The Man Who Double-Crossed The Founders In An Artist In Treason, author Andro Linklater recounts the double life of Revolutionary War hero James Wilkinson and how he won the trust of America's first presidents — while selling their secrets to Spain.
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The Man Who Double-Crossed The Founders

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The Man Who Double-Crossed The Founders

The Man Who Double-Crossed The Founders

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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

ANDRO LINKLATER: I think that some people are probably born to treachery, and I think he was.

INSKEEP: 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.

LINKLATER: He succeeded in this sort of wild society.

INSKEEP: What information did he give to Spain?

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.

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?

LINKLATER: 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.

LINKLATER: 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?

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?

LINKLATER: 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?

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.

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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