James Wilson

James Wilson was probably the leading constitutional lawyer among the Founding Fathers. Strongly committed to the cause of nationalism and possessed of an exceptional clarity of vision, he firmly believed that, from a legal perspective, both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution required a philosophical statement justifying the national programs laid out by their authors. His well-informed leadership, especially in legal matters, played a vital role at a critical time in the nation's history.

CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Wilson was born in Scotland, where he attended three universities, but failed to earn a degree. Shortly after arriving in America in 1765, he became a Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and successfully petitioned that institution to grant him an honorary master's degree. He soon decided that the law, rather than the academy, was the shortest route to advancement in America. He studied under John Dickinson, a fellow signer of the Constitution, and established a practice in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1768. Two years later, he moved westward to the Scots-Irish settlement of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his new practice quickly prospered. Land speculation and lecturing on English literature at the College of Philadelphia occupied his remaining time.

Wilson involved himself in Revolutionary politics early and daringly. He was chairman of the Carlisle Committee of Correspondence, the local political organ of the Patriots, in 1774. During this time he completed preparation of Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, which, when circulated both in the Continental Congress and among the public, earned him a reputation as a Patriot leader. In this essay, he became one of the first spokesmen in the colonies to assert that Parliament had no authority within the colonies in any instance. He stated a principle similar to that upon which the later British Commonwealth of Nations would be based: "all the different members of the British empire are distinct States independent of each other but under the same sovereign." He also served as a member of Pennsylvania's provincial assembly (1775).

Wilson took his leadership abilities to the Continental Congress (1774-77), where he served on committees dealing with Indian and military affairs. He was reflecting the cautious attitudes of his constituency when, like his mentor John Dickinson, he voted to postpone, for a three-week period, consideration of Richard Henry Lee's 7 June 1776 motion for independence, an action for which he was strongly criticized, although he subsequently voted for independence and signed the Declaration. About this time Wilson was elected a colonel in the Cumberland County Associators, part of the military organization established by Pennsylvania in the absence of a militia, but he never saw active service.

Wilson's career in the Continental Congress was interrupted the next year by a controversy surrounding the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. Wilson opposed the popular new plan of government on the grounds that its unicameral legislature and its lack of a system of checks and balances would lead to mob rule rather than to ordered government. Because of this opposition, the leaders of the state government removed Wilson from Congress and relieved him of his militia commission. Wilson now took up residence in Annapolis, Maryland (1777-78), but this move only intensified the scandal since he was now charged with abandoning his state. As news of his opposition to the Pennsylvania constitution spread, his popularity continued to wane. In 1779, after he moved back to Pennsylvania, a mob attacked Wilson and a number of conservative state legislators barricaded in Wilson's Philadelphia home. The skirmish that ensued resulted in casualties on both sides. Thereafter, the citizens of Philadelphia dubbed the old house "Fort Wilson."

Wilson's fortunes now took a turn for the better. Because of his reputation as a skillful and knowledgeable lawyer, France selected him as its Advocate General in America (1779-83), a position that required him to advise the new nation's ally on aspects of American law, especially in commercial and maritime matters. Although he was not then a delegate to the Continental Congress, that body recognized his skill as a financier when in 1781 it appointed Wilson director of the Bank of North America, recently founded by Robert Morris to help finance the war effort. With more moderate Patriots once more in power in Pennsylvania, Wilson was again elected to the Continental Congress (1782 and 1785-87). There he became one of the first to promoting strengthening the central government when he urged the states to surrender their western land claims, proposed greater revenue and taxation powers for Congress, and argued for representation in Congress based on free population. These outspoken positions marked him as one of the most farsighted leaders in the new nation.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVEN-TION. Wilson was among the most influential delegates at the Convention. One of eighteenth-century America's foremost political theorists and advocates of democracy, he cooperated with James Madison in promoting popular sovereignty, especially in the election of congressmen, and led the opposition against those delegates who sought to reserve special rights and privileges for the rich and well-born. He considered the election of the national legislature by the people to be "not only the cornerstone, but the foundation of the fabric." Reflecting more than any other delegate what would one day become the mainstream of American political thought, Wilson was practically alone among the Founding Fathers in advocating the direct election of the President as well. He served on the important Committee of Detail and delivered more speeches than anyone at the Convention with the exception of Gouverneur Morris. Duplicating the arguments he advanced while serving in Congress, Wilson became one of the Convention's leading advocates of a strong executive, and, in general, of a powerful federal government. Although he worked unstintingly for this goal, he also recognized the importance of compromise in constructing the new plan of government. After the Convention, he praised his colleagues, saying that "we kept steadily in our View that which appears to us the greatest Interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union . . . . And thus the Constitution which we now present is the result of a Spirit of Amity, and of that mutual Deference and Concession which the Peculiarity of our political Situation rendered indispensible."

CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Wilson's life after the Convention brought both success and failure. He led the ratification struggle in Pennsylvania, which became the second state to approve the Constitution. He also worked to reform the government established under Pennsylvania's 1776 constitution by helping to draft a new constitution (1789-90), and he was chosen as the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia. Wilson also joined the new national government, serving as an associate justice of the Supreme Court (1789-98). At the same time, however, he was speculating in lands in western New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia and promoting a grandiose scheme to recruit European immigrants to settle there. The investments proved ruinous, and Wilson was forced to move, in the last months of his life, to Burlington, New Jersey, to escape debtor's prison.

BIRTH: 14 September 1742, in Carskerdo, near St. Andrews, Scotland
DEATH: 21 August 1798, in Edenton, North Carolina
INTERMENT: Buried on Hayes Plantation near Edenton, North Carolina; reinterred in graveyard of Christ Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


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