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An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson Hardcover – September 29, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Anyone with a taste for charming, talented, complex, troubled, duplicitous and needy historical figures will savor this book. A Revolutionary War general at age 20, James Wilkinson (1757–1825), whom few now have heard of, knew everyone of consequence in the early nation, from Washington on down. But he squandered his gifts in repeated and apparently uncontrollable double dealing, betrayals (he spied for Spain), conspiracies and dishonesty in the decades following the war. Wilkinson seemed to pop up everywhere, always trying to make a deal and feather his nest. To those ends, he would as soon turn on those whom he had pledged to help as be traitor to the army he served. The only man he remained true to was Jefferson, who in the end spurned him. No one trusted him, as no one should have. Linklater (Measuring America) skillfully captures this sociopathic rogue who, for all his defects, still commands attention from everyone trying to understand the 50 years after 1775. His charisma reaches across two centuries to perplex and fascinate any reader of this fast-paced and fully researched work. 16 pages of b&w illus., 2 maps.(Oct.)
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Review

Wilkinson may be the most unscrupulous character in all of American history…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. (The New York Review of Books)

Anyone with a taste for charming, talented, complex, troubled, duplicitous and needy historical figures will savor this book....Linklater (Measuring America) skillfully captures this sociopathic rogue who, for all his defects, still commands attention from everyone trying to understand the 50 years after 1775. His charisma reaches across two centuries to perplex and fascinate any reader of this fast-paced and fully researched work. (Publishers Weekly)

[A] gripping biography. (Boston Globe)

The central core of any sociopath's dark inner soul - be it an Adolf Hitler, a John DeLorean or a Bernard Madoff - is the desire to risk disaster, disgrace and punishment in the hopes of finding some final forgiveness. This is what makes them so dangerous, for in their wild thrashing about between the rush of taking the gamble and the frenzy of evasion, any bystander can become collateral damage. This tale of how the most powerful American general of his day almost destroyed the infant Republic is a real psychological thriller. (The Washington Times)

This fascinating and richly detailed book is a useful resource for studying America's early struggles with internal interference and external opposition. (Library Journal)

Andro Linklater combed Spanish, British and American records to tell this complex story in fascinating…detail. (Carl Hartman, Associated Press)

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner called Wilkinson "the most consummate artist in treason the nation has ever possessed," and historian Linklater (The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity, 2007, etc.) builds a strong case that he deserved that title... A well-wrought study of far-reaching treachery in the early years of the United States. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; 1 edition (September 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802717209
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802717207
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #725,890 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Hrafnkell Haraldsson VINE VOICE on July 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have a degree in history and I have a liking for well-written and well-researched works on historical subjects. Andro Linklater's "An Artist in Treason" is both. Encompassing the life and activities of General James Wilkinson (1757-1825), officer in the American Revolution, commander of the American army and governor of Louisiana Territory, Andro's sweeping work touches upon many major events in the early development of the United States. This is due not only to Mr. Linklater's obvious interest in the subject, but because of Wilkinson's far-reaching roles as senior U.S. general, explorer, and spy in the pay of Spain.

Wilkinson's is a cautionary tale in many respects. It is also by far the best example I've seen in historical biography of the old pagan Norse concept of creating one's own fate. General Wilkinson could have had it all. That he did not was due not to the vagaries of fortune, divine intervention or predestination. It was due entirely to his own actions, for he created the landscape upon which he was forced to operate when, faced by British invasion, he should have been at the height of his powers and most importantly, the right man in the right place at the right time. If the definition of hero is someone who can rise above their fate, then Wilkinson fails the test, for he did not.

Despite some of the positive results of his military career (keeping the army loyal to the civilian government is no small thing), it is difficult to find anything good to say about a man like Wilkinson, who betrayed not only his country but most of those who, at one time or another, had come to trust or befriend him (Thomas Jefferson being the sole exception outside of his family). But Mr. Linklater does not indulge in vilification and instead lets the story tell itself.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By J. Moran VINE VOICE on August 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
James Wilkinson's name pops up constantly in the history of the first twenty-five years of the American Republic, seldom in an edifying way. Rumors (and accusations) abounded at the time that Wilkinson was for years a spy for Spain, which for much of the period was still a powerful presence across what is now the southern United States from Florida through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Later he was said to have been a co-conspirator with Aaron Burr in his alleged attempt to carve an empire for himself by combining these territories with some of the old southwestern states such as Tennessee and Kentucky. Although Wilkinson hotly and effectively denied these accusations, it is now clear that he did spy for Spain while serving as the senior officer in the US Army and even swore personal loyalty as a subject of the king of Spain.

Wilkinson's connection with the "Burr conspiracy" is slightly more obscure. Wilkinson clearly corresponded with Burr during the earlier stages of the conspiracy and Burr certainly thought that Wilkinson would support him. With his support would come the support of the US Army which, while quite small by both contemporary and modern standards, was by far the most powerful force in what was then the West. Wilkinson later pointed to the danger of war between Spain and the US that seemed quite likely at the time and claimed that his dealings with Burr were aimed at using Burr and his supporters to assist the Army should war occur. Wilkinson argued that he did not realize that Burr was seeking to break up the United States. It may even have been true since Burr himself seems to have been confused (and certainly less than forthcoming) about his ultimate goals.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Michael Meredith VINE VOICE on September 14, 2009
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At first glance, one might wonder as to why James Wilkinson is not as infamous as Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. After all, while serving as one of the highest ranking generals (and indeed THE highest ranking for a time) during the first decades of our democracy, he was also on the payroll of Spain as an informant. But once you read An Artist in Treason, you might reach the conclusion that he was little more than a scheming opportunist, skilled at ingratiating himself to the agents of the Spanish king, while making turning American friends into enemies and back again. Most traitors create harm to their country or cause. Foiled by his enemies, fate or his own flexible backbone, Wilkinson accomplished little more than paying his debts (which given his spending habits was no mean feat. The man was essentially a world class brown noser.

That's not to denigrate Andro Linklater's complex profile of a complex man, and the sheer number of enemies that he made would mark him as an accomplished careerist (had he been born 200 years later, I'm sure he would have given Ken Lay a run for his money at Enron). But I am a little ambivalent about this book. Wilkinson crossed paths (and virtual swords) with most of our Founding Fathers, which might alone make him worthy of a serious biography like this. But Linklater's story telling left me feeling a little flat. At times, the narrative becomes a little disjointed, and the author does little to disguise his intense distaste for his biographee.

What Linklater does best is to illustrate how an American Brigadier General could receive payments from the Spanish Crown, contrary to his nation's interests, and still have the grudging support of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; surviving not one but three boards of inquiry and innumerable published charges. This is a selection for serious historians, not for the novice.
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