Spaniards, Scoundrels, and Statesmen: General James Wilkinson and the Spanish Conspiracy, 1787-1790

James E. Savage

[1]Beginning in 1783, the end of war with Britain brought a surge of westward migration. Among those who found their way to the west in this tide of movement was General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson was a veteran of the Revolution, having joined the Continental Army while he was still in his youth. Throughout the war, many noted Wilkinson's ambitiousness; he was suspected of participation in various intrigues, including the so-called "Conway Cabal," a conspiracy to overthrow George Washington and name Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Despite the fact that many suspected Wilkinson of attempting to cheat his way to the top, he apparently enjoyed a remarkable degree of confidence from his superiors. He was with Benedict Arnold in Quebec and was later made secretary of the Board of War while serving as an aide to General Gates. He later fell out of favor with both men and at one point was reported to have been challenged by Gates to a duel. Already during the Revolutionary War, Wilkinson developed a reputation for being outspoken. In a 1781 letter, Wilkinson opined,

I have commented on the progress of this war, the imperfect manner in which all events are communicated to those whose station calls for the most accurate account of every material transaction. One characteristic is applicable to most of our public relations and is particularly applicable to those from this quarter. Fxaggeration of successful opperations [sic], diminution to adverse. From hence arises those false hopes which influence our councils and operate on the exertions of the people. This single consideration ought to influence to perfect communication between those in the field, and those at the head of affairs.(1)

[2]Wilkinson escaped his troubles with Gates to secure appointment as Clothier-General of the Army, only to find himself again accused of corruption and publicly denounced by a number of prominent individuals, including General Washington.(2) Wilkinson resigned and set out for Kentucky, reportedly pretend-ing to be representative of a large mercantile association at Philadelphia.(3)

By the summer of 1785, James Wilkinson would be deeply involved in the politics of Kentucky and that district's efforts to achieve separation from Virginia and, eventually, statehood. Wilkinson became a prominent figure in Kentucky society; many remarked that he was an amiable man with a "pleasing voice and charming manners." (4) Despite his popularity in some circles, Wilkinson came to be involved in a bitter rivalry with a young Kentucky lawyer and politician, Humphrey Marshall. This rivalry was simultaneously public, personal, and political. And it was strongly bound up with the politics and foreign policy of Kentucky's continued attempts to achieve independent statehood. Wilkinson's activities in Kentucky during the late 1780s, in Marshall's view, justified the accusation that the General and his political allies were behind what came to be called "the Spanish Conspiracy." As a result of these accusations and only a short presence in Kentucky society, General James Wilkinson played one of the most significant roles in the history of the American west. At the time of Wilkinson's residence in Kentucky, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 promised a uniform administration of some western lands and delivered at least the appearance of stability. However, the west remained vulnerable to chaos and disorder. The precarious situation of the district of Kentucky, the so-called "Spanish Conspiracy," and the activities of James Wilkinson in Kentucky's struggle for statehood demonstrated the threat of disunion with the east and Spain's pervasive plotting to undermine the westward expansion of the American union.

Building a Public Image: The General Becomes a Statesman

The arrival of James Wilkinson was indeed a remarkable event in the history of the young district of Kentucky. The explosion of emigration to the region meant that society there was changing rapidly and continually. And it was into this atmosphere of change and development that Wilkinson, a member of the general staff of the Continental Army, entered in 1783. His appearance there was so remarkable because most men of his rank were well established in the east; and most immigrants to Kentucky were "bereft of all but the spirit that had brought [3]them to America and accomplished their national independence." (5) Wilkinson was by no means of an eminent financial background. "Having lost his family estate in Maryland," wrote George Rogers Clark biographer James Alton James,"[Wilkinson] saw in the West an opportunity to improve his fortune..."(6) However, his arrival in Kentucky and the rapid advancement of his public career there suggest that his status as a veteran and general of the Revolutionary War were enough to satisfy his fellow Kentuckians. To them,

[Wilkinson's] manners [were] bland, accommodating and popular; and [his] address easy, polite and gracious, invited approach, gave access, assured attention, cordiality and ease. By these fair terms, he conciliated; by these he captivated. (7)

Whatever his personal qualities, Wilkinson's subsequent political activity suggests that he convinced the Kentucky populace of his sincerity, if not his integrity. Reading some of the General's correspondence led his own biographer, James Jacobs, to describe his early activities in Kentucky:

When a midwife was needed he stood by; when neighbors needed a physic he prescribed - salts, tartar, laudanum, and blistering 'plaisters' were some of his favorite remedies; and hence Charles Scott, a friend of Revolutionary days, was urged to have a 'snug little apartment' of them when he came to Kentucky. (8)

Whatever the defining characteristics of Wilkinson's personal life, he seems at least to have given the appearance of a model frontier settler. Other Kentuckians certainly thought so; for Wilkinson would soon be at the center of the district's commerce and sectional politics. While playing the role of a statesman, Wilkinson came to find that not all Kentucky citizens could be close friends. The period that followed in Wilkinson's public career was one of remarkable factionalism, tumult, and frustration not only for the General but for the district of Kentucky as well.

The General Becomes a Delegate: The Third and Fourth Conventions

The third convention regarding the separation of Kentucky from Virginia and its establishment as an independent state convened on August 8, 1785. Among its members were Benjamin Sebastian and General James Wilkinson, both [4] of whom would play important roles in the movement for statehood in Kentucky. At the end of the second convention, delegates had decided to withhold the petition for separation until another convention could convene. The first action of the present, third convention was to forward that petition to the Virginia Assembly, praying that an enabling act be passed at the next session of that body. This third convention, however, did not establish a procedure for the drafting of a constitution and as yet "none of the three conventions had addressed the national government under the Articles of Confederation." (10) The Virginia Assembly responded favorably to the petition of the convention. On January 16, 1786, an enabling act became law. But many in Kentucky disapproved of the terms upon which the law conditioned separation. The primary complaint was that

Instead of providing for a constitutional convention, the act required that another convention gather in Danville on the fourth Monday of September 1786. . . The convention was charged to determine whether it was 'the will of the good people of the said district' to become an indepenent state upon the terms contained in the act.(11)

The enabling act stated that assuming the September 1786 convention accepted its conditions, independence would occur on a date "posterior" to September 1, 1787. The September 1786 convention was also authorized to call a constitutional convention that was to determine what Virginia laws would remain in force until the new state legislature could act in this capacity.(12)

Wilkinson and his political allies "began to talk of unilateral separation without regard to the procedure and timetable mandated by Virginia."(13) The General himself delivered a potent address while campaigning for election to the September 1786 convention. In this speech Wilkinson insisted that independence "posterior to September 1, 1787" meant before that date. Wilkinson's rival candidate, Humphrey Marshall, attacked the General's misuse of the word, "'Either he did not know the meaning of the word, 'posterior' or meant to impose on his audience. That, in the one case, he was unfit to guide -- in the other, unsafe to follow.'"(14) Regardless of Marshall's attacks, Wilkinson's slip did not cost him election to the convention. Marshall accused him of trickery but Wilkinson retained his seat in the September 1786 gathering.

On the appointed day, September 29, 1786, delegates present for the fourth convention were unable to convene for lack of a quorum. Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia had called George Rogers Clark out of retirement to [5] lead an expedition against a number of hostile Indian tribes north of the Ohio River, and these campaigns drew a number of the delegates away from Kentucky. The convention was finally able to convene in January of 1787. Soon after the convention set about its business, news arrived that the Virginia Assembly had passed a second enabling act; "unforeseen events" made it impossible for the earlier deadlines to be met.(15) The Assembly felt that another expression of opinion was needed and thus it called for yet another convention to be held in September of 1787. That convention, the act established, should fix a date for separation "not later than January 1, 1789" and should provide for a constitutional convention. Separation, however, would only occur if the Confederation Congress agreed before July 4, 1788 to admit Kentucky to the Union. This further frustration added fuel to the fire of public opinion in Kentucky and Wilkinson and his allies were the obvious beneficiaries. The delegates of the fourth convention, although some of them wanted to ignore the Assembly and continue with business, viewed the act as a cancellation of their authority. The convention soon adjourned and Wilkinson prepared to travel to New Orleans.

The Trip to New Orleans

Kentucky's biggest economic problem was that by the mid-1780s the state was producing crop surpluses. Only a very small part of Kentucky could be considered urban, even by eighteenth century standards. The only way to reach other markets was to send the surplus down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the seaport at New Orleans and beyond. About this time and for unknown reasons, General Wilkinson decided to attempt to travel to New Orleans in violation of Spanish law and obtain permission for Kentucky to do a certain amount of trade at New Orleans each year. Wilkinson may have been, as historian Lowell Harrison has suggested, in a ruinous financial situation before his departure.(16) However, every Kentucky businessman of the 1780s would have understood the value of a personal trading monopoly with Spain. Such a monopoly would have allowed Wilkinson to control all legal shipments from Kentucky to New Orleans; anyone not doing business on his terms would be threatened with seizure of his ships and cargo. These were risks that Wilkinson, too, would be forced to take on his first trip to see the Spanish Governor of Louisiana. Failure at this enterprise would have likely meant Wilkinson's total financial ruin. In April of 1787, Wilkinson left Kentucky with one flatboat full of tobacco, bacon, hams, and flour.(17)

On his way down the Mississippi, Wilkinson worked his way past the [6] various Spanish settlements along the way with relative ease. He persuaded Spanish officials at these settlements to let him pass, and "The two fine horses he gave to an official at Natchez reinforced his oral arguments."(18) Wilkinson reportedly decided to delay his own arrival at New Orleans so that he could take care of some personal business; his cargo arrived at New Orleans before he did. When Spanish officials tried to impound the cargo, merchants acquainted with Wilkinson "at least by correspondence" warned them against it.

They were told that Wilkinson was very popular in Kentucky and that the seizure of his property might cause Kentuckians, already provoked by Spanish policy, to take military action on their own without regard to the official policy of the United States.(19)

Possibly because of the unwillingness of the Spanish to provoke the people of Kentucky, the Spanish authorities decided not to seize his cargo and cautiously awaited his arrival. Wilkinson finally arrived at New Orleans on July 2, 1787. His subsequent communications with Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro aimed at convincing the Spanish authorities that his presence was no threat to Spanish control of the Mississippi. On the contrary, Wilkinson would argue, if only implicitly, that facilitating his commercial venture could be of extreme advantage to the Spanish government. If the Spanish would allow him a monopoly over all river trade, he would use his influence in Kentucky to promote Spain's interests in the west.

Wilkinson was apparently well received at New Orleans; he stayed throughout the summer months and left for home on September 16. The summer of 1787 brought with it several significant developments in General Wilkinson's public life, developments that laid the groundwork for the so-called Spanish Conspiracy. The results of his discussions with Governor Miro would have profound implications for Wilkinson's subsequent participation in the statehood conventions of Kentucky. In August, Wilkinson signed an expatriation declaration, swearing allegiance to the King of Spain. In this Declaration, Wilkinson prefaced his comments:

Interest regulates the passions of Nations, as also those of individuals, and he who attributes a different motive to human affairs deceives himself or seeks to deceive others: although I sustain this great truth, I will not, however, deny that every man owes something to the land of his birth and in which he was educated.(20)

[7]These introductory comments masterfully conveyed Wilkinson's internal dilemma; he must choose between the interests of the people of Kentucky and the ties by which he was bound to the American cause. He continued by expressing a concern that his action would "expose all his life and actions to the severest scrutiny, and his reputation and character to the blows and jibes of gossip and calumny."(21) He stated that however strong his reservations, he was convinced "that in changing [his] allegiance from the United States of America to H.C.M., [it could never be said that he had] broken any of the laws of nature or of nations, nor of honor and conscience."(22) He felt no compunction about surrendering his aforementioned connection with the American cause. He continued,

Born and educated in America, I embraced its cause in the last revolution, and remained throughout faithful to its interest, until its triumph over its enemies: This occurrence has now rendered my services useless, discharged me of my pledge, dissolved my obligations, even those of nature, and left me at liberty, after having fought for her happiness, to seek my own; circumstances and the policies of the United States having made it impossible for me to obtain this desired end under its Government, I am resolved to seek it in Spain. . .(23)

Having broken all ties of loyalty to the United States, Wilkinson dedicated his life to the promotion of the "good of [Spain] and the interest and aggrandizement of the Spanish Monarchy."(24) Such sentiments likely helped Wilkinson to obtain Governor Miro's permission "to direct or cause to be brought into [Louisiana], by inhabitants of Kentucky, one or more launches belonging to him, with cargoes of the productions of that country."(25) Since no other Kentuckians had obtained such a license, Wilkinson had, in effect, obtained a monopoly over all exports from Kentucky to the Spanish port at New Orleans.

Wilkinson went even further to convince Governor Miro of his sincerity. In September 1787, Wilkinson wrote a lengthy "memorial" for the Governor to forward to his superiors in Spain. The memorial at length described the present situation in the district of Kentucky, the feeling of the inhabitants there, and outlined Wilkinson's proposal. Wilkinson wrote that those individuals who had settled in Kentucky were "deceived in [their] hopes, not only on account of the little attention [shown to their problems] by Congress"(26) and that the conflict between [8] Spain and the United States over navigation of the Mississippi "filled the new Settlements with anxiety [and] cooled the hopes of those whose aims were directed toward the west."(27) He went on to explain that while the people of Kentucky expected the United States Congress to negotiate in favor of their free use of the Mississippi:

they saw last summer [Congress] negotiate . . . the exclusive right of navigation on the said River, in exchange for certain commercial advantages in favor of the Atlantic Coast, [and seven] of the twelve states represented ardently embraced [the] action!(28)

Wilkinson predicted that Kentucky's "future conduct [would] be largely governed by the determination Congress [might] take regarding Kentucky's [situation]." (29) Wilkinson continued by describing the large territorial cessions included in the peace of 1783 as "unlooked for."(30) He characterized the dispute over western lands as a divisive one and argued that fear of disunion would continue to prevent Congressional action with respect to the west. "[I]t strikes me," he wrote, "we may freely and surely conclude that the Memorials of Kentucky and the other Western Settlements will not vary the policy of Congress in the slightest degree."(31) In his memorial, Wilkinson consistently described the political situation in the west as tumultuous, the settlers of the district as angry, and the relationship of the westerners with Congress unlikely to change.

In this manner Wilkinson laid the groundwork for his proposal to the Spanish authorities in the home country. Wilkinson argued that the uncertain situation in the west made the time right for some sort of radical change. He continued his memorial by specifying that this change would bring about "a distinct confederation of the inhabitants of the West, for its common welfare and happiness." "This step," he wrote, "Congress neither can nor cares to stop."(32) He boldly asserted that Congress viewed such a development "with anticipation as inevitable, as a consequence of local circumstances."(33) Wilkinson felt that Congress hoped the inability of the westerners to govern themselves would slow emigration and thus assure the prominence of the Atlantic states. He continued, at considerable length, to say that once separated, the western lands would be left only two alternatives: alliance with either Spain or Britain. Following this discussion, Wilkinson concluded that "[he could] with justice presume that Great Britain preserve[d] permanent aims upon [that] country" and that she was [9] courting those settlements and [would] endeavor to insidiously bind them to attack Louisiana."(34)

With the understanding that God "Surely" created the west "for the good of his creatures," Wilkinson encouraged the development of a "useful intercourse" between Kentucky and her "neighbors." (35) He recommended that the "general application" of the prohibition of trade on the Mississippi be continued but that certain westerners should be allowed to engage in such commerce. This, Wilkinson argued, would guarantee the transformation of western settlers into "partisans of Spain."(36). He assumed that such an arrangement would lead to a more formal, yet silent conjunction between the westerners and the Spanish authorities of Louisiana. "This plan, so beneficial as well as politic," he concluded, "will produce immediate consequences of the utmost importance to Spain."(37) Wilkinson recommended that the Spanish government appoint an American agent in Kentucky. His description of the ideal man for this position implied that he was recommending himself:

I comprehend that it is not out of reason that a man of great popularity and political talents, co-operating with the causes above mentioned, will be able to alienate the Western Americans from the United States, destroy the insidious designs of Great Britain and throw those (Western Americans) into the arms of Spain.(38)

Wilkinson concluded his remarks with a plea for indulgence; he wrote, "My understanding may err; but my heart can never deceive."(39) Thus ended Wilkinson's radical proposal for arranging a cooperation of the Kentuckian and Spanish interests in the American west. And although his "memorial" suggested that the western American settlements were, due to their peculiar circumstances, already alienated from the United States, his concluding remarks suggested that such alienation was only a potential outcome, assuming his proposal was to be put into action. Nevertheless, the Spanish chose to employ General Wilkinson as their agent in Kentucky -- and in the closing days of the summer of 1787, Wilkinson began his long journey back to Kentucky.

[10] In Wilkinson's Absence: The Fifth Convention at Danville

In the absence of General Wilkinson, the slow progress toward statehood continued. The fifth convention was convened at Danville in September 1787 while Wilkinson returned from his long discussions with Governor Miro. By the time this fifth convention began, two rival political factions had solidified; these factions had very different origins and sources of support. Throughout the 1780s a large body of landless partisans existed in Kentucky. Too poor to purchase the best land, these partisans were the nucleus of the popular cause of statehood. Their hopes were tied to a redistribution of the old Virginia land grants and the economic development of Kentucky. In the conventions at Danville the interests of the court faction, manned mostly by lawyers and judges, coincided with those of the landless partisans. The lawyers and judges of Kentucky hoped that any changes in the district's status would aid the profitability of their smaller estates and other economic ventures; and they stood opposed to the so-called country faction, which represented the wealthiest segment of Kentucky society. Among the members of the court faction were men such as John Fowler, Benjamin Sebastian, John Brown, Harry Innes, Caleb Wallace, and General James Wilkinson. The men of the country faction were, for the most part, men whose families held large estates; most large estates in mid-1780s Kentucky were part of the Virginia land grants that the poorest Kentuckians wanted to be nullified. The Marshall family was most notable among the leadership of the country faction. Humphrey Marshall, a young lawyer, became Wilkinson's bitter rival after 1786 and this rivalry would color much of the subsequent political activity of both men. While the landless partisans fought hard for immediate statehood and the redistribution of land, the court faction only went so far as to support statehood with free navigation of the Mississippi River; the country faction fought any change that threatened their disenfranchisement. Indeed, the country faction most often advocated the status quo.(40)

These interests and the force of public opinion would continue to influence the actions of the men who served as delegates to the convention of September 1787. Once in session, the convention resolved that "it is expedient for, and the will of the same, that the said district be erected into a separate and independent state, on the terms and conditions specified in the two acts of assembly."(41) The approval of this resolution was unanimous. The date for partition from Virginia was set as December 31, 1788 and a constitutional convention was scheduled for July of that year. The convention also formally petitioned Congress [11] for admission to the Union and requested that the Virginia Assembly appoint a resident of Kentucky to its Congressional delegation to press for action.(42) Having completed its business, the fifth convention adjourned. However, the results of the convention's deliberations were not what the delegates and the majority of Kentucky's citizens had hoped.

Important changes in the national government were about to occur by late 1787; a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation was complete and the nation mulled over ratification of an entirely new constitution. And while Kentucky's constitutional convention, planned for the summer of 1788, was free to proceed without congressional action on the petition for admission, the final partition was contingent on approval of the request. The Virginia Assembly appointed John Brown to its delegation in Congress to promote Kentucky's interests there. Brown arrived in New York on December 6, 1787 and found that Congress was not in session due to lack of a quorum. He came to discover that members of Congress were not willing to act on any business until they could "see some indication of the nation's political future."(43) On June 3, 1788, Congress appointed a committee to "report an act for acceding to the independence of the said district of Kentucky and for receiving 'the same into the union as a member thereof in a mode conformable to the Articles of Confederation.'"(44) Exactly one month later, Congress voted to approve Kentucky's admission to the Union and representation in Congress on January 1, 1789. However, the members rescinded this vote by approving a motion to postpone Kentucky's admission indefinitely. This motion cited the fact that

nine states had adopted the constitution of the United States lately submit ted to conventions of the people. . .. . and therefore it must be manifestly improper for congress assembled under the said articles of confederation to adopt any other measures than those which express their sense that the said district ought to be an independent member of the union, as soon as circumstances shall permit proper measures to be adopted for that purpose.(45)

So Congress refused to grant Kentucky's request to be admitted to the Union. The act of Congress had the effect of canceling the Second Bnabling Act and the date of effective partition from Virginia. The refusal was yet another disappointment in the long series of frustrations that plagued Kentucky's separation movement.

[12] Setting the Stage: Wilkinson's Return and Anger at the National Government

Congress's refusal to admit Kentucky to the Confederation simply con-firmed the Kentuckians' worst fears about the new constitution and fueled the fire of their anger at the federal government. And General Wilkinson, who returned from his trip to New Orleans on February 24, 1788, was a strong voice in opposition to the new national constitution. His fellow Kentuckians viewed him as a hero because of his success with the Spanish and he capitalized on this fame to promote his political agenda in 1788 and 1789. Wilkinson's heightened personal popularity as a result of the trip to New Orleans and the opposition of his court faction allies to the Constitution of 1787 was likely to have convinced him that any proposal he might make would be well received. Harry Innes, one of Wilkinson's closest associates, and seven other members of the court faction sent a letter denouncing the new constitution to the several county courts of Kentucky on February 29, 1788. The letter warned that any government organized under that document would subordinate the interests of Kentucky to those of the Atlantic Coast states, particularly with respect to navigation of the Mississippi. The letter also called for the election of delegates to a convention that would instruct Kentucky's fourteen delegates to the Virginia ratifying convention to vote against acceptance of the document. Despite whatever support the country faction gave ratification of the new constitution, leading proponents of the document in Virginia were concerned about their lack of support in the west. They feared a very close vote at the Richmond convention, which convened on June 2, 1788. It was thought "that the fourteen Kentuckians might well decide the issue."(46) James Madison wrote with some anxiety, " 'There is reason to believe that the event may depend on the Kentucky members, who seem to lean more against than in favor of the Constitution. The business is in the most ticklish state that can be imagined.'"(47) In the end, the Virginia convention voted to ratify the Constitution of 1787 by a margin of ten votes.(48) However, western opposition to the document was strong. Of the fourteen Kentucky delegates, one was absent, three voted for ratification, and ten voted against approval of the document.

Kentucky's general opposition to ratification of the new constitution, however, was not the only evidence of the discontent of the district's population. Frustrated with Congress's refusal to approve Kentucky's admission to the Union, John Brown held a series of private talks with the Spanish envoy to the United States, Don Diego de Gardoqui, about the possibility of a unilateral action on the part of Kentucky regarding use of the Mississippi River. In a July 25, 1788 letter to one of his superiors, Gardoqui recounted the substance of these conversations. [13] He first summarized the frustrations with which Kentucky's efforts in Congress had been met and remarked that he had purposely cultivated a friendship with Brown. He wrote,

Our friendship gradually increased and my sentiments naturally made an impression on him, inasmuch as they touched upon those obstacles, imposed by our treaties with other nations, which forbade us according any extension of favor to his section of country while pertaining to the United States, artfully insinuating that only themselves could remove the difficulty; inasmuch as if separated they would afford excuse for regarding them as an interior District without maritime designs, and perhaps we could devise some plan for adjusting the markets so much needed in some of our possessions. I carefully observed his appearance as I told him this, and it seemed to) me that I could discern the satisfaction it gave.(49)
Brown seemed confident that the discussions with Gardoqui could prove useful to Kentucky. He wrote that "there [was] no reason to doubt the sincerity of this declaration" and that "[he had] thought proper to communicate [Gardoqui's words] to a few confidential friends in the district, with [Gardoqui's] permission, not doubting but they will make a prudent use of the information."(50) Some Kentuckians would later question the propriety of Brown's discussions with Gardoqui.(51) However, Brown seemed to imply that his hopes for Kentucky involved membership in the United States. Brown concluded his correspondence with a note of approval of the new government. "Time alone," he wrote, "can determine how the new government will answer the expectations of its friends; my hopes are sanguine, the change was necessary."(52) Although his court partisanship and the degree to which frustration with Congress drove him to negotiate with Gardoqui were somewhat inconsistent with his hope for the new constitutional system, his subsequent abandonment of these discussions suggests that he decided to proceed with caution.

The sixth convention at Danville took place in this atmosphere of anger and frustration. Six years of disappointments with the national and Virginia governments and three years of formal attempts to become an independent state had produced nothing for Kentucky. The passage of the second enabling act and the subsequent refusal of Congress to admit Kentucky to the Union raised the temper in Kentucky to an explosive level. The sixth convention itself seemed pointless; [14]the convention had been called to write a constitution in accordance with the provisions of the second enabling act, but Kentucky failed to meet the July 4, 1788 deadline for attaining admission to the United States. On Tuesday, July 29, 1788 the sixth convention went into session.(53) The convention organized and received communications from Brown with respect to the Congressional response to Kentucky's request for statehood. The news of the action terminated the authority of the convention; but some delegates wanted to remain in session. Caleb Wallace "moved 'that it was the duty of this Convention as the Representatives of the people to proceed to frame a Constitution of Government for this District , '"(54) regardless of the expiration of the body's authority. Delegates from the court faction, Wilkinson among them, were the most vocal proponents of separation in spite of the obstacles to proceeding legally: "Innes was so angry that he felt 'like shedding blood.'"(55) Cooler heads prevailed despite the emotion displayed by a number of speakers. The convention passed a resolution that recognized the termination of its authority. The delegates also approved a provision calling for a seventh convention to convene, again at Danville, in the following November. This convention was authorized to sit until January 1790 (56). Delegates to the seventh convention would have authority to write a constitution and

to take such measures for obtaining admission of the district as a separate and independent member of the United States of America, and the navigation of the river Mississippi, as may appear most conducive to those purposes. . . or to do & accomplish whatever, on a consideration of the state of the district, may in their opinion promote its interests.(57)

The broad authority of the seventh convention sent a clear message; if the legal process of obtaining admission to the Union met with any further frustration, a totally independent Kentucky remained as a possible outcome of the meeting's deliberations. The stage was now set for Wilkinson and his court faction allies to make a radical movement toward independence, perhaps even union with Spain.

The period between the end of the sixth convention and the beginning of the seventh was indeed a short one. News of Wilkinson's and Brown's dealings with the Spanish authorities in America was likely to have been circulating privately during this period. Wilkinson wrote to Miro before the July convention that he would attempt to discern which delegates were in favor of separation from the United States: "'with two or three individuals capable of assisting me, I [15] shall disclose so much of our great scheme as may appear opportune, according to circumstances, and I have no doubt but that it will meet with a favorable reception.'"(58) But radical separation was a sensitive subject; Wilkinson had to disavow it to avoid losing election to the convention. Brown had apparently become so skeptical of the Spanish scheme that it took some persuasion to encourage him to stay with the court faction. Nevertheless, both were elected to sit in the seventh convention.(59) The interim between conventions demonstrated that the anger many Kentuckians directed at Congress was not sufficient to encourage their support of radical separation from the United States. However, if Wilkinson was ever to put his scheme into action, the seventh convention was the opportune time. Never had anger at the legal procedure of achieving statehood and the national government been so great; never had a convention with such broad powers been prepared to address it.

Anticlimax of the Conspiracy: Failure at the Seventh Convention

Wilkinson and the other delegates to the seventh convention gathered, as planned, at Danville on November 3, 1788. After two early debates regarding the legality of the sixth convention granting such broad authority to the seventh and the propriety of the election procedure for the latter convention, the committee-of-the-whole rose. General Wilkinson was elected chair.(60) The committee considered and issued a favorable recommendation on a resolution that called for "a manly and spirited address [to] be sent to Congress to obtain Navigation of the River Mississippi."(61) The committee also approved a resolution to write "a decent and respectable address" requesting a third enabling act of the Virginia Assembly. (62) The convention adopted both resolutions. Wilkinson was appointed to the committee charged with sending an address to Congress. In one early day of debate in the convention, Wilkinson rose and delivered an address:

he proposed that Kentucky draft a constitution, declare independence from Virginia, and organize a government. If terms were satisfactory, Kentucky might join the Union. . . . Then Wilkinson remarked that a gentleman who was present had important information regarding the Mississippi question. He looked at John Brown, then relinquished the floor. (63)

Apparently, Wilkinson intended Brown to place the substance of his [16] discussions with Gardoqui before the convention. It is also apparent that Wilkinson read before the convention a copy of his "memorial" to Governor Miro, perhaps in edited form, as the convention later resolved "that [its delegates] highly approve the address presented by General James Wilkinson to the Governor Intendant of Louisiana, [and to give its thanks] for the regard which he therein manifested for the interest of the western country." (64) When Wilkinson called upon Brown, the latter hesitated. Building upon his earlier split with the court faction over support for the Constitution of 1787, Brown delivered a restrained address. Reportedly, Brown

said that he did not feel free to discuss in detail his conversations with the Spanish minister But, he was reported to have added, 'this much in general, he would venture to inform the convention, that, provided we are unanimous, every thing we could wish for, is in our reach.' (65)

Brown's restrained remarks diminished any momentum Wilkinson's address may have created. On Saturday, November 8, the convention approved a Wilkinson address that made it appear as though the author had abandoned his revolutionary spirit of a few days before. The resolution read, in part,

Whereas it is the solemn duty, so it is the ardent desire of this convention, to pursue such measures as may promote the interest and meet the approbation of their constituents, but the discordant opinions which at present divide the good people they represent render it doubtful whether they can adopt any plan which will embrace the opinions of all, or even secure the support of a majority--in this state of embarrassment, perplext with doubts, and surrounded by difficulties, in order to avoid error and to attain truth, to remove the jealousies which have infected society and to restore that spirit of harmony and concord, on which the prosperity of all depends; they deem it most eligible to address their constituents on the momentous occasion...(66)

The resolution continued to suggest that the "good people of the district" provide instructions for further action on the part of the convention at its next session. Wilkinson had failed to produce the results he promised Miro but continued to discharge his duty as a delegate to the convention. He delivered to the convention the address his committee was charged with preparing to send to Congress. Although its style was emotional, the address begged Congress to take some action to procure navigation of the Mississippi; the address suggested that Kentucky was content to await legal means for the achievement of this end. The address began,

Fathers!--Fellow citizens!--and Guardians of our rights!--As we address [17]you by the endearing appellation of fathers, we rely on your paternal affection to hear us; we rely on your justice, as men and citizens, to attend to the wrong done to men and citizens; and as a people recognized by the solemn acts of the union, we look for protection to the federal hand.(67)

The address entreated with Congress to mark its determinations by their "decision and effect" and to "let not [its] beneficence be circumscribed by the mountains which divide[d it from Kentucky]."(68) When Congress finally took the appropriate action, the address asserted, "then [the connection between Congress and the western people] shall be perpetuated to the latest times, a monument of [Congress's] justice, and a terror to its enemies."(69) The result of these earlv days of the seventh convention, so disappointing for Wilkinson, was that it became clear Kentucky would condition her independence on membership in the United States. A number of petitions violently opposing the absolute independence of Kentucky arrived at the convention and "effectively blocked any further moves by Wilkinson."(70) The final signal of Wilkinson's defeat was his address "To the Honorable the General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Virginia," which stated the intent of the convention "again to apply to [that] Honorable Body praying [for an act enabling separation]."(71) Satisfied that it had done all it could, the seventh convention adjourned until August 1789 with the possibility that the date could be moved forward if the need arose.

The Final Retreat: The Dissolution of the Court Faction

Wilkinson's failure at the seventh convention brought the demise of the radical court faction. It had lost the momentum for revolutionary action and Wilkinson had lost the support of Brown, one of the faction's most respected adherents. Wilkinson's actions in late 1788 and early 1789 suggest that he was making desperate attempts to keep his small band of loyal supporters intact. Wilkinson, Sebastian, Innes, and Brown had petitioned Gardoqui for a 60,000 acre grant at the junction of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers.(72) Wilkinson sought the grant as a form of payment for his efforts in Spain's behalf and as a place of refuge in the event that he and his supporters were forced to flee the United States. He sought a monopoly on emigration to the Spanish territories for his colony. Miro granted the monopoly, restricting immigration to the New Madrid area on the Mississippi, but later rescinded this action.(73) Wilkinson's political defeat and [18] financial desperation led him in late 1789 to travel again to New Orleans. During his stay in New Orleans he wrote a second "memorial" which urged the importance of his service to Spain and requested financial assistance.

Wilkinson's second memorial was based upon the premise that the separation of Kentucky from the United States was still a possibility. Wilkinson wrote that his plan of 1787 was no longer workable due to political circumstances at home. He blamed his failure on the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. He wrote,

[The new government], although untried and doubtful of success, has inspired the people in general with the loftiest of hopes, because...they allow themselves to be carried away by the novelty, and ascribe to it all the strength of the most powerful monarchy.(74)

He also stated that the "long silence of the court [of Spain] after the receipt of [his] memorial gave rise to fears"(75) on the part of his allies who, if their plan was refused, would be forced to seek aid from Britain.(76) Wilkinson went on to suggest that the best manner in which to proceed would be to "[attract] to us the interest and regard of the influential men in the principal settlements; and for this distribute pensions and rewards among the chief men in proportion to their influence, ability, or services rendered."(77) Indeed, Wilkinson was very candid about his desire for personal financial assistance. He wrote,

I can assure you in sacred truth that the zeal with which I have prosecuted this cause for two years has led me to take steps which have obliged me to make presents, to lend money, and to increase my private expenses, which fact has placed me in the most cramped and critical of situations; unable longer to maintain my personal influence in the same fashion, and that of those who cooperate with me, unless the government assists me.(78)

What assistance he had received was not enough: "You know that the shipments... which I was permitted to make have brought me but little profit."(79) Wilkinson's concluding remarks made the urgency of his plea clear: "I beg you to [19] favor me as soon as possible with a reply to those points which demand it."(80) In addition to this desperate memorial, Wilkinson penned a response to Miro's request for a more explicit description of his proposal regarding pensions for the leading men of Kentucky. In this response Wilkinson accepted his own pension, "I am entirely content with the receipt of seven thousand dollars under the conditions you propose."(81) The General also enclosed a list of prominent men, an "explanation of the character of each," and the amount of pension he proposed they receive. Notable figures on the list included Harry Innes, Benjamin Sebastian, John Brown, Caleb Wallace, Benjamin Logan, Isaac Shelby, George Muter, and even Humphrey Marshall. He proposed that the largest pension be given to a newcomer to Kentucky, George Nicholas, who he described as "one of the wealthiest gentlemen in the country" and "of great ability."(82) Wilkinson's list of enemies, including Marshall, Muter, and five others, were reserved the smallest recommendations, yet the General still suggested that "it [was] necessary to win them over."(83) Eventually Spain opened the Mississippi to anyone who would pay a tax on the goods carried to New Orleans and this destroyed the profitability of Wilkinson's shipping business. Isaac Dunn wrote Wilkinson from New Orleans in June 1788 to inform him of "[his] arrival and the loss of one boat."(84) He also feared that not all of the cargo in the latest shipment would be acceptable to the Spanish and that although he would still receive a fair price for whatever cargo was landed "at least all that the Collector [would] receive."(85) Dunn added that "Clark (86) has endeavoured to explain [the] situation to his Excellency- & he listens with both ears to every application in which your interest is concerned- everything seems to progress smoothly."(87) Regardless of Dunn's hope that Governor Miro would assist Wilkinson in his present troubles, his writing suggests that the General was beginning to lose his special favor with the Spanish authorities as early as the summer of 1788. Dunn warned,

you must pay the greatest attention... [to] the basis on which all your expectations of Fortune must rest - it is true that a number of Passports have been granted for bringing Tobacco down the River... I have volumes to unfold to you but I fear committing too much to this uncertain passage.(88)

[20]Spanish officials in the home country rejected Wilkinson's latest plan: "Wilkinson was not to be granted a commission or pension, and Miro was forbidden to give money to promote a revolution in Kentucky unless it had established its independence from the United States."(89) Yet another 1788 letter from Wilkinson's friend Isaac Dunn warned that the General's dream of a colony in Spanish Louisiana was in danger. Dunn reported that George Morgan "goes north of the Ohio on the Spanish side of the Mississippi with intention of settling a Spanish colony, having obtained a grant from Gardoqui to that effect with liberal and extraordinary indulgences."(90) He continued by adding that "there are a number of [other schemes] of the same nature before Gardoqui... we have no time to lose."(91)

By 1790, any hope of separating Kentucky from the United States was apparently lost regardless of any plan receiving the aid of the Spanish authorities in Louisiana. Without financial assistance from Governor Miro, the desperate financial situation Wilkinson described in his second memorial must have remained unchanged. Without Wilkinson's participation, the long road to statehood wound its way to an end. The Virginia Assembly passed two more enabling acts; the eighth, ninth, and tenth conventions occurred from 1789-1792. And after nearly a decade of seemingly endless frustrations, Kentucky became the fifteenth state in the Union on June 1, 1792. Wilkinson refused to run for election to the ninth convention (92) and left Kentucky a defeated and heavily indebted man in 1791. With recommendations from John Brown and George Nicholas, Wilkinson received an army commission in October of that year.

The Legacy of James Wilkinson

The "Spanish Conspiracy" is one of the most forgotten episodes in American history. Yet James Wilkinson, his dealings with the Spanish, and his participation in the conventions that sought independent statehood for Kentucky all played an important part in the political development of that state. Although the numerous procedural delays that continually thwarted the establishment of the district of Kentucky as an independent state were not a part of Wilkinson's plans, they certainly contributed to the atmosphere of discontent there. This discontent made the suggestion that Kentucky might declare absolute independence from both Virginia and the United States a plausible one. In these circumstances, Wilkinson proposed a plan that would, at least partially, open river trade on the Mississippi but that would also grant him a personal monopoly in that trade. Through three conventions and a trip to New Orleans he advanced his scheme [21] but in the end was unable to produce the results he had promised Miro. Anger at the national government and frustration with the legal procedure of attaining statehood had diminished by the seventh convention, the point at which Wilkinson's potential for ultimate success would have been the greatest. Perhaps the most influential member of Wilkinson's faction was John Brown, the member of Congress who fought in vain for Kentucky's admission to the Confederation. Brown's skepticism and, ultimately, his hesitation at the seventh convention dampened any revolutionary spirit that may have then existed among the delegates. The petitions the convention received following Wilkinson's address must have made it clear that most Kentuckians, despite their anger, were committed to independent statehood conditioned upon membership in the United States. Wilkinson's ultimate failure to separate Kentucky from the United States apparently killed any Spanish support for schemes relating to Kentucky. Indeed, it seemed to his friend Isaac Dunn in 1788 that Wilkinson and his allies were losing their special favor with the Spanish authorities in America. The economic realities of the west and changing Spanish policy in Louisiana were bringing the profitability of Wilkinson's river trade into question. In the end, Wilkinson decided to end his economic and political involvement in Kentucky and travel east, where he rejoined the army in late 1791.

Wilkinson has been one of the most elusive characters in the history of the American west. His subsequent career in the military, despite the fact that he reached the rank of major-generaL was marred by numerous accusations of impropriety. His activities, at various times after 1790, were the subject of more than one formal inquiry, including a court-martial in 1811. On Christmas Day of that year, the court-martial found him not guilty. During the War of 1812 Wilkinson was relieved of his command and ordered to Washington, where he remained a critic of the wartime policies of the Madison administration. He died in 1825 while in pursuit of a Spanish land grant in Texas. Historian of the American west Frederick Jackson Turner called Wilkinson "'the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed.'"(93) Wilkinson has received the title of "despicable character"(94) from several commentators on his career and personal life. And George Rogers Clark biographer Temple Bodley said of Wilkinson, "He had considerable military talent, but used it only for his own gain.(95)

The portrait of Wilkinson as a dishonest, self-interested scoundrel has pervaded historical writing about his activities in Kentucky from 1787 to 1790. Although his personal correspondence allows only implicit conclusions about his motives, it and other documentary evidence clearly demonstrate that in 1787 and [22] 1788 Kentucky's separation from the United States was a real possibility. And Spain was willing to support Wilkinson and his allies in their efforts to achieve this end. Although Wilkinson never received a pension from the Spanish as he later proposed, the Governor of Louisiana and his superiors in Spain were willing to allow the General a number of special privileges. The most significant of these privileges was his short-lived monopoly in trade on the Mississippi River. This privilege ultimately declined in its profitability and was rescinded when the Spanish opened the river; it soon became clear that Wilkinson's political efforts in Kentucky would come to nothing. Wilkinson's hopes of building a personal fortune through the success of his plan ended in disappointment for both the Spanish and for the General himself. Wilkinson's entire public career, it seemed, was a process of beginning some sort of enterprise, being suspected or openly accused of impropriety, then escaping the charges only to begin anew. Wilkinson's own perspective on his actions was perhaps best captured in two compositions of verse with which he prefaced his Memoirs:

----Remember that the ways of Heaven,
Though dark, are just: that oft some guardian power,
Attends unseen, to save the innocent!
But if high Heaven decrees our fall--O let us
Firmly await the stroke; prepared alike
To live or die.
Brown's Barbarossa.

For patriots still must fall for statesman's safety,
And perish by the country they preserve.


1. James Wilkinson to ?, Camp on Pedee River, North Carolina, 9 January 1781, The James Wilkinson Papers, Chicago Historical Society.
2. As with much of his life, the details of Wilkinson's activities during the Revolutionary War are sketchy. This account depends largely on Bodley's introduction. See Bodley, introduction to Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky, vii-x.
3.Bodley, x.
4.Ibid., vii-viii.
5.James Ripley Jacobs, Tarnished Warrior: Major-General James Wilkinson (New York,:Macmillan, 1938),70.
6. James Alton James, The Life of George Rogers Clark (Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, 1928),374.
7.Jacobs, 71.
[note 9 was omitted by author's error]
10. Harrison, 35
11.Ibid., 41
12.Ibid., 41-42.
13. Harrison, 43.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., 45.
16. Harrison, 48.
17. Ibid., 49.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. James Wilkinson, "Declaration" in Temple Bodley, introduction to Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions in and Concerning Kentucky, by William Littell (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), cxxxvii.
21. Ibid., cxxxviii.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid., cxxxix.
25. Estevan Miro to James Wilkinson, permit, new Orleans, 8 August 1788, The Political Beginnings of Kentucky, by John Mason Brown (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1889), 101.
26.James Wilkinson, "Memorial" in Temple Bodley, introduction to Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions in and Concerning Kentucky, by William Littell (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), cxx.
28.Ibid., cxxi.
30.Ibid., cxxii.
31.Wilkinson, "Memorial," cxxii.
34.Ibid., cxxvi-cxxvii.
35.Ibid., cxxvii.
36.Ibid., cxxx.
37.Ibid., cxxxiii.
38.Wilkinson, "Memorial," cxxxv-cxxxvi.
39.Ibid., cxxxvi.
40. For a more detailed discussion of the court and country factions, see Lowell H. Harrison,Kentucky's Road to Statehood (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 17-18.
41.Extracts from the Journals of a Convention, begun and held at Danville, in the county of Mercer, on Monday, the 17th day of September, 1787 in Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky by William Littell (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club,1926), 85.
42. Harrison, 56.
43. Ibid., 57.
44. Journals of the United States in Congress Assembled, Committee of the Whole, June 2nd 1788 in Reprints of Littell's Polititcal Transactions In and Concerning Kepptncky by William Littell (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), 89.
45. Journals of the United States in Congress Assembled, July 3rd, 1788 in Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions
46. Harrison, 59.
47. Ibid., 60.
48. The vote was 89-79.
49. Don Diego de Gardoqui to Count Floridablanca, New York, 25 July 1788, The Political Beginnings of Kentucky, by John Mason Brown (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1889), 147
50. John Brown to George Muter, 10 July 1788, The Political Beginnings of Kentucky by John Mason Brown (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club,1889), 157.
51. The Kentucky Gazette of September 4, 1790 included Brown's letter to Muter. As a result, Brown's opponents charged him with seeking Kentucky's independence from the United States for the remainder of his public life. See Harrison, 62.
52. Ibid.
53. Harrison, 62.
54. Ibid., 63.
56.Ibid., 64.
57.Extracts from the Journals of a Convention held at Danville, the twenty-eighth day of July, 1788, in Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky by William Littell (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), 94.
58.Harrison, 66.
59.Ibid., 67.
60.Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky by William Littell, XIX (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), 100.
62.Ibid., 101
63. Harrison, 68.
64. Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky by William Littell, XIX (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), 107.
65.Harrison, 69.
66. Reprints of Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky by William Littell, XIX (Louisville, KY: The Filson Club, 1926), 102-103.
67. Ibid., 103-104.
68. Ibid., 104-105.
69. Ibid., 106.
70. Harrison, 70.
71. Reportedly, Wilkinson also offered an address "To the People of the District" but such a communication is not reprinted in the journals of the convention and the correspondence probably died in committee. See Harrison, 71.
72. Harrison, 72.
74. "Papers Bearing on James Wilkinson's Relations with Spain, 1787-1789," ed. W.R. Shepard, American Historical Review (July 1904): 748-766., 752.
76. Wilkinson reported that he only knew of the official response to his first memorial on his arrival at New Orleans in late 1789. This seems accurate, given the the document of response is dated November 20, 1788 and would have taken a considerable amount of time to arrive in New Orleans from Spain.
77. "Papers Bearing on James Wilkinson's Relations with Spain, 1787-1789," ed. W.R. Shepard, American Historical Review (July 1904): 748-766., 753
78.Ibid., 756.
79. Ibid.
80. Ibid., 764.
81.Ibid., 765.
82. Ibid., 765-766
83. Ibid., 766.
84. Isaac Dunn to James Wilkinson, New Orleans, 15 June 1788, The James Wilkinson Papers, Chicago Historical Society.
85. Ibid.
86. This probably refers to Daniel Clark, who managed business affairs for Wilkinson in New Orleans.
87. Isaac Dunn to James Wilkinson, New Orleans, 15 June 1788, The James Wilkinson Papers, Chicago Historical Society
88. Ibid.
89. Harrison, 86.
90. Isaac Dunn to James Wilkinson, Pittsburgh, Thursday, November ?? 1788, The James Wilkinson Papers, Chicago Historical Society.
91. Ibid.
92. Harrison, 86.
93. James, 374.
94. Temple Bodley, George Rogers Clark: His Life and Public Services (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), 259.
95. Ibid.
96. James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1816).