James Wilson 1742-1798
Educator, Statesman, Jurist, Lawyer and Revolutionary Patriot

Born 9/14/1742 in Carskerdo, near St. Andrews, Scotland.
Died 8/21/1798 in Edenton, N.C.; interment in the Johnston burial ground on the Hayes plantation near Edenton, N.C.; reinterment in Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia, Pa., in 1906.

Wilson had 6 children by his marriage to Rachel Bird; only one of these got married, and her child, Emily Hollingsworth, never married. His second marriage produced an infant, who died.

Pennsylvania Provincial Convention 1774
Continental Congress, 1775-77, 1783, 1785, 1786
One of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution
Continental Board of War
Advocate General for France in America
Deputy to Constitutional Convention
Associate Justice of Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-98.
Brigadier general of the State militia
A delegate from Pennsylvania to the Federal Convention in 1787
A delegate to the State ratification convention; settled in Philadelphia in 1778
Member of the Federal Convention, 1787, which framed the Constitution
American revolutionary patriot

He attended the Universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh however never finished his studies, as he sailed for the New World in 1765, arriving in the midst of the Stamp Act agitations.

He resided in New York City until 1766 when he settled in Philadelphia. Aided by some letters of introduction, accepted a position as Latin tutor with the College of Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania) but almost immediately abandoned it to study law under John Dickinson. He received an honorary M.A. shortly thereafter.

Political Career
In November 1767, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. In 1768, Wilson set up practice at Reading, Pa. Two years later, he moved westward to the Scotch-Irish settlement of Carlisle. He specialized in land law and built up a broad clientele. On borrowed capital, he also began to speculate in land. In 1789, he became a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wilson became involved in Revolutionary politics. In 1774 he took over chairmanship of the Carlisle committee of correspondence, attended the first provincial assembly, and wrote an essay with the title: "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Government" in which he maintained that Parliament was not legally empowered to make laws for the American colonies. The pamphlet greatly impressed the members of the Continental Congress, to which he was elected in 1775. This tract circulated widely in England and America and established him as a Whig leader. Within those pages, he set down a number of arguments that severely challenged the parliamentary authority over America. In the final conclusion of this manuscript, he states that Parliament has no power whatsoever over the American colonies. Although he accepted in some ways the power of the Monarch, he would not subject himself to the whims of Parliament, in which the colonies had no representation.

As a member of the Pennsylvanian Provincial Congress, he made a passionate speech about the possibility of an unconstitutional act made by Parliament. Judicial Review, the American system of checking governmental acts with the Constitution, was on its way.

Wilson was elected to both the provincial assembly and the Continental Congress, where he sat mainly on military and Indian affairs committees. In 1776, reflecting the wishes of his constituents, he joined the moderates in Congress voting for a 3-week delay in considering Richard Henry Lee's resolution of June 7 for independence. On the July 1 and 2 ballots on the issue, however, he voted in the affirmative and signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2.

Wilson's strenuous opposition to the republican Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, besides indicating a switch to conservatism on his part, led to his removal from Congress the following year. To avoid the clamor among his frontier constituents, he repaired to Annapolis during the winter of 1777-78 and then took up residence in Philadelphia.

Wilson affirmed his newly assumed political stance by closely identifying with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplying his business interests, and accelerating his land speculation. He also took a position as Advocate General for France in America (1779-83), dealing with commercial and maritime matters, and legally defended Loyalists and their sympathizers.

In the fall of 1779, during a period of inflation and food shortages, a mob that included many militiamen and was led by radical constitutionalists, set out to attack the republican leadership. Wilson was a prime target. He and some 35 of his colleagues barricaded themselves in his home at Third and Walnut Streets, thereafter known as "Fort Wilson." During a brief skirmish, several people on both sides were killed or wounded. The shock cooled sentiments and pardons were issued all around, though major political battles over the commonwealth constitution still lay ahead.

During 1781 Congress appointed Wilson as one of the directors of the Bank of North America, newly founded by his close associate and legal client Robert Morris. In 1782, by which time the conservatives had regained some of their power, the former was reelected to Congress, and he also served in the period 1785-87.

Wilson reached the apex of his career in the Constitutional Convention (1787), where his influence was probably second only to that of Madison. Rarely missing a session, he sat on the Committee of Detail and in many other ways applied his excellent knowledge of political theory to convention problems. Only Governor Morris delivered more speeches.

That same year, overcoming powerful opposition, Wilson led the drive for ratification in Pennsylvania, the second state to endorse the instrument. The new commonwealth constitution, drafted in 1789-90 along the lines of the U.S. Constitution, was primarily Wilson's work and represented the climax of his 14-year fight against the constitution of 1776.

For his services in the formation of the federal government, though Wilson expected to be appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in 1789 President Washington named him as an associate justice, a position he served until his death. He was chosen that same year as the first law professor at the College of Philadelphia. Two years later he began an official digest of the laws of Pennsylvania, a project he never completed, though he carried on for a while after funds ran out.

Wilson, who wrote only a few opinions, did not achieve the success on the Supreme Court that his capabilities and experience promised. Indeed, during those years he was the object of much criticism and barely escaped impeachment. For one thing, he tried to influence the enactment of legislation in Pennsylvania favorable to land speculators. Between 1792 and 1795 he also made huge but unwise land investments in western New York and Pennsylvania, as well as in Georgia. This did not stop him from conceiving a grandiose but ill-fated scheme, involving vast sums of European capital, for the recruitment of European colonists and their settlement in the West. Meantime, in 1793, as a widower with six children, he remarried to Hannah Gray; their one son died in infancy.

Four years later, to avoid arrest for debt, the distraught Wilson moved from Philadelphia to Burlington, NJ. The next year, apparently while on federal circuit court business, he arrived at Edenton, NC, in a state of acute mental stress and was taken into the home of James Iredell, a fellow Supreme Court justice. He died there within a few months. Although first buried at Hayes Plantation near Edenton, his remains were later reinterred in the yard of Christ Church at Philadelphia.

Political and Legal Philosophy

Involved in the most important political and philosophical debates of his time, he often provided insights rivaling those of any other American leader. In addition, he was able to put his theories into practice through his work with bodies like the Continental Congress, the Federal Constitutional Convention, the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1789-1790, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Nonetheless, in spite of his many historic contributions and the high quality of his political thought, Wilson has largely been overlooked and is perhaps the most underrated of the founders.

At the same time, Wilson is one of the most interesting founders. Like the others, he was a practical politician concerned with creating a workable system of government. Unlike many of them, however, he approached issues in a systematic and philosophical manner. Drawing on deeply held principles, he contributed to the founding of the United States in unique and significant ways. He played a central role in the ratifying debates and was the moving force behind the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790. Furthermore, as a law professor and Supreme Court justice, he produced some of the period's most profound commentary on the Constitution and American law.




DAB; Smith, Charles Page. James Wilson, Founding Father, 1742-1798. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956; Wilson, James. Selected Political Essays of James Wilson. Edited with an introductory essay by Randolph G. Adams. New York: Knopf, 1930.

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