We now have a more clear-eyed understanding of Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton; even so, they are often considered American saints, revered for their wisdom and self-sacrificing service to the nation.
However, within the generation of founders of the United States there lurked many unscrupulous figures — men who violated the era’s expectation of public virtue and advanced their own interests at the expense of others.
They were turncoats and traitors, opportunists and con artists, spies, and foreign intriguers.
The early years of the republic were full of self-interested individuals, sometimes succeeding in their plots, sometimes failing, but still helping to shape the new nation.
Two men among many included in a new book, A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation (Pegasus Books, 2023), were Charles Lee and James Wilkinson.
Charles Lee (1732-1782)
Charles Lee was a Continental Army general who offered to tell the British how to defeat the Americans. Lee arrived in North America in 1773, having previously served in the British Army during the French and Indian War, and purchased a Virginia estate.
When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, Lee volunteered to serve with rebel forces. He was looked over for the appointment of Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in favor of George Washington.
In 1776, he commanded the forces that repulsed an attempt by the British to capture Charleston but later that year, was captured by Banastre Tarleton‘s cavalry and held as a prisoner until he was exchanged in 1778.
In late June 1778, during the Battle of Monmouth, Charles Lee’s reputation was ruined and he was subsequently court-martialed for disobeying orders in not attacking on the morning of the battle, contrary to “repeated instructions”; conducting an “unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat”; and disrespect towards the commander-in-chief. He was then mustered out of the military.
Lee’s place in history was further tarnished in the 1850s when George H. Moore, the librarian at the New-York Historical Society, found the draft of a letter written by Lee and dated March 29, 1777, while he was a British prisoner of war.
The letter detailed a plan by which the British might defeat the rebellion. Moore’s discovery, presented in a paper titled “The Treason of Charles Lee” in 1858, has influenced perceptions of Lee.
James Wilkinson (1757-1825)
James Wilkinson served fifteen years as a commanding general in the US Army, despite rumors that he spied for Spain and conspired with traitors.
Wilkinson served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, but he was forced to resign twice. He also served twice as the Senior Officer of the U.S. Army, and was appointed to be the first Governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1805.
Wilkinson commanded two failed campaigns in during the War of 1812. He died in 1825 while attempting to become a diplomat in Mexico City.
In the years since Gayarré’s research became public, Wilkinson has been widely condemned by American historians and politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, who said “[In] all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
More lately his legacy has been defended with regards to his breaking up Aaron Burr‘s attempt to use his international connections as then Vice President (under Jefferson), with support from a group of US planters, politicians, and army officers, to establish an independent country in the Southwestern United States and parts of Mexico.
A Republic of Scoundrels
A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation (Pegasus Books, 2023) edited by David Head (a past featured speaker at the Conference of the American Revolution in the Mohawk Valley) and Timothy Hemmis seeks to re-examine the generation of those who founded the United States and replace the hagiography with something more realistic: a picture that embraces the many facets of our nation’s origins.
David Headis an associate lecturer of history at the University of Central Florida and a distinguished faculty fellow in history at Kentucky Wesleyan College. He is the author of Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic (2015) and A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution (2019), which was a finalist for the 2020 George Washington Prize.
Timothy Hemmis is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. He graduated from The University of Southern Mississippi. His teaching focuses on Early American History and American Military History. He serves as a Regional Coordinator for the Society for Military History and is the History Book Review editor for The Presidential Studies Quarterly.