James Wilson was born on September 14, 1742 at Carskerdo, near St. Andrews in Scotland, the son of William Wilson and Aleson Lansdale. His father was a respectable farmer, living a healthy life but a hard one. Methods of husbandry were crude, there was little variety of produce, even fertile soil was not constituted to yield lavish crops, and after the rent had been met there could be but little to lay by. Dwellings were small and bare, plenishings were meager and rude. Nevertheless, a boy with intelligence and grit could find opportunity to furnish his mind and train his faculties.
At the age of 15 James earned a scholarship to the United College of St. Salvator and St. Leonard at the University of St. Andrews. While his studies there were centered primarily on preparing him for a life in the church, later writings reveal that he entertained much broader interests, including classical governments and philosophy. To the inspiration of Dr. Blair and Dr. Watts some have attributed his grounding in logic and rhetoric, two arts which he practiced with conspicuous mastery in his future career. He received a degree from St. Andrews in 1762. Wilson then studied briefly at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but details of his studies there are lacking.
While Scotland at that time was poor in material resources, it was rich in intellect, a period when the ideas of David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid and Francis Hutchison of the Scottish Enlightenment were fresh, living and irresistible. In all the academic communities with which Wilson had the privilege of mixing, their ideas were current coin.
In 1765 Wilson embarked upon his journey across the Atlantic where opportunities for an ambitious young Scot abounded. He arrived in New York in the midst of the controversy known as the Stamp Tax dispute. This dispute involved a statute that levied a tax on all documents involved in the internal commerce and business of the colonies. Moving to Philadelphia he found employment teaching Latin at the College of Philadelphia, a school only recently founded with the help of Benjamin Franklin, and which was to become the University of Pennsylvania. The trustees there were impressed with his classical scholarship and the all-around quality of his educational attainments.
After only a few months, with the assistance of Bishop William White and Judge Peters, he found an opening as a student of the law in the office of John Dickinson, a leading lawyer and able politician who would later play an important part in opposing the Declaration of Independence. Applying himself wholeheartedly to the study of law, Wilson was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1767. He entered practice, first in Reading and later in Carlisle, but returned to Philadelphia in 1770. In 1769 he co-authored The Visitant with William White, who was Bishop White of Christ Church in Philadelphia for fifty years.
James Wilson married Rachel Bird, the daughter of William Bird, on November 5, 1771 and they had six children. Rachel’s brother, Mark Bird, married Mary Ross, the sister of George Ross, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Through her mother, Brigetta Huling Bird, Rachel Bird was a descendant of the Marquis Jean Paul Frederick de Hulingues, a Huguenot nobleman attached to the court of Henry of Navarre. Hulingues was in Paris in 1572 during the massacre of St. Bartholomew and fled with his betrothed, Isabella du Portal, a lady in waiting to Catherine de Medici. They married at Dieppi and subsequently settled in Sweden.
In the aftermath of the Stamp Tax dispute, Wilson undertook in 1768 to study the legal relationship between the British Parliament and the Colonies, and the British King and the Colonies. He titled this study the Considerations on the Nature and Effect of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, which would become an important resource for the colonies as they moved toward independence. Even though Wilson began his study with the assumption that Acts of Parliament had at least some binding effect on the Colonies, he was amazed to discover that none existed on any basis. He did conclude, however, that the colonists, as subjects of the king, owed loyalty and allegiance to the Crown, equal with the subjects in England, and were entitled to the same rights and privileges. His conclusion strongly supported the approach later taken in the Declaration of Independence in charging the King with injurious conduct, and the approach taken earlier by the English Declaration of Rights in 1689 which ended the reign of King James II.
In 1774 Wilson published his Considerations and had it distributed to all the members of the First Continental Congress. Wilson’s language adopting the doctrine of popular sovereignty and natural rights foreshadowed the content of the Declaration of Independence two years later, as indicated by an early paragraph:
All men are, by nature, equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it: such consent was given with a view to endure and to increase the happiness of the governed, above what they could enjoy in an independent and unconnected state of nature. The consequence is that the happiness of the society is the first law of every government.
It was perhaps the most far-sighted, coherent, and logical work that came from the pen of any colonial disputant in the years prior to the Declaration of Independence. The fact that it was first conceived in 1768 is testimony to Wilson’s maturity of mind and dialectical skill. When he was only 26 years old, his thoughts on the developing struggle with Great Britain were years ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.
Like Wilson, who was educated in an environment familiar with the Scottish Enlightenment, a number of the most influential founding fathers had also been exposed to these ideas of Scottish origin in their schooling as well, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Richard Henry Lee and Alexander Hamilton.
In July 1774 Wilson was made head of the committee of correspondence at Carlisle, and was elected to the first Provincial Conference at Philadelphia. In January 1775 he was a member of the Convention of the Province and in May joined the Continental Congress.
A year later after the two day debate over Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence on June 7, 1776, seven colonies were in favor of independence, but five, including Pennsylvania, were against it. Sensing that the Congress was not yet ready to take this important step, Wilson joined with Rutledge, Livingston and Dickinson to secure a three week delay in the vote for independence. On July 2, when the time came to vote for independence, Wilson, Franklin and Morton prevailed, in a 3-2 vote. Two of the Pennsylvania delegates who were not in favor of independence at that time, elected not to attend Congress that day so that Pennsylvania could join with the other colonies and make the vote unanimous.
In June a committee was formed to construct the country’s first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation. During the debates over representation, James Wilson strongly recommended that decisions be arrived at by the majority of free men in the country, not arranged or mediated by states. Congress was not prepared to take this step and the arguments over representation would re-emerge 11 years later in the Constitutional Convention.
As a member of Congress, Wilson did not confine his interest to the major issues of government, but eagerly embraced every opportunity to contribute to the affairs of the nation. It might be said, with justice, that he was devoted to the public service; but it must also be said, with equal justice, that he was avid for office, though perhaps as much for the honor as for the power it would bring him. In Congress, Wilson served on a large number of committees, and it is doubtful whether he ever declined a proffered appointment, however minor. Reputation and fame were at all times Wilson’s deepest desire.
Following the Declaration of Independence, Pennsylvania, along with all the other states, began writing state constitutions. Wilson was opposed to the Pennsylvania constitution because of its provision for a unicameral legislature, and because of this was removed from Congress in 1777. After a short residence in Annapolis he returned to Philadelphia in 1778 and became a corporate counselor. He changed his practicing religion from Presbyterian to Episcopalian and in 1779 became the advocate general for France in America. In 1783 the King of France rewarded him for his services in the amount of 10,000 livres, a substantial sum.
Counseling loyalists on legal matters made him unpopular and mob riots occurred in the Philadelphia in 1779 against profiteers, loyalists and their sympathizers. Learning that he would be a target, Wilson gathered some friends and barricaded his home, located at Third and Walnut streets. The attack on “Fort Wilson” resulted in some casualties on both sides but the legislature passed an act of oblivion after Wilson posted a bond of $10,000 and everyone moved on.
In July 1780 Wilson acted as legal adviser to Robert Morris when they formed the Bank of North America. This bank was chartered by the Congress and functioned successfully until 1785 when its legality was challenged by the Bank of Pennsylvania. In opposition Wilson published his Considerations on the Power to Incorporate the Bank of North America. His opposition was unsuccessful as no provision for the charter of Banks was included in the Article of Confederation. The Bank of North America was the first bank in the modern sense in the United States, issuing its own notes and providing facilities for raising loans.
Wilson’s general view of economic policy was largely derived from two distinguished Scottish economists of the 18th century—Adam Smith and Sir James Stewart. To Wilson there seemed to be striking similarities between the economic needs of his native Scotland in the early 18th century and of his adopted America in the later 18th century. One such was Stewart’s view that adequate credit facilities were the key to rapid economic development, especially in underdeveloped countries.
When the conservatives came to power again in 1782 Wilson was once more elected to Congress, and served intermittently until 1787.
By 1787 a number of the founding fathers, including Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Wilson recognized the limitations and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. In 1787 the states called for a Constitutional Convention to amend and update the Articles. Instead, a whole new vision of a constitution emerged. Wilson’s most important contribution as a Founding Father was probably his work in framing the new federal Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was considered by many of those present “the best read lawyer”.
Madison’s notes, released in 1840 after his death, revealed just how important and influential Wilson’s actions and opinions had been. Mr. Wilson, Madison reported, contended strenuously for drawing the most numerous branch of the legislature (i.e., the House of Representatives) immediately from the people. This was not only because of his conviction that no government could long subsist without the confidence of the people—especially a republican government—but also because he was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible. Wilson considered the election of the first branch by the people not only as the cornerstone, but as the foundation of the fabric.
Wilson, with the support of Hamilton, also argued that the Senate should be elected directly by the people. This proved one of the most contentious issues in the Convention and nearly led to its demise. A committee was formed, with one representative from each state, and Franklin was chosen for Pennsylvania. The compromise that resulted was two senators and two electors for each state. Election of senators for over a century was made by the state legislatures rather than the people, but was finally rectified in 1913 by the XVII Amendment. Wilson went down fighting, maintaining that equality in the Senate was a fundamental and a perpetual error.
With regard to the Executive branch of government, Wilson strongly advocated a single executive and this became the sense of the Convention. As for the Judicial branch, he believed in the principle of judicial review in the Constitution, and wrote: It does not confer upon the judicial department a power superior, in its general nature, to that of the legislature; but it confers upon it, in particular instances, and for particular purposes, the power of declaring and enforcing the superior power of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.
After two months of deliberation the delegates formed a five person committee, called the Committee of Detail, to draft a written form of the Constitution, and James Wilson was delegated by the Committee to write it. For five weeks after its preparation the Convention continued its debates and deliberation, upon which a final drafting committee was chosen consisting of Johnson, Morris, Hamilton, Madison and King. Gouverneur Morris wrote the final version of the Constitution, which closely followed the form and content of Wilson’s draft, including the immortal beginning, We the people…. For his action in framing the Constitution Wilson can rightly be described as The Architect of the Constitution. The Constitution was adopted and signed on September 17, 1787 by 39 delegates, with six others signing later.
In his biography Goodrich describes the performance of James Wilson at the Constitutional Convention as follows: He possessed great political sagacity and foresight, and being a fluent speaker, he did much to settle upon just principles the great and important points which naturally arose in the formation of a new government.
In 1788, the Pennsylvania ratification convention ratified the new Constitution by a comfortable majority. At the convention Wilson spoke as follows:
It is neither extraordinary nor unexpected, that the constitution offered to your consideration, should meet with opposition…I will confess, indeed, that I am not a blind admirer of this plan of government, and that there are some parts of it which, if my wish had prevailed, would certainly have been altered. But when I reflect how widely men differ in their opinions…I am satisfied that anything nearer to perfection could not have been accomplished. If there are errors, it should be remembered, that the seeds of reformation are sown in the work itself, and concurrence of two thirds of the congress may, at any time, introduce alterations and amendments…I am bold to assert that it is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.
Afterwards, Wilson’s speech to the people of Pennsylvania helped to explain the principle behind the Constitution: Allow me to direct your attention, in a very particular manner, to a momentous part, which by this Constitution, every citizen will frequently be called to act. All those in place of power and trust will be elected either immediately by the people, or in such a manner that their appointment will depend ultimately on such immediate election. All the derivative movements of government must spring from the original movement of the people at large.
Immediately after ratification, the College of Philadelphia employed James Wilson to give a series of lecture explaining and analyzing the Constitution, placing it in its context in the theory of government and politics, and grounded on theology and psychology. In 1790 Wilson received an honorary LL.D. degree from the College of Philadelphia and became its first professor of law.
Wilson wrote to President Washington asking him to appoint him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but Washington instead appointed him an Associate Justice in 1791. In 1793 a case came before the Supreme Court in which the state of Georgia declined to answer a properly served complaint by a citizen of that state. In ruling in favor of the citizen involved, Wilson used the following elegant prose in expressing the principle of judicial review: Whoever considers, in a combined and comprehensive view, the general texture of the Constitution, will be satisfied, that the people of the United States intended to form themselves into a nation for national purposes…(therefore)…we may safely conclude, as the legitimate result of the Constitution, that the state of Georgia is amenable to the jurisdiction of the court.
For over 20 years Wilson was a successful practicing lawyer earning a substantial income, permitting him to engage in an aggressive investment program including vast land speculations. In addition to more traditional investments, he purchased warrants to buy real estate which required regular maintenance payments. Unable to meet these payments he fell seriously into debt. Despite his position on the Supreme Court, he was arrested and imprisoned for two brief periods until his son was able to gather sufficient funds to secure his release.
Early in 1798, while on Federal circuit court business, Wilson arrived at Edenton, North Carolina in a state of acute mental distress. He was taken into the home of James Iredell, a fellow justice of the Supreme Court. Within months he died on August 21, 1798 and was buried nearby at Hayes Plantation. In 1906, under the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt, the remains of Wilson were disinterred from North Carolina and conveyed to Philadelphia. In an elaborate and formal ceremony, Wilson’s casket was carried to Christ Church and buried next to his Pennsylvania colleague, Benjamin Franklin. The ceremony included the appearance and tributes by many dignitaries including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Honorable Melville W. Fuller, Associate Justices White, Holmes and Day, Dean Wiliam Draper Lewis for the University of Pennsylvania, Governor Pennypacker and Andrew Carnegie.
The character, appearance and manner of James Wilson were described by fellow signer Benjamin Rush. He described him as……
An eminent lawyer, an enlightened statesman, a profound and accurate scholar. Mr. Wilson’s personal appearance made his eloquence even more impressive. He stood six feet tall with a large frame and erect bearing, and his fiery energy went into his declamations. Though his voice was not melodious, it was powerful., and his blue eyes gleamed through heavy spectacles rimmed in metal.
Goodrich also described James Wilson by those who knew him, saying:
His appearance was dignified and respectable, and in his manners he was not ungraceful. As a lawyer, he stood at the head of his profession, while he practiced at the Philadelphia bar. He was not less eminent as a judge on the bench. He entered with great readiness into the causes which came before him, and seldom did he fail to throw light on points of law of the most difficult and perplexing character.
In his domestic relations, such was his happy and consistent course, as to secure the respect and affection of his family and friends. Towards all with whom he had intercourse from abroad, he was friendly and hospitable, and within family he was affectionate and indulgent. He was distinguished for great integrity of character, and for an inviolate regard for truth.
Professor L. H. Alexander offered this testimonial to James Wilson in 1907:
Our nation is yet in its infancy and it is probable that a hundred, three hundred, or five hundred years hence, when the perspective of time shall have adjusted the perception, two great figures will loom from the Revolutionary period, the one, Wilson, whose brain conceived and created the nation; the other, Washington who wielded the forces that made it……But however this may be, James Wilson’s fame is secure as the greatest intellectual power dominating the nation at its birth, and his services to our people, his doctrines and governmental theories are destined, in the coming years, more and more to receive popular recognition, for we live in an age of research, and they cannot escape the attention they deserve.
Maynard Garrison, spouse of DSDI descendant, 2008
Contributor and editor, Thornton Calef Lockwood, DSDI member
- Barthelmas, Della Gray, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1997.
- Blatteau, John and Paul Hirshorn, The Illuminated Declaration of Independence, 1976
- Collins, Gene, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 2000
- Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,1982
- Fradin, Dennis B., The Signers, 2000
- Garrison, Maynard, descendant
- Glynn, John, contributor
- Goodrich, Rev. Charles A., Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1856 (Internet ref.: ColonialHall.com, links: Biographies of the Founding Fathers, Biography of Rachael Bird Wilson)
- Gragg, Rod, The Declaration of Independence, 2005
- Lockwood, Thornton, contributor
- Lossing, B.J., Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, 1848
- Malone, Dumas, The Story of the Declaration of Independence, 1954
- The Prudential Insurance Company of America, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, date NS
- Sanderson, Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1823