Monday, January 16, 2017

The Roles of Generals Wilkinson and Adair

Designs on Spanish territory were not new, and it is impossible to ignore the role of the arch frontier schemer, General James Wilkinson, and his possible role in the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition. There can scarcely be any doubt that the general’s influence on the filibuster was strong. His own words and deeds convict him as far as a motive is concerned, and his fingerprints are found not infrequently. The first of these fingerprints is Magee, Wilkinson’s protégé, who led the Americans in the raid, though Wilkinson eventually threatened to arrest him, either as bluster or to buff out the tarnish on his own loyalty created by the Burr affair. Also, as we have seen, Magee had his own independent reasons to choose a Mexican revolutionary army over an American frontier one. Another Wilkinson fingerprint was the Santa Fe traders, including Reuben Smith, a probable relative of the general. Next is Josiah Taylor, the former army quartermaster under Wilkinson, who apparently traveled to Texas and was imprisoned in the Alamo shortly before the expedition was launched. The biggest Wilkinson imprint is Gen. John Adair, who clearly was involved in the organization of the filibuster and was offered command but refused it. Adair was a confidant of Wilkinson and Burr who wrote the former in 1804 that “the Kentuckians are full of enterprise, and although not poor, as greedy after plunder as ever the old Romans were. Mexico glitters in our Eyes – the word is all we wait for.” Wilkinson later wrote to Adair, “The time looked for by many and wished for by more has now arrived for subverting the Spanish government in Mexico. Be you ready to join me; we will want little more than light-armed troops…”[1] This characterization, written in 1806, closely describes the men of the expedition that eventually took place six years later.
On the surface then, they would seem the agents. But this strong desire aside, by the time the filibuster kicked off in 1812, Adair and Wilkinson were both men under watchful eyes, and moreover had a strained personal relationship between themselves. Wilkinson had arrested Adair in the Burr affair and Adair had counter-sued Wilkinson. Their careers had been rocked by scandal and if they were not chastened, they were at least cautious. Neither man was in a position to take a lead role, and may indeed have thought the filibuster to be impractical. After all, the proposed numbers of men that had been conceived for the Burr affair were generally reckoned in the thousands. In the end, the Republican Army of the North had only around 130 men at the outset. Spain was weak, but the generals may have thought, probably not that weak.
Nonetheless, Wilkinson, Adair, and other frontier leaders and intriguers of various stripes had been sowing seeds of the expedition in the West for years, and now some of these seeds were growing on their own, without the necessity for an individual to cultivate them. The impulse to dismember Spain was common to frontiersmen and presidents alike, but was particularly ingrained in the people of the West, who long remembered the Spanish intransigence over navigation of the Mississippi and other slights, and who daily lived with evidences of Spanish vulnerability. There was no single author of the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition, except perhaps Gutiérrez himself, although he was probably little more than the grain upon which the pearl grows. The heterogeneity of the members makes this clear. No one but Gutiérrez controlled the recruitment process, and what is dramatically lacking in any of the existing sources is any indication of recruits being turned away, as one would expect if an authority had a particular desired ideal type of filibuster in mind. On the contrary, all volunteers were embraced, regardless of connections or motives. The only exception to this is Shaler, who, fearful of French influence, tried to prevent Gutiérrez from meeting with Napoleonic agents. Given the conditions on the frontier and the strong sentiment against Spain, it is not surprising that the expedition was as big as it was. It is rather, surprising that it was so small. A larger number of frontiersmen who did not take up arms may have been sympathetic, but held back because the effort lacked official government sanction. The same effect had been seen with the Burr raid, and was evidenced in Reuben Kemper’s reticence to join the effort without the administration’s support.

[1] Linklater, 220 and 244.

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