American Traitor: General James Wilkinson’s Betrayal of the Republic and Escape from Justice


July 17, 2023
by Michael Barbieri Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: American Traitor: General James Wilkinson’s Betrayal of the Republic and Escape from Justice by Howard W. Cox (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2023)

Beginning in his late teens, James Wilkinson developed the reputation of being an all-around abhorrent human being and history has continued to support that view. Howard Cox decided to investigate this story and American Traitor is the result.

Although only a couple pages deal with Wilkinson’s early life, the author does lay some groundwork to help the reader gain a degree of understanding of Wilkinson’s motivations for his actions in his adult years. The remaining pages are mostly a chronological account of Wilkinson’s activities, although the author does occasionally step back in time to describe some earlier activity relating to the current topic of discussion. The reader must be aware that not all these regressions are clearly noted which can lead to some minor confusion.

The reader must also be aware that the book’s coverage of the goings-on during Wilkinson’s consorting with Spain and involvement in Aaron Burr’s Mexico affair includes letters going back and forth among several characters. The presentation of a multiplicity of interactions surely is rooted in Cox’s career as counsel for the Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations and an inspector general for investigations at the CIA. It does, however, make it easy to get lost in the tale so the reader must pay close attention in these pages.

Rather than searching out the original documents, the author makes extensive use of collections of documents transcribed and printed by modern editors (such as American State Papers and Founders Online) or quoted in secondary sources. This raises the forever question: are transcriptions truly primary sources? A researcher runs the risk that the transcriber made some mistake and, in the case of American Traitor, there are some minor errors. In checking a handful of quotes, some have emphasized words (often by underlining) that, in the original documents, may or may not have been written as such. Nevertheless, in the few checked, the content other than the emphasis has remained accurate.

Cox comments that Wilkinson’s three-volume Memoirs has been proven to contain gross embellishments and fabrications, as Wilkinson wrote those volumes to justify his highly-questionable actions and had never let lying stand in his way of advancing himself. American Traitor nonetheless contains a significant number of entries from those volumes. Cox writes that he “sought to corroborate” Wilkinson’s words with material from other sources but in checking some of the entries it appears that goal has not always been met. Phrases similar to “If Wilkinson is to be believed” or “According to Wilkinson” appear quite frequently. This is, perhaps, the book’s greatest weakness.

Beyond learning of Wilkinson’s life and generally despicable activities, American Traitor has additional value. Wilkinson’s involvement in many of the events in the early years of the United States under the Constitution outlines a chronology and background not known to many readers. Further, the book presents some atypical perspectives on the first four presidents based on each of their interactions with Wilkinson. Jefferson, in particular, comes across with a much more tarnished image than usual: “Once again, a failure of due diligence by a president regarding Wilkinson’s capabilities, let alone his loyalty to the United States, gave Wilkinson even greater opportunities for plunder and treachery” (page 144).

As expected, some pages are spent in describing what drove Wilkinson. Cox mentions that Wilkinson did not tolerate insults and points out his arrogance, need for recognition, and unquenchable greed as motivators. In his writings, Wilkinson overstated his accomplishments and whined about any slights directed at him. All of these elements combined to lead to his betrayal of his nation. Much the same can be said about Benedict Arnold, but Arnold became much more famous for his action (Wilkinson would be infuriated by the slight). In American Traitor, Howard Cox makes a strong case for James Wilkinson to surpass Arnold as the nation’s most noted scoundrel.

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN CLOTH or in KINDLE. (As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

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