James Wilkinson is Removed as Governor: March 3, 1807

James Wilkinson Portrait
National Portrait Gallery

Missouri’s first territorial governor, James Wilkinson, (presiding over all of what was then Louisiana Territory) was removed from office on this date in 1807. Wilkinson had a checkered career to put it mildly, engaging in conspiracies and treason on multiple occasions throughout his lifetime. He had schemed to have Kentucky and Tennessee secede from the country and, while serving as a turncoat on behalf of the Spanish government had even tried to sabotage the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Although many of his misdeeds were concealed until later, he had still done enough to warrant removal from office as governor. This excerpt from our piece on Missouri’s first governors explains why:

“Not surprisingly, Wilkinson immediately proved himself corrupt and a failure as an administrator. Among his other transgressions, Wilkinson distributed trading licenses by the score, to foreigners as well as Americans, and profited handsomely on each one. In his brief tenure, he drank to excess and managed to alienate all his fellow officials, as well as most of his constituents.

Wilkinson’s egregious performance in office was hardly the worst of it. That same year, he entered into a conspiracy with Burr to separate the Mississippi Valley region from the United States and create their own western empire.

Perhaps realizing that he had gone too far this time, Wilkinson betrayed Burr and revealed the conspiracy to Jefferson, who ordered his vice president tried for treason. Wilkinson was the star witness at Burr’s trial. In the absence of firm evidence, Burr was acquitted, although his political career was in tatters. Congress investigated Wilkinson, too, but his Spanish connections remained hidden and he managed to escape indictment. His involvement with Burr and his heavy-handed, blatantly corrupt practices as territorial governor prompted Jefferson to remove him from office in 1807.”

Wilkinson’s status as a Spanish agent was suspected during his lifetime but not proved until after his death. Theodore Roosevelt once said of him: “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”