At 19, Wilkinson, a junior officer in the Continental Army, played an important role in the battle of Saratoga, an early victory that helped persuade France and Spain to support the rebellious colonies.
Gen. Horatio Gates, the American commander, picked him to negotiate the surrender of British Gen. John Burgoyne's army, nearly 6,000 men freed on condition that they never fight in North America again.
The charismatic negotiator became the youngest American-born general when he was 20. Before the war ended, he had betrayed two of his superior officers, blabbing about Gates' connection to a cabal against Washington and accusing Benedict Arnold of profiting on the purchase of rum for the army. Ten years later, he signed a formal document transferring his allegiance from the U.S. to the king of Spain.
Andro Linklater combed Spanish, British and American records to tell this complex story in fascinating but somewhat bewildering detail in "An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson."
As Spain's "Agent 13," Wilkinson was paid in silver dollars, sometimes shipped up the Mississippi from New Orleans in kegs of sugar, with only a small number of coins in each keg to disguise the extra weight.
For decades, he advised Spanish officials _ who feared a westward thrust from the U.S. for control of Mexico's gold and silver _ on how best to protect the river, the eastern boundary of their vast empire.
Over much of the same period, U.S. presidents, sympathetic with his ideas on organizing their small post-revolutionary force, intermittently appointed him the country's top military officer despite his widespread reputation as a "Spanish pensioner."
Vice President Aaron Burr came west, secretly recruiting officers for an independent western American government that would have confirmed Spain's worst fears about the security of Mexico. Wilkinson joined in, but when chances thinned, he ratted on Burr.
In the trial that followed, Chief Justice John Marshall adhered strictly to the Constitution, ruling that conspiracy is not treason.
His reputation ruined, Wilkinson was still allowed to lead unsuccessful operations against Canada in the War of 1812. But Jefferson lost faith in him and eventually Wilkinson headed for Mexico.
He tried to get the short-lived Mexican empire, newly freed from Spain, to split Mexican Texas in two and let him govern the eastern half. It didn't work. He died in Mexico, vainly waiting for Jefferson to answer his letters.