STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we'll hear about a man who defended America, and betrayed it.

Mr. ANDRO LINKLATER (Author, "An Artist in Treason"): I think that some people are probably born to treachery, and I think he was.

INSKEEP: That's Andro Linklater. His book, "An Artist in Treason," is a biography of one of America's most notorious traitors. The man's name was James Wilkinson. He was a Revolutionary War hero and later the commander-in-chief of the United States Army, and a spy for Spain. He is also the latest subject in our series American Lives.

After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. and the Spanish Empire contended for control of this continent. General Wilkinson worked for both sides. Between his army tours he became a pioneer and a businessman who really needed cash in Kentucky.

Mr. LINKLATER: He did, as an awful lot of people from the Revolutionary War did who had run out of money, they crossed the mountains to this extraordinary fertile land, and he became a land speculator, and got very deeply into debt.

But he was a charmer and there was a guy, a very old-timer, and he said he could remember Wilkinson being called on by somebody who he owed money to. And the conversation went on all afternoon, and when it was over, the guy that Wilkinson owed money to came away having lent him another $500.

He succeeded in this sort of wild society.

INSKEEP: General James Wilkinson also met with Spanish authorities for years and sold them information for Spanish silver.

What information did he give to Spain?

Mr. LINKLATER: Most important information concerned the Lewis and Clark expedition. Its real purpose, which was to find a route through the mountains to the Pacific, was kept very secret, but it was known to Wilkinson, and he passed it on to his Spanish superiors and suggested that they send out armed patrols to prevent the Lewis and Clark expedition. And only by the grace of God did they fail to find them. That...

INSKEEP: Otherwise Lewis and Clark would have just been two guys who disappeared in the West somewhere.

Mr. LINKLATER: They would have been. And the other thing was that he said to prevent the United States expanding westward after the Louisiana Purchase, you must build sort huge defensive lines, which indeed Spain did do.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm curious, in a time when communications were not so good, how did he transmit secret information to the Spanish in New Orleans and how did they pay him?

Mr. LINKLATER: Well, as a spy, his tradecraft was excellent. Wilkinson sent his information in a code, just rows of numbers. It was never broken, but the real problem for him was getting paid. That essentially was why he'd become a spy in the first place. And that had to come in the form of silver dollars, and they were coming in huge numbers at thousands of silvers dollars.

So they packed them in the same kind of casks that they packed the coffee and the sugar and the rum. I mean people could tell from the clinking of the money that it was something pretty valuable.

On one occasion, one of his messengers who was carrying about 3,000 silver dollars was murdered by his boatman. And at that moment Wilkinson absolutely came to the very edge of being discovered because the murderers, five of them, scattered across the Kentucky countryside. They were all Spanish, they only spoke Spanish, and of course they were pretty quickly captured and they were taken before a magistrate. And the magistrate couldn't understand them. So he sent for an interpreter called Thomas Power. And Thomas Power was also working for the Spaniards.

INSKEEP: He was a co-conspirator here.

Mr. LINKLATER: He was a co-conspirator. And so he acted as an interpreter and the magistrate again said, How did you come to get this money? And those murderers again said, Well, we murdered him; he was taking some money to General James Wilkinson to pay him, because he's been giving information to Spain. And Thomas Power translated this and he said, They just say they are wicked murderers motivated by greed and kept absolutely quiet about what the money was to be used for. And so he got away that time.

But one of the curious things about Wilkinson is that almost everyone suspected him of passing information to Spain. And every single president, from Washington to Madison, knew of people's suspicions about him, and yet they all trusted him.

INSKEEP: Why?

Mr. LINKLATER: Well, you really just have to think of those Revolutionary days. The United States was still coming into shape. It wasn't a clear-cut country. It had to become an independent state. And one of the chief things that the early founding fathers feared was an over-mighty army, that a standing army could overthrow a young democracy very easily indeed. And so it was important to keep the army small but to keep it loyal. And I think that was really the service that each president discovered that Wilkinson would perform.

INSKEEP: He kept the army loyal because he was so good at managing up and flattering his superiors. He obeyed all their orders or seemed to be. But in the end did he show his loyalty to the United States or was he always just calculating his own best chances?

Mr. LINKLATER: That is a very deep question, and he would certainly say that he had served the United States as a patriot and as a soldier. Deep in the heart of him there's bit that takes on whatever role it is that he sees as most advantageous to himself.

I mean by a great paradox, having spent most of his military career as a double agent, at the moment when he finally decides to keep faith with the United States, his career is virtually ended because one after another the rats come out of the woodwork. They all betray him - left, right, and center - but they can't find his code. They can't prove that he got paid. And he faced, I think, about five public inquiries, two or three courts martial, and each time he was found not guilty.

INSKEEP: What do you think that you learn about America by focusing on this man who walked among and dealt with many of the founding fathers but was himself a deeply, deeply, deeply ambiguous figure?

Mr. LINKLATER: I think he's invaluable because it's too easy to imagine the United States was destined for greatness. There were many, many paths that might have been taken that would have led to an entirely different evolution, and you see one of them very clearly if you follow it through Wilkinson's eyes. I have to say, it's great fun writing about a villain, but to see history through a villain's eyes rather than, if you like, through the heroic eyes of the founding fathers is to see just what dangers did face the United States and what a fate it did escape.

INSKEEP: Andro Linklater is author of "An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson." Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Mr. LINKLATER: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt at npr.org, where you can also find other interviews in our American Lives series.

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