I got off the plane at Heathrow last Tuesday morning and discovered that my iPhone utterly refused to receive any cell data signal in Britain.
I’m expecting this to be pretty beneficial to my cell phone bill—the last time I was home, for five days in 2011, my Android and I racked up a hundred forty bucks in data roaming charges—but it did mean that during my trip, I was completely cut off from the Internet or iMessage except when I could connect to wifi.
This was mostly fine. Mostly.
Our hotel was in Borehamwood, just up the street from the Elstree & Borehamwood train station, so on Wednesday my mother and I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery. As we left the hotel room, my mum said, “And you know where we need to get off the train?” and I casually said, “Yeah.”
Reader, that was a lie. What I had was a superficial knowledge of London geography (I can group a list of Central London landmarks into general categories like “this is in Westminster”, “this is in the West End”, “this is in the City”), and a reflexive assumption that, if I get lost, I can check for info on my smartphone.
Except that day I couldn’t.
We got on the train, and I checked the on-board map to figure out where we should get off. What we should have done was get off at St. Pancras, so as to take the Tube from King’s Cross to Charing Cross, or else get off at Blackfriars to take the Tube to Embankment. But I knew that the closest two stops we’d get to Trafalgar Square would be City and Blackfriars, so I had us get off at City because the picture of London I had in my head was one in which the City is close enough to Trafalgar Square for us to walk it.
(It’s close enough that I could have walked it, on my own, if I had the familiarity with the geography to know where I was going. Figuring it out along the way and with my mum in tow, nope.)
So the upshot was that we emerged from the train station into Holborn Viaduct with no blessed idea how to get to the National Portrait Gallery, beyond perhaps, “figure out which direction is west”.
It wasn’t even that harrowing, in the end. I managed to figure out which of the many bus routes that passed us would head to Trafalgar Square. (The trickiest part of that was making sure we got on a bus headed in the right direction.) After visiting the NPG, we decided to head to Bond Street to visit the shop that sells my sister’s jewelry, for which we got directions from the nice lady at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s. (The trickiest part of that was that she told us to follow Cockspur Street and Pall Mall to Regent Street, but it turns out that Regent Street isn’t actually “Regent Street” at its intersection with Pall Mall; it is in fact “Waterloo Place”.) Then after we got to the end of Bond Street, we turned into Oxford Street for some shopping, before taking the Tube back to King’s Cross and the train home.
But I felt a real disconnect, especially for that first quarter hour after we left City train station and had to figure out which end of the station we’d left from and which bus to take. When Lisa and I spent a couple of days in Paris in 2009, for the first three or four hours or so, I was really disconcerted by the fact that I was somewhere where the conversations and signage that surrounded me was completely unintelligible to me. I had a somewhat terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness. Briefly in London last week, I got something of the same experience, just from not being able to pull up the internet on my phone.
I got it right. Click the button to read me talking about how I got there, but don’t do it till you’ve tried the puzzle yourself. Please.
“The problem with research,” I tweeted a few days ago, “is that I’ve got a list of at least fifteen books that I don’t so much want to read as want to have already read, right now.”
On reflection, I think that’s one of the two problems with research, but more on that in a moment.
It’s not to say that I don’t want to read these books; I do. Some of them I think are going to be great reads; others will be a slog but will still be about topics I find fascinating. (Some will be flat-out disappointing, of course. I had one of those recently.) But while I am also reading these books for pleasure, centrally I’m reading them to extract information or get a better understanding of something I want to write about. Holding off on writing about it is a really frustrating feeling.
(Which makes me feel like I should pipe up and say that I don’t have any intention of finishing my research before I start writing; I’m a strong believer that that’s a horrible way to write. For one thing, your research should never actually be “finished”. I start writing when I feel I’m ready to start writing, and my research continues apace while I write. But when I know there’s a lot still out there for me to get a handle on before I can write what I want to write, well, it’s frustrating.)
The other problem with research is that it’s migratory. There are three or four different things I want to learn about, and the simple act of researching one of them can make me shift interest to one of the others instead. Right now, I’m reading about the American Federal period. But that could well lead to me wanting to shift back in time, as I decide to read about the backgrounds of Federal-era statesmen by reading about Colonial America instead. Or instead maybe it’ll send me across the Atlantic, and I’ll want to research Napoleonic Europe, which had such an impact on Federalist America via things like the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase or the War of 1812. From Napoleon I could well end up going elsewhere in French history—I’ve been meaning to do some reading about Vichy France, for instance, for a while.
So here’s the reading list. There are books that are higher priorities on here than others; I thought about organising it on that basis, whittling it down or boldfacing the ones I’m either really excited about or feel a really pressing need to tackle before the others. But then I realised that those priorities change, and the book that I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ll definitely want to read that one after I finish this one I’m starting now,” could, by the time I finish this new one, suddenly find itself way further down the pile. So instead, here they are organised very roughly by chronology and geography.
The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America by James Axtell
Pitt the Elder: The Great Commoner by Jeremy Black
Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787 by Orville T. Murphy
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740–1832 by Stella Tillyard
A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard
America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstadter
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands
William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King by Sheila L. Skemp
Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist by Sheila L. Skemp
Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes by Christopher Hibbert
John Adams by David McCullough
Mr. Jefferson’s Women by John Kukla
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano
A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg
American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America by David O. Stewart
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger
The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio
Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts
Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert
The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The True Story of a Forgotten Hero in Wellington’s Army by Mark Urban
The Exploits of Baron de Marbot by Jean-Baptiste de Marbot
Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Kate Hickman
The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson
1812: War with America by Jon Latimer
Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834 by Robert Malcolmson
Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey
Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel
Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans by John Bailey
Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South by Michael Tadman
American Slavery: 1619–1877 by Peter Kolchin
Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves by Ira Berlin
The Prince and the Yankee: The Tale of a Country Girl Who Became a Princess by Robert N. White
Damn that’s about twice as many as I expected. And I stopped before I got to the books I recently picked up about gender roles in the American Civil War, or the aforementioned books about Vichy France, because those are just too far down on my priorities list right now.
I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War. Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager. (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.) I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school. I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”. On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.
One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.” (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)
Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself. There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them. Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.
No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us. The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men. It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“. Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter. The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago. Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.
And I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left. But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.
I learn from Facebook comments that the “commonly accepted story” is that (SPOILERS AHEAD for A New Hope) Sir Alec Guinness persuaded George Lucas to kill off the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi so that he could avoid appearing in any Star Wars sequels. (Which, obviously, worked out real well for him.)
This is news to me. If it’s commonly accepted, it must have only gained such acceptance relatively recently. (Granted, in my case, relative recency would be any time within the last fifteen or twenty years.) When I was coming up through fandom in the 1990s, very much the commonly accepted story was that Lucas decided to kill off Ben Kenobi upon realising that there was nothing for him to do in the second half of the film other than hang around in the background being ineffective (something Princess Leia already had nailed down quite nicely), and that Guinness was in fact furious at the change. Here he was, already leery at appearing in this latter-day Flash Gordon-esque, cheap sci fi potboiler, and only having agreed to do so because he had been so impressed by the enthusiastic young writer-director’s insistence that a dignified portrayal of the Kenobi character would imbue the film with a psychological believability—but now he was being told he would spend the second half of the picture as a disembodied voice.
Now, I’m not here arguing that my story is right and the new story is wrong, though personally, until I see a citation for the new version, I’ll be sticking with mine, because I first came across it in Skywalking, the 1983 George Lucas biography. (In fact, the original account appears to be included in Google Books’s preview of Skywalking.)
No, rather, I’m just fascinated by how the story flipped completely around—from Lucas killing Obi-Wan off over Guinness’s objection to Guinness strong-arming Lucas doing it—yet both, entirely contradictory stories are to illustrate the same conclusion: that staid old Sir Alec Guinness was dismissive of science fiction and came to regret slumming it in Star Wars.
There’s something important (or at least mildly interesting) there, I think, about oral transmission and the myths we build about our past.
My first semester at university, when my Writing Through Media instructor (the very drunkest teacher I ever had) introduced the idea of the third meaning, I never thought to ask if it counts if you’re seeing third meanings in the credits.
At the beginning of every episode of Vikings, the first card that pops up reads, “HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present”. And always I read “HISTORY” as referring not to the TV channel/production company that used to go by the name the History Channel, but rather to history, the last six thousand years of human society and culture.
“HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present VIKINGS” reads to me like, “Metro Goldwyn Mayer is about to put Vikings on your screen, made possible by their actual existence a thousand years ago.” It’s basically the same as if the title card said, “PARAMOUNT PICTURES and GEOLOGY present A VOLCANIC ERUPTION”.
“There is nothing which binds one country or one State to another but interest,” George Washington very sensibly said in 1785; and then he admitted that, at that time, the “interest” of the settlers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio lay not with the United States, but with Spain: “Without this cement the Western inhabitants can have no predilection for us.”
New Orleans is the focal point of the Mississippi Valley. It might not look it, but that’s actually a very grand statement; to appreciate it, let’s consider just what “Mississippi Valley” means: the Mississippi Valley is the entire United States between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, except for those parts which have direct access to the shores of either the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico. (The Rio Grande is the only significant river system, other than the Mississippi, that does so.) It includes parts of four of the original thirteen colonies (Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia) and parts of states that weren’t admitted to the Union until 1890. It includes the traditional domains of Eastern woodland nations like the Delaware and Iroquois, and of the prairie horse warriors like the Sioux and Comanche. It includes territory that mapmakers have assigned to France, Britain, Spain, Mexico and independent Texas. All pointed at the same destination.
A majority of moving water in North America flows through New Orleans just before reaching the sea. That means that the Crescent City is one of the world’s biggest and most important transport hubs even today, when we have the ability to move people and cargo by air or along interstate highways. But during the first three generations of American independence, before railroads and for the most part even before steamboats? Then, the only way for Western farmers to get their product to their Atlantic and European markets—the only way to get the entire produce of America between the Appalachians and the Rockies to where it needed to go—was to float it on flatboats, downstream to New Orleans.
If you’ve got wheat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that you’re looking to sell, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive at New Orleans. If you’ve got long-staple cotton in Huntsville, Alabama, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to pass through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, and eventually arrive at New Orleans. If you’ve got beef in Billings, Montana, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive in New Orleans. If you’re in St. Paul, Minnesota, and you’ve got … I have no idea. Frozen tears, probably. If you’re in St. Paul and you’ve got frozen tears, you’re going to float them downstream on a flatboat, and they’re going to arrive in New Orleans.
We can easily see, then, New Orleans’s vital economic importance, but we might not immediately realise that this also made New Orleans the must crucial strategic point in North America. After all, both New Orleans and the entire, vast Mississippi Valley have been comfortably American (apart from a single, intense period in the 1860s) for over two hundred years. But for half a century between 1763 and 1815, four different countries looked to make themselves the dominant power in the Mississippi Valley, and they all chose to do so by trying to fly their flag over New Orleans.
This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said that, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.” And this was the world James Wilkinson saw when he arrived in Kentucky in the 1780s. One power, Spain, held the right bank of the Mississippi, while an army of colonists from another, the United States, were quickly filling up the left bank, settling along the shores of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. But it was Spain, not the Americans, who held New Orleans, and that time they held it very securely. Interest therefore dictated that the American Western settlers would be reasonably drawn toward Spain, not the United States they had left behind on the other side of the Appalachians.
Wilkinson could see that because of that, the borders as they stood in the 1780s were destined to change in very short order. He decided to work toward seeing to it that Spain would come out on top, because he thought they were the better bet. But he was far from the only one who figured that the United States was going to come out the loser in the contest for ownership of most of North America. A major Revolutionary War hero, a state governor, a US senator, a Vice President of the United States, and even a future President: all of them flirted, more or less seriously, with abandoning the United States and establishing the independence of the Transappalachian states, either entirely on their own terms or in conjunction with one of three different European powers.
Those are holders of great offices, and efforts like this continued into the 1790s and early 1800s, long after the Constitution and the federal government had been established and the United States seemed like it would be more than a transitory curiosity. For so many men like this to have pursued such a goal, on independent occasions, makes it clear that we can’t just dismiss them as traitors to their country, as we could if it were just Wilkinson and his thirty years of Spanish espionage we were worried about. Something else was at play here. For these men, their concept of country obviously allowed that the United States simply had no claim on them once they were west of the Appalachians.
So next time I’m going to survey all these other would-be nationbuilders in the Mississippi Valley.
1789 is a chapter break in American history (as it is in European history, but for a very different reason). We’re all finished up with Enlightenment philosophy and Revolution, and we turn the page to a new time with a new lexicon reflecting new, possibly less exciting concerns: nullification, internal improvements, Manifest Destiny and the cotton gin.
As we start the long 1789-1848 chapter (it really is weird how those dates match up with such important European dates), the most striking difference with the 1763-1789 chapter is that there’s a sense of stability, a permanence to this new beginning. Not only does America now have its own country, it also has its very own government that it has now made sure is going to be vigorous enough and flexible enough to hold the country together against whatever gets thrown at it, right down to the present day.
What we need to remember is that there’s absolutely no reason the people on the ground in 1789 should have felt that new stability. There’s no reason this particular new beginning should have felt any different to them than the very many new beginnings they had spent, at that point, their whole lives living through.
Let’s look at how much the world had changed for an American alive in the 1790s. Let’s look at, say, John Adams, born in Massachusetts in 1735. John Adams grew up in a British America that was confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Far more of North America was French than was British—Adams didn’t know much about the land that lay behind the Appalachian Mountains a few hundred miles to the west, beyond that it was vast and fertile, but he did know that it was accessible either through French Quebec on the St. Lawrence or through French New Orleans on the Mississippi, and that what settlements existed there were French. For Adams and his fellow colonists—to whom “French” meant two things they abhorred: Roman Catholic and absolutist—the spectre of so much of the continent being in enemy hands must have truly hung over them.
But in 1759 and 1760 (confirmed by treaty in 1763), all that changed. The Seven Years’ War swept France from North America, and the entire continent east of the Mississippi was ceded to Great Britain. For John Adams and his fellow colonists, it must have been like how we felt when the Berlin Wall came down. British America had gone from a narrow strip clutching the Atlantic Seaboard to a limitless expanse big enough that, as Thomas Jefferson later described it, it would take until the “thousandth and thousandth” generation for them to fill.
Then, of course, came the new beginning when Adams and his countrymen decided to forego the protection and the supervision of the world’s most powerful empire and take responsibility for their affairs wholly within their own control, and cemented that decision by winning a war very much against the odds. Replacing common allegiance to a hereditary monarch with common allegiance to the ideal of liberty was the biggest revolution Adams lived through, but it wasn’t the first, and it wasn’t the last: because just four years after Britain recognised American independence, the United States realised that it had got its first attempt at self-government absolutely wrong, and that it had to scrap its first constitution (the Articles of Confederation) and write a new one, a Constitution that many Americans thought was a recipe guaranteed to lead to tyranny and monarchy.
And for all that change that men and women of Adams’s generation saw politically in a single lifetime, let’s not forget that the boundaries of the world itself were undergoing constant change for them, too. When John Adams was an adult in his early twenties, the extreme frontier of white settlement in America was Albany, New York—Albany, in the southeastern quadrant of New York, a couple hours’ drive north from New York City and only about half an hour from the Massachusetts state line, was the gateway beyond which, to the north or west, the uncharted forests belonged to Indians, lone fur trappers, and the occasional stockade of companies of British or French soldiers. Albany was the crossroads where colonial leaders would gather when they wished to treat with the Iroquois sachems who would come out of the woods. And yet by the time Adams died, Missouri—in the very heart of the American continent—had already been so thoroughly settled by white colonists that it had been granted statehood, as had twenty-one of the twenty-four states east of the Mississippi River. (Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, then as now desolate frontiers on the American periphery, were the exceptions.)
So for many Americans, the reaction to the Constitution in 1789 wasn’t wondering whether or not the new federal government would succeed, it would have been wondering what was going to replace it within the next decade or so. This was especially true for Americans, like James Wilkinson, who had moved west and were already rapidly filling Kentucky (statehood 1792), Tennessee (1796) and Ohio (1803). Americans already had a suspicion that their country would prove too large and would eventually fracture; they just didn’t think the fault would be along the Mason-Dixon Line, they thought it would be along the Appalachian Ridge, dividing the Atlantic states from the Ohio Valley.
In such a world of uncertain future, then, James Wilkinson—hero of the Battle of Saratoga, major landowner who was turning Lexington into Kentucky’s major town, and man of extreme ambition—decided that his most likely route to fame and fortune was to take a secret oath of loyalty to Spain for the express purpose of detaching Kentucky from the United States and turning it into a Spanish colony. This became common knowledge by the early 1790s (though not concrete proof was ever unearthed; if it had, Wilkinson would certainly have been tried for treason, and likely convicted), and yet George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all felt willing to keep giving Wilkinson successively greater responsibility, and greater power located at a greater remove from their own oversight: second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in Ohio and Indiana, then commander-in-chief of the United States Army along the left bank of the Mississippi, then governor of the Louisiana Territory with his capital at St. Louis.
Or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable doing so, so much as they didn’t feel they had a choice; maybe they felt that, like the Roman empire appointing a Germanic chieftain governor of the province he’s just invaded, they had to maintain Wilkinson in a position of honour at the American empire’s distant outposts in order to prevent him and the men loyal to him from turning against them.
In 1806, when Wilkinson was presented with the opportunity to do what he had actually pledged to do in 1787—detach the Mississippi Valley from the United States—he instead chose to betray his co-conspirator Aaron Burr to the federal government and side with the Union. But he acted no more out of loyalty to the United States in 1806 than he had to Spain in 1787; both times, he sided with the power that he felt was in the best position to give him honour and fortune in the Mississippi Valley. In the intervening nineteen years the United States was able to strengthen its grip west of the Appalachians until Wilkinson reached the calculation that it was simply too strong to dislodge there.
But James Wilkinson didn’t just watch that change: he was an integral part of it. Examining how he made his choice for Spain in 1787 and for the United States in 1806 shows us how it was that many of his fellow Americans of the period came gradually to the conclusion that the United States was something that would last longer than their own generation.
As usual, it all comes down to perspective.
We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis. We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly. And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.
But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air. It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day. It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency. But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true. We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084. If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.
Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history. But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead. I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War. Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years. People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive? Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?) It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.
Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life. But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it. And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.
Last go round I mentioned that this biography I’m reading of James Wilkinson was probably going to prompt some posts here, so I figured maybe the best thing to do would be to start by talking about James Wilkinson. Because I don’t think he’s particularly well known, and yet he should be. James Wilkinson’s life reads like a hokey historical novel. He was a key servant of America during the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, and commander-in-chief of the United States Army for sixteen years—and yet he spent the whole period actively plotting against American interests as the secret agent of a foreign power.
At age twenty, James Wilkinson became the youngest brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was a hero (by his account, the hero) of the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war. After the war he moved to Kentucky to make his fortune in land speculation, where he became the leader of the movement for Kentucky to secede from Virginia and form its own state—and also opposed ratification of the Constitution, as he felt it would interfere with Kentucky statehood. And then from the 1790s until after the War of 1812 began, he was commander-in-chief of the US Army, responsible for the defence of the Mississippi frontier from the Spanish garrisons that controlled it at St. Louis, Natchez and New Orleans, and then after the Louisiana Purchase, responsible protecting New Orleans from the Spanish armies in Texas and Florida during the war scare of 1806. It was at the height of that war scare that he became the man who exposed Aaron Burr‘s plot to seize New Orleans and set himself up as Emperor of the western states.
But also. In 1787 Wilkinson took a little trip down the mighty Mississip’ to New Orleans, where he met with the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown, wrote a seven-thousand word report on the likelihood of Kentucky seceding from the Union and placing itself into the Spanish Empire, and accepted an annual pension from the Spanish government. For the remaining forty years of his life, James Wilkinson, highest-ranking military officer in the United States, was Spain’s Agent 13. That was why he led Kentucky to separate statehood but opposed the Constitution, because his aim was to use statehood as a stepping stone to turning Kentucky into a Spanish colony. While preparing to lead invasions into the Spanish colonies of Texas and Florida in 1806, he knew that the Spanish government possessed copious records in Havana and Madrid that would condemn him to execution for treason.
Nor was Wilkinson’s duplicity limited to his service for Spain. He exposed Burr’s plot in 1806, but it would appear that he had been Burr’s active co-conspirator in 1804 and 1805, only turning against him once he concluded that the enterprise was likely to fail; indeed, there are some historians who allege that what has gone down in history as Burr’s Conspiracy should more accurately be called Wilkinson’s. During the Revolutionary War, after he abandoned his first mentor, a certain Benedict Arnold, he became tangled up with the Conway Cabal, a plot by several generals after the Battle of Saratoga to have Washington dismissed from the supreme command and replaced by Horatio Gates. He eventually died in Mexico City, where he had become a senior advisor to Augustine I, the Spanish Loyalist general who had gone over to the Mexican independence fighters, and then immediately after winning Mexico’s independence from Spain had declared himself Emperor of the new nation. Theodore Roosevelt declared that “in all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
The really remarkable thing about Wilkinson’s career of treachery is that it doesn’t seem to have been much of a secret. He was regularly referred to as a “Spanish pensioner”. When he was second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in the Ohio Valley in the 1790s, his superior, “Mad Anthony” Wayne (after whom Fort Wayne is named), made a point of intercepting merchants coming up the Ohio from Spanish territory to make it harder for him to receive dispatches from the Spanish governor in New Orleans. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn refused his application to be given the post of surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory because he felt that allowing Wilkinson to roam freely around the Upper Mississippi frontier would make it too easy for him to get in touch with Spanish officials. The United States’ first four presidents all received letters detailing evidence against him and urging an inquiry, yet they all also chose to confirm him in his command.
I think that’s fascinating, and I think the phenomenon of James Wilkinson sheds some really interesting light on how the Founding Fathers saw the republic they had founded and its prospects for the future. But that’s for another post.