By Gerald Therrien
On May 23rd 1804, (a month after losing the governor election) Aaron Burr received a note from General James Wilkinson, asking to meet with him at his house – ‘if it can be done without observation or intrusion’.
There is no written record of what was discussed that night, but most probably Wilkinson explained to Burr that there was a ready opportunity for an ‘individual of hardy enterprise’ to lead an expedition into Spanish territory and to seize a large chunk of their empire; that he had the Spanish problem taken care of – they were ready to believe anything that he told them; and that, perhaps, the influence of Vice-president Burr might be used to secure the appointment of Wilkinson as the new Governor of the Louisiana Territory.
General Wilkinson, commander of the United States Army, along with William Claiborne, the Governor of the Mississippi Territory, had accepted the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States on December 20th 1803. While in New Orleans, Wilkinson had also tried to collect from the Spanish governor of Florida, $20,000 arrears on payments that he felt were owed to him for intelligence that he had been supplying to Spain. (The Spanish government would agree to a payment of 12,000 pesos and a renewal of Wilkinson’s pension – as compensation ‘for the services which I shall render, and more particularly, to indemnify me for the eventual loss of the office which I hold, and which it will seem necessary for me to abandon in case of hostilities’.) In trying to re-construct Wilkinson’s motive and plan, we must look at the records of his previous attempts at intrigue/treason.
Earlier in 1787, Wilkinson, who had recently moved to Kentucky, wrote to the Spanish commandant at St. Louis, complaining of the actions of General George Rogers Clark – who had confiscated the property at Vincennes of some French traders, who were subjects of Spain. The favorable reception of this letter allowed Wilkinson to make a trip to New Orleans and to meet with Miro, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, where he presented a memorial – that the closing of the Mississippi river to traffic from Kentucky was causing much discontent, and that Spain should allow Wilkinson and his friends a monopoly of trade and immigration with Spain, and that Spain should help them in fomenting a secessionist revolt from the United States.
Instead, the Spanish government decided to allow Americans the use of the Mississippi river (subject to a duty of 15% to 6%), but Spain did not want to be implicated in any revolt – after Kentucky had established their independence, then a connection with Spain could be formed. Wilkinson also offered to promote Spanish interests in the western states and to supply Spain with intelligence (although most of his information was of little value) and in return, he would receive a pension from Spain – and thus he became known as Spain’s ‘Agent 13’.
Later in 1793, the French Minister Genet had intrigued with General George Rogers Clark and others in Kentucky to attack the Spanish forces in Louisiana and New Orleans, but President Washington put an end to this invasion with his proclamation prohibiting Americans from ‘invading and plundering the territories of a nation at peace with the United States’. Wilkinson wrote to Carondelet, the governor of Louisiana, that his pension should be raised to $4,000 in case it was necessary for him to leave the army and devote himself solely to the interests of Spain; that he needed $12,000 to bribe the Kentucky leaders away from Clark, and needed $200,000 for bribes to prevent any alliances from being formed with Britain.
Carondelet, in response, proposed a conference with delegates from Kentucky and Spanish officials to reach an agreement concerning the navigation of the Mississippi river. Early in 1796, one of Wilkinson’s partners, Benjamin Sebastian, travelled to New Orleans to meet Carondelet but news then arrived of the treaty negotiated by Pinckney between the United States and Spain. Afterwards, the Spanish government directed that all further attempts to encourage western separatism should cease, except so far as necessary to counteract British intrigues. Although Gayoso, the Spanish commandant of the Natchez District, ‘believed that the General [Wilkinson] was ready to betray the interests of Spain in order to recommend himself to the American government’, the Spanish authorities in Louisiana were not quite ready to discontinue their intrigues with Wilkinson and Kentucky.
An exposure of Wilkinson’s intrigues would be provided by Andrew Ellicott in a letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering on November 14th 1797.
Ellicott had been commissioned by President Washington in 1796 to survey the southern border of the United States with Spain, but also to watch Wilkinson – ‘President Washington communicated confidentially to this affirmant that suspicions had been signified to him of certain citizens of the United States improperly connecting themselves with the Spanish Government, among whom General Wilkinson was mentioned, and requested this affirmant to pay attention to that subject, but in as private a manner as possible, to prevent the increase of suspicions, perhaps ill-founded.’ (from a deposition given by Ellicott on May 22nd 1808)
In the letter, Ellicott was complaining that General Wilkinson and others received annual stipends from Spain, and that ‘the first object of these plotters is to detach the States of Kentucky and Tennessee from the union and place them under the protection of Spain … the design of detaching the western country from the union is but a small part of the general plan which is very extensive and embraces objects of immense magnitude; nevertheless, to ensure success, this point must be first carried; which being effected and by the system of promotion adopted by the court of Madrid, Governor (of Louisiana) Gayoso will be at Quito and the Baron Carondelet at Mexico about the same time: so soon as this arrangement takes place or sooner if the necessary officers can be corrupted a general insurrection will be attempted, and cannot fail of success if the first part succeeds. General Wilkinson is to proceed from Kentucky with a body of troops through the country by the way of the Illinois into New Mexico which will be a central position – the route has been already explored. Nine tenths of the officers of the Louisiana regiment are at this time corrupted and the officers of the Mexican regiment which is now in this country are but little better. The apparent zeal of the Spanish officers on the Mississippi for the dignity of the Crown, is only intended to cover their designs till the great plan which is the establishment of a new empire is brought to maturity. Their principles are highly revolutionary …’
Wilkinson’s ‘actions were designed to gain both the Americans and the Spaniards or to repudiate either or both, if such action should become necessary to advance (his) private fortune’. While plotting the secession of Kentucky and Tennessee from the Union – with the protection of Spain, his plan would have then proceeded to double-cross the Spanish, by joining the western states with New Orleans and Louisiana, and declaring the independence of a new western empire that would have the single control of the Mississippi river.
At that time, Wilkinson was involved in an effort to defame the great patriot, General Anthony Wayne, who thought that Wilkinson was a ‘vile assassin’ and ‘the worst of all bad men’, and wished for Wilkinson be resigned from the army. In October 1796, Wilkinson left the Ohio country and traveled to Philadelphia to defend his name ‘against a variety of foul and infamous imputations’, to support his ‘allegations against Wayne’ and to vindicate the ‘conduct and character of many of my friends in Kentucky’. But, with the untimely death of General Wayne in December, Wilkinson now became the senior officer in the United States Army. While in Philadelphia, Wilkinson met Senator Blount, from Tennessee, where a new plan was being formed to organize an expedition to seize the Floridas and Louisiana.
The November 1797 letter from Ellicott would have been received by Pickering at nearly the same time that Pickering had received a letter from Rufus King, the American Minister in London – that contained a (November 29th 1797) statement from John Chisholm, concerning a plot to attack the Spanish settlements in West Florida and Louisiana, with British support.
Earlier on July 3rd 1797, President Adams sent to Congress a letter from William Blount to James Carey, outlining the conspiracy which promptly blew up the treasonous plot – sending the participants scurrying for cover! This resulted in articles of impeachment against Blount being presented in the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate on February 7th 1798; and a trial in the Senate, beginning December 17th 1798, until he was acquitted on January 10th 1799.
From the papers of William Blount, which had been seized in pursuance of a resolution of the Senate, is one letter of note – that written to Blount from Nicolas Romayne on May 13, 1797 that ‘I have spoken to Colonel Burr about a land scheme between you and me, and have requested his attention in getting letters for me. Your coming to this place will insure this business …’ Although no direct evidence links Burr to Chisholm’s plot, one can only guess what ‘land scheme’ and ‘business’ was being hinted at!
According to Chisholm, in November 1796 he met with Blount ‘who immediately agreed to give it his aid and influence’; and he also met with Robert Liston, the British minister to the United States, who provided Chisholm with letters of introduction to the British government ministers. Chisolm sailed to London and met with ministry officials. Chisholm’s plan had three attacks that were to be made on the same day: first, Joseph Brandt and Mohawks from Canada would join with John Mitchell and men from New York and Pennsylvania to attack New Madrid; second, William Blount with men from Tennessee and Kentucky along with Choctaws would attack New Orleans; and third, John Chisholm and men from the Floridas along with Cherokees and Creeks would attack Pensacola. The British were asked to send 6 frigates to block the harbour of Pensacola and the mouth of the Mississippi river. ‘In case of success … the Floridas with Louisiana should be put upon the ancient footing of a British colony … (and) that Pensacola and New Orleans should be declared free ports, and the navigation of Mississippi should for ever remain free to the people of Great Britain and the United States’.
Chisholm met with officials of the British Indian Department from Canada – including Captain Johnson, Captain Stedman and Brandt, ‘who agreed to give their aid’ to his plan. If Chisholm’s plan was successful, the British Empire would be able to block America’s western progress by completely surrounding the United States – from Canada to Louisiana, from the great lakes to the gulf of Mexico!
It would seem that before the northern secession plot had become the British Empire’s policy for Canada, that the western secession plot became the British Empire’s policy for the use of Canada – both were parts of the same effort of the Empire to strike back after the loss of her thirteen colonies – to split the United States!
As both Ellicott’s letter to Pickering and of King’s letter to Pickering were written in November 1797, the question arises whether Wilkinson (and Jefferson!) were part of Blount’s and Chisholm’s plot.
According to Chisholm, ‘but he [Blount] one day sent his little son to ask me to come to his house in the Evening. – On my coming into the room instead of finding him alone as usual I found Mr. Jefferson and General Wilkinson at table with him (it being dinner). It immediately struck me, but I might have been wrong, that Blount had sent for me in order to open my plan to these gentlemen – this I did not incline to do …’
Although nothing directly points to Jefferson’s involvement in Blount’s plot, one is nonetheless drawn to a curious quote from a letter he wrote to Joseph Priestly (January 29th 1804 – after the Louisiana purchase) that ‘… I very early saw that Louisiana was indeed a speck in our horizon, which was to burst in a tornado, and the public are unapprised how near this catastrophe was. Nothing but a frank and friendly development of causes and effects on our part, and good sense enough in Buonaparte to see that the train was unavoidable, and would change the face of the world, saved us from that storm …’
‘Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the Western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the Eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this: and did I now foresee a separation at some future day, yet I should feel the duty and the desire to promote the Western interests as zealously as the Eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power …’
It should be remembered that President Jefferson had sent his envoys, Monroe and Livingston, to France with instructions to purchase the Floridas and the port of New Orleans – not Louisiana. He wanted the Mississippi river to be the western boundary of the United States. Even after the purchase, his plan called for native Americans living in the Ohio country, to exchange their lands east of the Mississippi, for those lands west of the Mississippi. The Louisiana territory was to become Indian Territory.
Jefferson ended his letter to Priestly with another strange quote, that ‘Have you seen the new work of Malthus on population? It is one of the ablest I have ever seen. Altho his main object is to delineate the effects of redundancy of population, and to test the poor laws of England, and other palliations for that evil, several important questions in political economy, allied to his subject incidentally, are treated with a masterly hand.’
[It would seem that the problem with Jefferson, in regards to political economy, was that he was a Malthusian!]
Gerald Therrien is a researcher and historian based in Toronto, Ontario. His writings have been published on the Canadian Patriot Review since 2015 and his most recent book Canadian History Unveiled vol 1 can be purchased here.