemused John Adams observed in 1777 when he visited for the first time. "They have but few Merchants ... The Lands are cultivated, and all Sorts of Trades are exercised by Negroes, or by transported Convicts, which has occasioned the Planters and Farmers to assume the Title of Gentlemen, and they hold their Negroes and Convicts, that is all labouring People and Tradesmen, in such Contempt, that they think themselves a distinct order of Beings. Hence they never will suffer their Sons to labour or learn any Trade, but they bring them up in Idleness or, what is worse, in Horse Racing, Cock fighting, and Card Playing."

This was an exaggeration—the rapidly growing port of Baltimore had many merchants, and industrial enterprises such as the giant water mills erected by the Ellicott brothers on the Patapsco River in the 1760s were creating a middle class. Nevertheless, the structure of colonial Mary land did remain remarkably feudal right up to the Revolution. To a New England lawyer such as Adams, it could only appear alien, but to James Wilkinson, who grew up in it, hierarchy appeared not only natural, but the proper way for society to be organized.

Stoakley Manor, the Wilkinsons' plantation, lay beside a meandering river called Hunting Creek, about four miles north of Prince Frederick, the present county capital. Other properties in Calvert County were more than three times its size, but Stoakley was large enough to justify the family's belief that they belonged to the distinct order of gentlemen. They were related to the Mackalls, the richest family in the county, and Joseph Wilkinson's son, another Joseph, married Althea Heighe, whose siblings and cousins owned seven or eight other plantations. It must have seemed a good match at the time. The young Joseph had inherited Stoakley in 1734 on the death of his father, and Althea, generally known as Betty, had 150 acres of her own, as well as "one feather bed and furniture" left to her by her wealthy father.

Although some of the land was devoted to wheat and other crops, tobacco underpinned Mary land's economy, and to such an extent that until 1733 when paper money was introduced, tobacco leaf was an official currency alongside silver dollars and gold sovereigns, even for such payments as rents, taxes, and fines. Throughout the 1730s, the international demand for it rose, so that within a decade prices doubled. For a time, all tobacco planters prospered, the Wilkinsons among them. But shortly before young Joseph married Betty Heighe and took over the running of Stoakley, the boom began to tail away. By the time that their son James was born in 1757, the youngest of four children, the family was in debt, and the plantation heavily mortgaged.

Any one of several difficulties could have overwhelmed an inexperienced young planter. From the 1740s, Mary land's producers had to accept increasingly complex bureaucratic controls introduced by the assembly to improve the quality of the province's tobaccco. Their French customers caused a sharp fall in prices by manipulating the market, while Dutch merchants abruptly changed fashion from the bright- flavored tobacco known as Sweetscented to the heavier Oronoco leaf. But in the long term, the most crucial decision facing every tobacco planter during this period was whether to rely on Europe an convicts and indentured servants for labor or to switch to the new fashion for African slaves. Perhaps Joseph Wilkinson had scruples about using slaves or perhaps he overstretched himself financially in buying them at thirty-five pounds sterling (approximately $175) a head; perhaps he had been brought up as an idle gentleman with no head for business, or perhaps he had gambled and lost heavily on cockfighting or cardplaying. No record of bankruptcy exists, but the estate was broken up and sold soon after Joseph's premature death in 1764 at the age of thirty-three.

James Wilkinson was just six years old when Joseph died. Into his absence, the son projected the picture of the ideal gentleman, and of the way he should behave under duress. "The last words my father spoke to me," Wilkinson declared, "were 'My son, if you ever put up with an insult, I will disinherit you.'" Whether the dying Joseph actually uttered such baleful words is questionable— as the younger son, James was not the heir— but the idea they expressed was branded deep into his son's personality. In adult life, the merest hint that Wilkinson had not behaved properly would be met with an explosion of anger and, frequently, a challenge to settle the matter with sword or pistol. His violent reaction, almost hysterical at times, must have had its roots in the psychological pressure of seeing his father ground down by debt.

In the absence of banks, Mary land planters borrowed from each other—Stoakley's broad acres ended up in the hands of three of Calvert County's most prominent families. Thus the creditors Joseph Wilkinson was staving off would have been his friends. Among the excuses he must have offered them, the deceits he must have practiced, and the slow, corrosive experience of letting down those who had trusted him most, the one thing he evidently clung to, the single asset that no one could take from him, was his standing as a gentleman. In his son's Memoirs, the references to his father suggest a man grown almost pathologically touchy about his social standing. The value was passed on intact to his son, who would in his turn always believe that the image of respectability excused the reality of betrayal.

Nevertheless, Joseph Wilkinson's faith in the social advantages of being a gentleman had some justification. Although the plantation had to be sold to meet his debts, his creditors showed forebearance. His widow, Betty, was allowed to keep the Heighe land she had inherited, and some acres of Stoakley. It was not much, but in time the property gave her elder son, Joseph Wilkinson III, sufficient standing to marry Barbara Mackall. By 1783 Barbara's inheritance from her wealthy father had allowed her husband to become the owner of almost six hundred acres and a gristmill. The two Wilkinson daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, also survived, each marrying a local farmer and raising a family. It was the youngest child, the impressionable James, who found it hardest to recover from the catastrophe.

As was normal for young men of his class, he was educated by a private tutor, at the expense of his grandmother Mrs. Elizabeth Heighe. Apart from his brother, he was brought up in a house hold of adoring women whom he clearly learned to charm with his liveliness and energy. What must have been especially delightful to adults was his quick intelligence. His teacher, David Hunter, had the distinction of being a graduate from the highly regarded University of Glasgow in Scotland. Wilkinson's first Spanish handlers noted that he had had "a very good education," and the Latin tags and classical references that decorated his conversation, as well as the high-flown rhetorical flourishes used to disguise his true intentions, were proof of how well he had been grounded in the eighteenth-century curriculum of the classics, English literature, grammar, and rhetoric. But more far-reaching were the lessons Wilkinson learned from friends of his age. These were the sons of Mary land planters who could look forward to inheriting a plantation and the privileges that went with it. They taught each other the niceties of social distinction and etiquette and largely ignored the knowledge of their social inferiors.

Aged thirteen the boy was sent with several others, including his brother, Joseph, and John Custis, George Washington's stepson, to Baltimore, seventy miles away, to be inoculated against smallpox, an expensive precaution that was, he explained, restricted to "young gentlemen from the Southern provinces." The procedure required some pus from a smallpox victim to be rubbed into an open cut, usually made in the hand of the patient, creating a small, localized infection sufficient to create immunity. It was dangerous enough to kill one or two patients in every hundred, and Dr. Stevenson, the Irish doctor who treated Wilkinson, strictly forbade his patients to exercise for fear of spreading the infection through the blood more quickly than the body could cope with it.

With the easy disdain of his class, Wilkinson recalled, "I paid little respect to the prescribed regimen, and although my physician frequently attempted to alarm me by exclaiming, 'Young gentleman, by Jasus, you will be peppered,' I escaped with slight eruptive fever and was marked by a single pustule."

What made it impossible to lie still was the stimulation of urban life. With just 564 houses located inside its nominal limits in 1774, Baltimore was hardly a metropolis, but Wilkinson was entranced by its "bustle and excitement" compared to the isolation of a plantation life. "I thought myself transported to another region," he recalled, "[by the crowds] of men, women and children, the wagons, drays, carts, dogs and horses, and the numerous tawdry signs swinging over the street."

Serving the great wheat fields of northern Mary land and southern Pennsylvania, Baltimore's port was already close to displacing Philadelphia for shipping grain and flour to Europe, and becoming the center for the tobacco trade. Most of the buildings were wooden, many still rough-hewn by ax, and the streets were beaten earth, but a brick-built court house and marketplace had been constructed alongside stone-built wharves and warehouses. The population, estimated at about thirteen thousand, had long overspilled the city boundaries. To a country boy, however aristocratic his background, the broad horizons it offered were irresistible. "Thus were the bonds of local attachment rent," he recorded in his fifties, but it was not just Baltimore that seduced him. He was developing an appetite for excitement.

Elizabeth Heighe's charity made itself felt once more when Wilkinson was sixteen, and he was sent to study at the medical school in Philadelphia. The Heighes had a high respect for medicine, and a few years later Wilkinson's young cousin James Heighe Blake, another landless young aristocrat, would also become a medical student in Philadelphia. Having qualified as a doctor, Blake's high reputation led in time to his election as mayor of Washington, where he founded the city's first school and its public health ser vice. Wilkinson was never likely to follow that path. He enjoyed the idea of being a doctor more than the reality.

What weighed most heavily with him was the attraction of studying in Philadelphia. If Baltimore was another region, the City of Brotherly Love was a different universe. In 1774, it was the largest city in British America, with a population of forty thousand, paved streets, a university, a hospital, theaters, such public amenities as a library and firefighting ser vice, and the sort of polite society where a young man short on money but long on charm could hope to flourish. This was where he began his real education, in which "I sought by imitating the best examples to acquire gracefulness of address and ease of manners." Girls were his motivation or, in the elaborate language he used when dressing up the naked truth, "These inclinations were seconded by my solicitude to merit the acquaintance of the most accomplished and respectable of the fair sex, whose ages corresponded with my own." His formal education took second place.

Philadelphia's medical curriculum covered anatomy and surgery, the supporting sciences of chemistry, botany, and pharmacy, as well as the critically important field known as materia medica, which included diagnosis of ills and prescription of cures. Students were expected to take three years to graduate, but Wilkinson had the added advantage of staying with an elderly relative, John Bond, who was an experienced doctor. Many eighteenth-century students learned their trade by serving as apprentices to qualified physicians, and Wilkinson undoubtedly picked up some additional skills from his host. In April 1775, after less than two years' study, he impatiently decided he was qualified to practice medicine.

He set up his practice in the distant settlement of Monocacy, Mary land, about forty miles west of Baltimore. It had been settled for barely a generation, and mostly by Germans, whose language Wilkinson did not speak. Aged seventeen, only partially trained and short of money, he was probably unable to find a more desirable area, but the drab routine of administering pills to inarticulate farmers and taking their blood was hardly likely to appeal to someone who had devoted so much energy to getting ahead in Philadelphia's high society. Before the summer was over, he had discovered a new, more exciting vocation.

(Continues...)