Imagine you are watching a historical movie of the early American Republic. The antihero of the story is an ambitious general. On the one hand he gets a Vice President to save his job and get his two sons into Princeton. Meanwhile, after plans with this same person, later on, become blown out of proportion from a filibustering mission into Spanish America to a threat to topple the government of the United States, he tries to save his own skin by lying against that same person who had been a great benefactor to him. Meanwhile, while all of this intrigue is going on, the same man (who is a territorial governor of the Louisiana Territory as well as the leading general in the United States at the time) is also a spy in the pay of Spain (and had been since at the latest 1787) passing along privileged information to the Spanish government as Agent 13. To top it all off, he was a general whose incompetence greatly damaged the American war effort on the Northern front of the War of 1812. Does this story sound too strange to be believed? It’s not–it’s a small part of the biography of James Wilkinson, perhaps one of the greatest traitors the United States has ever produced.
It seems strange that coming as he does from a period where real villains were hated (like Benedict Arnold) and false traitors were invented out of rumors and lies to serve as the foils for their supposedly virtuous founding brothers (Aaron Burr, the vice president in the story above, a man who comes off as pretty virtuous in an ugly time, and certainly very candid), that the immense villainy of James Wilkinson would go largely unnoticed in history, and never the subject of a revealing and exciting historical picture full of espionage, double-dealing, political ambitions, dueling, and even courtroom drama, apart from the drama of battles. This is a story that, though obscure, would make for an awesome historical film, its only knock being that it tells us things about ourselves that we do not want to hear.
What we may not want to hear, and what the story of James Wilkinson reveals, is that the space between the United States and the politically corrupt and unstable republics of Latin America is not as great as we would like to believe. You want corruption–try the lead general of the United States serving on the payroll of Spain and nearly provoking a war in 1806 over the future Texas-Louisiana border by giving contradictory advice to both of his employers (president Jefferson and the Spanish government, telling Spain to defend the west coast of the Mississippi River and telling Jefferson to press for a Rio Grande border).
Nor is that the extent of the corruption. To cover his tracks, his advice to the Spaniards is translated into Spanish, and the lack of English copies is what prevents the full extent of his treacherous activities from becoming known until the 20th century, by which time he is a largely forgotten character instead of a prime example of villainy in American history. To further cover his tracks, he colludes with President Jefferson to falsely blame Aaron Burr for the treachery that occurred, becoming Jefferson’s tool in the effort to malign Aaron Burr, just as Aaron Burr served as an appropriate way for John Marshall to tweak and humiliate Thomas Jefferson. Burr was acquitted of treason in an epic trial in Richmond (that marks as the entrance of Winfield Scott into history), but his reputation was largely ruined by the lies and slander.
You want duels? Try the slighting of one temperamental Scot-Irish American named Andrew Jackson, friend of Aaron Burr (later a political protege as a Democrat, along with Martin Van Buren, both future presidents of the United States), who then kills one of Wilkinson’s associates in a duel. Jackson even had to defend himself and his own reputation against the lies and calumny of Wilkinson, giving him an abiding hatred of Eastern interests and President Jefferson, who comes off badly in the whole story for being both too willing to listen to a traitor whose accusations fulfill his own desires, and too unconcerned with truth in the face of his own political crusades. Or how about the duel that started the whole Western confederacy mess in the first place–the duel between sitting Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, whose lies and libels led the honorable Aaron Burr to challenge the unscrupulous Hamilton, and led to Hamilton’s death in the most famous duel in American history.
Though Wilkinson is an obscure character, the fame of the Burr-Hamilton duel (which could easily be the set-piece introduction to the movie), and the undeniable historical importance of such major and minor figures as Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, William Henry Harrison (another future president and supporter of Burr’s efforts at a fillibuster in Spanish America), Andrew Jackson, General Eaton (hero of the American war in Libya in 1805, and even a cameo from Winfield Scott, make this film a who’s who collection of the early American Republic and its unscrupulous attitude towards taking other people’s property by any means possible (and the resulting land speculation engaged in by virtually all of the nation’s founders).
The story even features some dramatic prison escaping by Burr in Mississippi, along with a second attempt to escape in Alabama, besides the drama of a courtroom trial where Burr (aided by obscure founder Luther Martin of Maryland) beat the rap for treason in a trial that discredited the Jefferson administration. The story of Wilkinson and Burr in Louisiana has a lot of elements of compelling drama–backstabbing, ambitions, armed conflict, decisive action, rhetorical brilliance, and I’m very surprised that no one has made this movie yet, given the interest Americans have in the history of the early American Republic.