James Wilson was one of the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence. He was elected twice to the Continental Congress, and was a major force in drafting the United States Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.
As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress Wilson served alongside fellow Pennsylvania delegates: Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, John Morton, Robert Morris, George Clymer, James Smith, George Ross, and George Taylor.
One of seven children, Wilson was born to a Presbyterian farming family on September 14, 1742 in Carskerdo, Fife, Scotland to William Wilson and Alison Landall. Wilson attended a number of Scottish universities without attaining a degree. Imbued with the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in British America in 1766, carrying valuable letters of introduction. These helped Wilson to begin tutoring and then teaching at The Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). He petitioned there for a degree and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts several months later.
Wilson began to read the law at the office of John Dickinson a short time later. After two years of study he attained the bar in Philadelphia, and, in the following year (1767), set up his own practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. His office was very successful and he earned a small fortune in a few years. By then he had a small farm near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was handling cases in eight local counties, and was lecturing at The Academy and College of Philadelphia.
On 5 November 1771, he married Rachel Bird, daughter of William Bird and Bridget Hulings; they had six children together: Mary, William, Bird, James, Emily and Charles. Rachel died in 1786, and in 1793 he married Hannah Gray, daughter of Ellis Gray and Sarah D’Olbear; the marriage produced a son named Henry, who died at age three. Hannah had previously been the widow of Thomas Bartlett, M.D.
American Revolutionary War
Taking up the revolutionary cause, Wilson published in 1774 “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” In this pamphlet, Wilson argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the American colonies because the colonies had no representation in Parliament. It presented his views that all power derived from the people. Though considered by scholars on par with the seminal works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of the same year, it was actually penned in 1768, perhaps the first cogent argument to be formulated against British dominance.
In 1775 he was commissioned Colonel of the 4th Cumberland County Battalion and rose to the rank of Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania State Militia.
As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, James Wilson was a firm advocate for independence during the American Revolutionary War. Believing it was his duty to follow the wishes of his constituents, Wilson refused to vote until he had caucused his district. Only after he received more feedback did he vote for independence. While serving in the Congress, Wilson was clearly among the leaders in the formation of Indian policy. “If the positions he held and the frequency with which he appeared on committees concerned with Indian affairs are an index, he was until his departure from Congress in 1777 the most active and influential single delegate in laying down the general outline that governed the relations of Congress with the border tribes.”
Wilson also served from June 1776 on the Committee on Spies, along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, and Robert R. Livingston. They together defined treason.
On October 4, 1779 the Fort Wilson Riot began. After the British had abandoned Philadelphia, James Wilson successfully defended at trial 23 people from property seizure and exile by the radical government of Pennsylvania. A mob whipped up by liquor and the writings and speeches of Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, marched on Congressman Wilson’s home at Third and Walnut Streets. Wilson and 35 of his colleagues barricaded themselves in his home, later nicknamed Fort Wilson. In the fighting that ensued, six died, and 17 to 19 were wounded. The city’s soldiers, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and Baylor’s 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, eventually intervened and rescued Wilson and his colleagues. The rioters were pardoned and released by Joseph Reed
Wilson closely identified with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplied his business interests, and accelerated 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. He held this post until his death in 1798.
The Constitutional Convention
One of the most prominent lawyers of his time, Wilson is credited for being the most learned of the Framers of the Constitution. A fellow delegate in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia made the following assessment of James Wilson: “Government seems to have been his peculiar study, all the political institutions of the world he knows in detail, and can trace the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Grecian commonwealth down to the present time.”
Wilson’s most lasting impact on the country came as a member of the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution in 1787. He wanted senators and the president to be popularly elected. He also proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise at the convention, which made slaves count as three-fifths of a person for representation in the House and Electoral College. Along with James Madison, he was perhaps the best versed of the framers in the study of political economy. He understood clearly the central problem of dual sovereignty and held a vision of an almost limitless future for the United States. Wilson addressed the Convention 168 times. A witness to Wilson’s performance during the convention, Dr. Benjamin Rush, called Wilson’s mind “one blaze of light.”
Though not in agreement with all parts of the final, necessarily compromised Constitution, Wilson stumped hard for its adoption, leading Pennsylvania, at its ratifying convention, to become the second state (behind Delaware) to accept the document. His October 6, 1787 speech in the State House courtyard has been seen as particularly important in setting the terms of the ratification debate, both locally and nationally. In particular, it focused on the fact that there would be a popularly elected national government for the first time. Wilson was later instrumental in the redrafting of the 1776 Pennsylvania State constitution, leading the group in favor of a new constitution, and entering into an agreement with William Findley that limited the partisan feeling that had previously characterized Pennsylvanian politics.
He was nominated to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court by George Washington on September 24, 1789, after the court was implemented under the Judiciary Act of 1789. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789, and received commission on September 29, 1789. Only nine cases were heard by the court from his appointment in 1789 until his death in 1798.
He became the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia in 1790—only the second at any academic institution in the United States—in which he mostly ignored the practical matters of legal training. Like many of his educated contemporaries, he viewed the academic study of law as a branch of a general cultured education, rather than solely as a prelude to a profession.
Wilson broke off his first course of law lectures in April 1791 to attend to his duties as Supreme Court justice on circuit. He appears to have begun a second-year course in late 1791 or in early 1792 (by which time the College of Philadelphia had been merged into the University of Pennsylvania), but at some unrecorded point the lectures stopped again and were never resumed. They were not published (except for the first) until after his death, in an edition produced by his son, Bird Wilson, in 1804. The University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia officially traces its foundation to Wilson’s lectures.
James Wilson’s last and final years were marked by financial failures. He assumed heavy debts investing in land that became liabilities with the onset of the Panic of 1796-1797. Of note was the failiure in Pennsylvania with Theophilus Cazenove. In debt, Wilson was briefly imprisoned in a Debtors’ Prison in Burlington, New Jersey. His son paid the debt, but Wilson went to North Carolina to escape other creditors. He was again briefly imprisoned, but continued his duties on the Federal judicial circuit. In 1798, he suffered a bout of malaria and then died of a stroke at the age of 55, while visiting a friend in Edenton, North Carolina. He was buried in the Johnston cemetery on Hayes Plantation near Edenton, but was reinterred in 1906 at Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia.
Tracing over the events of Wilson’s life, we are impressed by the lucid quality of his mind. With this went a restless energy and insatiable ambition, an almost frightening vitality that turned with undiminished energy and enthusiasm to new tasks and new ventures. Yet, when all has been said, the inner man remains, despite our probings, an enigma. – Charles Page Smith