Thursday, December 24, 2009

An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson

Andro Linklater has written a fabulous book. It is incredibly detailed. It took me more than a month to read because I could only digest it in small chunks. Thirty or forty pages a day were all that I could take in before having to put it down. Yet, at no time did I feel that I was slogging through it, pushing myself to just finish the darn book. It was truly a joy to read.


It’s a big “but”. My problem with this book is the misleading marketing. The book is heavily marketed as the story of a colossal traitor who somehow fooled everyone including the military and four presidents. What an exciting story! I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

But that’s not this story. This is the story of a Southern gentleman who was raised to be very courtly, very conscious of his place in society, to run a plantation and live a very wealthy life. However, his meager inheritance was not enough to support his lifestyle. He was fortunate that the American Revolution occurred right after his graduation from medical school. He had a knack for the military life. But once the war was over, he was forced to engage in business, something at which he was an enormous failure.

The rest of his life was a story of continuous debt. He was always having fallings out with business partners after borrowing monies that he couldn’t repay. His off and on military career couldn’t support his lifestyle that grew more and more lavish.

He agreed to spy for Spain as just another source of income. As Mr. Linklater makes abundantly clear, General Wilkinson never intended to destroy America. When his back was finally against the wall during the Burr Conspiracy and he had to make a decision, America or Spain, he chose America. Most importantly, everyone knew that he was taking money from the Spanish. Everyone. Including the military and the four presidents for whom he worked.

The men who founded this country were not fools. They would never have knowingly employed anyone who was seeking the destruction of America. They knew that Wilkinson was brilliant militarily but couldn’t handle his personal finances well. So they continued to employ his services which were acutely needed by the young country and overlooked the thinly veiled payoffs from Spain.

Once I got over the hype surrounding this story, I genuinely enjoyed this book. General James Wilkinson was an important figure in American history. He seemed to go everywhere and to know everyone. He was also quite a character, even a scoundrel in some cases. He gleefully smeared the reputation of anyone he viewed as a threat, he regularly betrayed his superiors and friends but at the same time was a loving and attentive husband.

Mr. Linklater has done an excellent job of bringing to life a colorful figure from our past who played an important role in the founding of our country.

Review copy courtesy of Walker Books

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