James Wilson

James Wilson

Infobox Judge
name = James Wilson

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office = Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
termstart = October 5 1789
termend = August 21 1798
nominator = George Washington
appointer =
predecessor = "(none)"
successor = Bushrod Washington
office2 =
termstart2 =
termend2 =
nominator2 =
appointer2 =
predecessor2 =
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birthdate = birth date|1742|9|14|mf=y
birthplace = Carskerdo, near Ceres, Scotland
deathdate = death date and age|1798|8|21|1742|9|14|mf=y
deathplace = Edenton, North Carolina
spouse =

James Wilson (September 14, 1742ndash August 21, 1798), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, twice elected to the Continental Congress, a major force in the drafting of the nation's Constitution, a leading legal theoretician and one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.

One of seven children, Wilson was born to a Presbyterian farming family at Carskerdo, in the Parish of Ceres, Fife in the East of Scotland and educated at the University of St. Andrews, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Glasgow. Unable to graduate because of his father's death, he moved to America in 1765 and quickly became a tutor at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), where he later received a Master of Arts degree. After arriving in Philadelphia, with letters of introduction, Wilson took up the job as a legal assistant in the offices of Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson. This is where he learned much of his trade. After several years as a legal assistant he passed the bar examination and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia. He began his own practice in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania and then in the town of Carlisle, a small hamlet west of Harrisburg. He became one of the most prominent lawyers of his time and 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." [ [http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/continental/wilson.html Library of Congress: James Wilson] ]

Taking up the proto-revolutionary cause in 1774, Wilson published "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament," a pamphlet denying all authority of Parliament over the Colonies. 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 a Colonel in the 4th Battalion of Associators and rose to the rank of Brigadier General of State Milita.

As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, Wilson was a firm advocate for independence and became an imposing figure that was looked upon favorably by his fellow Congressmen. But with Pennsylvania divided on the issue of separation, Wilson, not wanting to go against the wishes of his constituents, refused to vote. Only when he received more feedback did he vote for independence.

While serving in the Congress Wilson was clearly among the leaders in the formation of Native American 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.” (James Wilson: Founding Father, Charles Smith Page, 1956, p. 72.)

Wilson also served from June 1776 on the Committee on Spies, along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, and Robert Livingston. They together defined treason. (Page, p. 119.)

On October 4, 1779, the Fort Wilson Riot began. In response to inflation, poverty, and food shortages that had been on the rise in the last 3 years, a militia supporting price regulations and opposing Philadelphia's conservative leadership marched to James Wilson's house on Third and Walnut Streets. Wilson and thirty five of his colleagues who feared the crowd barricaded themselves in his home, which was later nicknamed Fort Wilson. In the short battle that ensued, 5 soldiers died, and 17-19 people were wounded. The city's soldiers, the Light Horse & Baylor's 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, led by Joseph Reed [http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg01416))] eventually intervened and rescued James Wilson and his colleagues. [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0043-5597%28197410%293%3A31%3A4%3C589%3ATFWIO1%3E2.0.CO%3B2-0&size=LARGE] [http://www.johnadams.net/cases/samples/Winfrey-Wilson/index.html]

In 1779 Wilson accepted the role of Advocate General for France in America. He held this post until 1783.

Wilson's most lasting impact on the country came as member of the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution in 1787 (a year after the death of his wife). 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 (nation and state) and held a vision of an almost limitless future for the United States. Wilson addressed the Convention one hundred-sixty-eight times. (World Book Encyclopedia, 2003, James Wilson article.) A witness to Wilson’s performance during the convention, Dr. Benjamin Rush, called Wilson’s mind “one blaze of light.” (“James Wilson: A Forgotten Father,” St. John, Gerald J., in The Philadelphia Lawyer, www.philadelphiabar.org.)

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 Yard 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 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 favour of a new constitution, and entering into an agreement with William Findley (leader of the Constitutionalist Party) that limited the partisan feeling that had previously characterised Pennsylvanian politics.

He began a series of law lectures 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.

Wilson's final years were marked by failure. He assumed heavy debts investing in land. Of note was the failure in Pennsylvania with Theophilus Cazenove. Wilson was briefly imprisoned for a small debt 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 nevertheless became a circuit judge there. In 1798, he suffered a bout of malaria, then died of a stroke while visiting a friend in Edenton, North Carolina. He was buried in the Johnston burial ground on a plantation near Edenton, but was reinterred in 1906 at Christ Churchyard, which is located in 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, James Wilson: Founding Father, 1956, p. 393


In the lectures mentioned above, Wilson, among the first of American legal philosophers, worked through in more detail some of the thinking suggested in the opinions issuing at that time from the Supreme Court. He felt, in fact, compelled to begin by spending some time in arguing out the justification of the appropriateness of his undertaking a course of lecture. But he assures his students that: "When I deliver my sentiments from this chair, they shall be my honest sentiments: when I deliver them from the bench, they shall be nothing more. In both places I shall make ― because I mean to support ― the claim to integrity: in neither shall I make ― because, in neither, can I support ― the claim to infallibility." (First lecture, 1804 Philadelphia ed.)

With this, he raises the most important question of the era: having acted upon revolutionary principles in setting up the new country, "Why should we not teach our children those principles, upon which we ourselves have thought and acted? Ought we to instil into their tender minds a theory, especially if unfounded, which is contradictory to our own practice, built on the most solid foundation? Why should we reduce them to the cruel dilemma of condemning, either those principles which they have been taught to believe, or those persons whom they have been taught to revere?" (First lecture.)

That this is no mere academic question is revealed with a cursory review of any number of early Supreme Court opinions. Perhaps it is best here to quote the opening of Justice Wilson's opinion in "Chisholm v. State of Georgia", 2 U.S. 419 (1793), one of the most momentous decisions in American history: "This is a case of uncommon magnitude. One of the parties to it is a State; certainly respectable, claiming to be sovereign. The question to be determined is, whether this State, so respectable, and whose claim soars so high, is amenable to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States? This question, important in itself, will depend on others, more important still; and, may, perhaps, be ultimately resolved into one, no less radical than this 'do the people of the United States form a Nation?'"

In order to arrive at an answer to this question, one that would provide the foundation for the United States of America, Wilson knew that legal thinkers had to resolve in their minds clearly the question of the difference between "the principles of the constitutions and governments and laws of the United States, and the republicks, of which they are formed" and the "constitution and government and laws of England." He made it quite clear that he thought the American items to be "materially better." (First lecture.)For more on his thought, see:
Corporations law,
Criminal law,
Evidence (law),
Municipal law,
United States constitutional law, and
Property law.


*"Works of James Wilson" 3 vol (1804) [http://www.constitution.org/jwilson/jwilson.htm online edition]
*"Collected Works of James Wilson", 2 vols. Edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2007.
*cite book|last=Hall|first=Mark David|title=The Political and Legal Philosophy of James Wilson, 1742-1798|year=1997|publisher=University of Missouri Press|location=Columbia|id=ISBN 0-8262-1103-8
*cite book|last=Read|first=James H.|title=Power Versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson|year=2000|publisher=University Press of Virginia|location=Charlottesville|id=ISBN 0-8139-1911-8
*cite book|last=Wexler|first=Natalie|title=A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court|year=2007|publisher=Kalorama Press|location=Washington|id=ISBN 0615135161

External links

* [http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/wilson.htm Declaration Signers biography of James Wilson]
* [http://www.law.upenn.edu/sesquicentennial/scrolling/part1b.html Penn Law School biography of James Wilson]
* [http://www.colonialhall.com/wilson/wilson.php Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856]
* [http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/1700s/people/wilson_jas.html Biography and portrait at the University of Pennsylvania]
* [http://www.law.upenn.edu/about/history/photogallery/Insidegallery/wilson.html Portrait at the University of Pennsylvania Law School]
*Find A Grave|id=1682

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