No two generals in the era of the early Republic appear to differ from one another more than George Washington and James Wilkinson. Although each man possessed considerable personal, political, and military skills and each at different times became commander in chief of the United States Army, the two generals seem to have little else in common. Washington was a revered figure in his own lifetime, someone who appeared to transcend the petty interests of ordinary men—a man of character, self-controlled, incorruptible, the epitome of selfless disinterestedness, and the savior of the new and fragile Union.
By contrast, Wilkinson, who was twenty-five years younger than Washington, was always a controversial figure, vain, flamboyant, and widely criticized for his selfishness and his lack of moral character. Throughout most of his career in the US Army, even as its commander in chief, he remained a paid secret agent of the Spanish government, a devious, untrustworthy, and corrupt creature who, far from endeavoring to preserve the Union, threatened several times to break it up. While Washington is rightly celebrated as one of America’s greatest heroes, Wilkinson may be the most unscrupulous character in all of American history.
But are the two men as opposite as they seem? Juxtaposing these two books suggests that Wilkinson and Washington may not be as different from one another as we have thought, or at least one of the authors wants us to think so.
Andro Linklater is a freelance historian who has several distinguished works on early American history to his credit. This biography of Wilkinson, who, writes Linklater, had “one of the most extraordinary careers as a secret agent in the history of espionage,” is probably the best we have; it certainly is the most smoothly written.
Wilkinson was born in 1757 in Maryland. As the son of minor gentry parents, he grew up in the same kind of slave-ridden and hierarchical world that Washington knew. Like Washington, Wilkinson lost his father when he was just a boy, and as a younger son he was not the heir of the estate. Despite these similar hardships, he seems to have had a better and more classical education than Washington did. At age sixteen he was sent to Philadelphia to become a physician, but he soon realized that medicine was not for him. As an intelligent and very ambitious eighteen-year-old, Wilkinson, like the young Washington, saw that the military offered the fastest route to distinction and glory. The outbreak of fighting between the colonists and the British at Lexington and Concord in 1775 gave him his opportunity.
Commissioned as a captain in the Continental Army in 1775, Wilkinson impressed everyone with his energy and courage, and in 1777, just shy of his twentieth birthday, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel. As General Horatio Gates’s chief of staff, he had a crucial part in negotiating …