“My son, if you ever put up with an insult, I will disinherit you.”
Young James received education from private tutors before moving on to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He did not finish his studies, however, because he left school to join the Revolutionary War. His financial and social status earned him the rank of Captain. Wilkinson was later sent to Canada to serve under Benedict Arnold as an aide prior to the final retreat of the Americans from Quebec.
In 1778, Wilkinson married Ann Biddle, furthering his political and military career since she came from a prominent family. Together they had four sons: John, James Biddle, Joseph Biddle, and Walter. James and Walter both served in the US Army as Captains.
Wilkinson had a long and eventful military/political career. The highlights include:
- 1777: General Gates sent him to report to Congress with news of the war. First, he made Congress wait while he attended to personal affairs, then he exaggerated his part in the victory. The military promoted him to Brigadier General and appointed him to the Board of War.
- 1777-1778: Participated in a smear campaign to uproot George Washington from office.
- 1787: Signed an expatriation declaration and swore loyalty to the King of Spain. Wrote a report to the Spanish, encoded with an English-Spanish cipher code-named 13. This later led to Wilkinson using the name “Agent 13.”
- 1792: Was in competition with Anthony Wayne for commander of the Legion of the United States. When Washington appointed Wayne, Wilkinson attempted to discredit and criticize Wayne at every opportunity. Some historians believe that this open criticism of Wayne later led to the nickname “Mad” Anthony Wayne.
- 1796: Wilkinson was almost court-martialed. Couriers from Spain were caught bringing payments to Wilkinson, but Wayne died before he could carry it out.
- 1804: Wilkinson tipped off the Spanish about the Lewis and Clark expedition and told them they were encroaching on Spanish territory, and where to find them. The Spanish sent troops to imprison the entire expedition in Nebraska, but arrived a few days too late.
- 1804-1806: Co-conspired with Aaron Burr to commit treason. Aaron Burr wrote Wilkinson a “cipher letter,” Wilkinson panicked, then double crossed Burr, sending a letter to President Jefferson, telling him of Burr’s activities. Wilkinson then testified in court, emphasizing Burr’s role in the acts of treason. The exaggeration of Burr’s crimes made Wilkinson sound like a liar, so Burr was acquitted.
A few years after the death of his wife Ann in 1805, he married Celestine Laveau Trudeau, and they had 3 children, Theofannie and Stephanie (twins), and Theodore.
Wilkinson died on December 28, 1825, never charged for treason. He was buried in Mexico City, Mexico.
It wasn’t until many years after Wilkinson’s death that he was confirmed as a paid agent of the Spanish crown. A Louisiana Historian uncovered letters Wilkinson had written to Louisiana Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró, detailing the conspiracy.
“The only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.” – John Randolph, foreman of the jury in the Aaron Burr trial.
“In all our history, there is no more despicable character.” – Teddy Roosevelt
“The most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed.” – Historian Frederick Jackson Turner
“He had considerable military talent, but used it only for his own gain.” – Temple Bodley, biographer of George Rogers Clark
“A general who never won a battle or lost a court-martial” – Historian Robert Leckie