Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Biography is probably the most popular — and certainly the most accessible — way of learning about history. For obvious reasons, most of them focus on the star figures of their day: hundreds of books have been written about Alexander of Macedon, Augustus, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, and hundreds more will be written in the centuries to come.
But for every Great Man, there are always a number of ancillary and supporting characters whose lives are equally fascinating — and just as illuminating about their eras — as those of the superstars. I don’t simply mean the other well-known figures of the day — the Dariuses, Marc Antonies, Wellingtons, and Jefferson Davises — or the millions of common folk who are the subject of social history: I mean the genuine supporting characters who were important in their day, but whose names have understandably faded from memory. Think of them as “Best Supporting Historical Figures.”
One such character is Gen. James Wilkinson (1757-1825), who recently found a biographer in Andro Linklater. As the title of An Artist In Treason implies, Wilkinson was undoubtedly one of the slimiest, most perfidious characters of his day and widely suspected of being in the employ of the Spanish government, then one of America’s biggest rivals (the Spaniards confirmed Wilkinson’s well-compensated treachery decades after his death). That, however, did not prevent him from serving as America’s highest-ranking military officer under each of America’s first four presidents, and as the United States’ first governor of the Louisiana Territory. His military career began with the Siege of Boston in 1775 and ended — with a few gaps as a Kentucky politician/statesman/scoundrel — thirty-seven years later 1812. He died while serving as the American Envoy to Mexico.
Wilkinson appears in many histories of the era, but is usually only given a few paragraphs, often for comic relief: his antics during the Revolutionary War included a (likely) invented story of George Washington shaking his hand at realizing that they’d won the Battle of Trenton, escaping the capture of General Lee by climbing out a window, getting promoted to Brigadier General at the tender age of twenty by inflating his role in the Battle of Saratoga in a report to Congress, and then divulging the details of a conspiracy to replace Washington with his patron, General Gates, while blind drunk. Biographers of Aaron Burr will devote a full chapter or two to Wilkinson, mostly because of Wilkinson’s participation in — and exposure of — the Burr Conspiracy, the precise nature of which has been a matter of controversy for nearly 200 years (I tend to go with the slimier interpretations of Wilkinson’s behavior, but my sources have been overwhelmingly pro-Burr).
I’m only a few chapters into Linklater’s book, but I’ve already learned more — unsurprisingly — about Wilkinson’s upbringing and early character than I have from about two dozen other books I’ve read on the era: the youngest son of (very) minor Maryland gentry, he left the family plantation early to study medicine in Philadelphia, practiced briefly as a doctor in his late teens, then joined the army after Lexington and Concord to make his fortune. I can’t wait to see how the a book-length treatment illuminates his later actions.
Wilkinson is just one of many such B-List historical characters from his era, and every period has a few delicious ones. Who do you think deserves a little time in the spotlight?
Update: An earlier version confused General Gates with General Gage.