James Wilkinson (1796-97)
by Charles Willson Peale
Oil on canvas
Original size, 24 x 20 in.
James Wilkinson (1757-1825) was one of the most duplicitous, avaricious, and altogether corrupt figures in the early history of the United States. Although he served in the Revolutionary War as adjutant general under General Horatio Gates, he took an oath of allegiance to Spain in 1787, and until 1800 was paid by the Spanish government as agent Number Thirteen. Meanwhile, in 1791 he received a lieutenant colonel's commission in the U.S. Army, and in 1803 was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory above the 33rd parallel – the northern boundary of the present state of Louisiana.
At the outset of his post-Revolutionary-Era career, he merely schemed to bring American settlements in western Kentucky under Spanish control. But as governor of the territory it is said that he conspired with another "patriot" scoundrel, Aaron Burr, to foment war between the U. S. and Spain over the Louisiana-Mexican boundary, resolve the "problem" through their own inside negotiations, then initiate a secessionist movement, and set up their own private quasi-Napoleonic empire in the West.1
However, the slippery Wilkinson betrayed Burr to Jefferson, then himself marshaled a force of regular army and militiamen that faced down the Spanish General Simon de Herrera across the Sabine (sa-BEAN) River, and negotiated the establishment of a neutral border zone. Despite suspicion, courts-martial, and congressional investigations he was promoted to the rank of major general. An ill-fated campaign against Montreal under his leadership during the War of 1812 led to his ultimate downfall and disgrace. He died in Mexico City in 1825.
1. Flores, Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration, 77-83. Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836) killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804. He was tried for murder but, having observed all the rules of dueling, was acquitted, and served out his term as Vice President to Thomas Jeffeerson.