We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  James Wilson (1742–1798), by Jean Pierre Henri Elouis, c.1792 James Wilson (1742–1798), by Jean Pierre Henri Elouis, c.1792
Wilson, James (1742–1798), revolutionary politician in America and jurist in the United States, was born on 14 September 1742 at Carskerdo, near Ceres, in Fife, the fourth of seven children of William Wilson (d. 1762), a modest farmer and an outspoken elder of the Church of Scotland, and his wife, Alison, née Lansdale.

Education and legal training

Both parents, about whom few details are known, showed keen interest in the education of their bright eldest son. James, or Jamie, was enrolled at an early age in the Cupar grammar school, from which he proceeded with a bursary to the University of St Andrews, first as an arts student for four years in the college of St Salvator, and then as a divinity student at St Mary's, the theological college of the university, from 1761 to 1762. It has been variously said, but without sustaining evidence, that Wilson was thereafter briefly a university student at Glasgow and Edinburgh (Hall, 8–9). In any case, it was at St Andrews that he was initially fired with a lifelong interest in the ideas of many of the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment. However, after only one year at St Mary's the financial exigencies of the Wilson family, upon William's death in 1762, forced James to abandon his planned career in the ministry. He now became a private tutor to a local family and then, briefly in 1765 in Edinburgh, a student of bookkeeping and merchant accounting.

As an ambitious ‘lad o' parts’ faced with limited career prospects in Scotland, Wilson, with his mother's reluctant blessing, emigrated to America in 1765. He settled in Philadelphia, where he soon became an instructor at the College of Philadelphia, which in 1766 awarded him an honorary master's degree ‘in consideration of his merit and his having had a regular education in the universities of Scotland’ (Seed, 4). However, in the summer of 1766 he again changed course and began an apprenticeship in law under the illustrious Philadelphia lawyer and civic leader John Dickinson, who had spent three years studying at the Middle Temple. As Wilson's commonplace books indicate, Dickinson guided Wilson in assiduous study of technical legal craft and of the historic jurists of Britain and the continent. This legal training, liberally supplemented with Wilson's (and Dickinson's own) reading in many of the major intellectual currents of the day, set Wilson on a career in law and public service that earned him the respect of many American contemporaries as one of their foremost legal and political thinkers.

Wilson's breadth of mind, not least its transatlantic orientation, showed in his first publications. These were a series of ‘polite’ essays, in the Addisonian style, written by Wilson, together with his Philadelphia friend, the Anglican divinity student William White, and published in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser, from 25 January to 9 May 1768. Written under the pseudonym the Visitant, the sixteen essays range over topics from the quotidian to the philosophical. Most important, in the light of Wilson's subsequent public career, these studies evince the rudiments of a distinctive social theory that came to mark Wilson as one of the most ‘visionary’ of the American founders (Conrad, ‘Metaphor and imagination’, 8, 68). After less than a year of law apprenticeship in Philadelphia, the ever-ambitious Wilson moved on to the greater career opportunities afforded him in western Pennsylvania—first to Reading in 1767, then in 1769 or 1770 to Carlisle. While still living at Reading he had met—and on 5 November 1771 he married—his first wife, Rachel Bird (1746/7–1786), with whom he had six children. In Carlisle he soon became a successful and admired lawyer.

Early political career

In July 1774 Wilson also entered politics, when he was elected chairman of Carlisle's proto-revolutionary committee of correspondence and then became one of its delegates to the Pennsylvania provincial convention. This was the first step in a (somewhat fitful) journey to national public office and renown. Later in the summer of 1774 Wilson published his first political pamphlet—substantially written some six years earlier, but withheld from print largely, he said, for reasons of political prudence. This was his ‘Considerations on the nature and extent of the legislative authority of the British parliament’ (Works, 2.721–46). Here Wilson argued against the British parliament's legislative authority over the American colonies. This was a view shared privately by Benjamin Franklin, and was also voiced publicly in 1774 by both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; but Wilson's argument for this view was at the time the most forceful in propounding a plan of imperial relations that anticipated the institution of the British Commonwealth system in the nineteenth century.

In 1775 Wilson's political career intensified: he was elected in January to another Pennsylvania provincial convention and in May he was elected, and in November re-elected, to the second continental congress, in which his intellectual and administrative talents came to be increasingly remarked on by other colonial leaders then rising to fame. As a delegate who in June 1776 insisted that he was effectively constrained by the Pennsylvania assembly from casting his lot openly for American independence, Wilson incurred considerable notoriety for delaying his express support for such a momentous decision. However, eventually professing himself satisfied that he had been freed from the assembly's original instruction, he voted for independence, and signed the congress's declaration of 4 July 1776.

None the less Wilson reinforced his reputation for conservatism when he began publicly opposing the populist constitution of the new commonwealth of Pennsylvania (also 1776). The Pennsylvania Journal of 14 May 1777 included an article, published under the pseudonym Addison, that was widely ascribed to Wilson, in which the author heralded a vigorous propaganda campaign to replace this first Pennsylvania constitution. In any event, Wilson soon openly took a lead in the cause; and as a result of his increasing reputation as a talented but controversial public servant, he was repeatedly in and out of congress during 1777. In the following year he moved back to Philadelphia, where he conspicuously undertook the unpopular courtroom defence of several tory Quaker merchants on trial for treason. At an ensuing climactic moment of popular unrest in the city, his own house, at the corner of Walnut and Third streets, became the target of a violent riot, on 4 October 1779. Six lives were lost in what became known as the attack on ‘Fort Wilson’. Wilson himself fled the city for a time.

While thereafter in virtual political exile, Wilson continued to pursue his private business interests, speculating ever more in vast land purchases, and advocating improvements in the finance sector of the new republic's nascent capitalist economy. An apparently compulsive investor allied with sundry monied interests throughout America, he distinctively endorsed the ideas for centralized credit espoused by the Scottish Jacobite Sir James Steuart. Wilson became a memorable apologist for the establishment of a central banking system, notably in his pamphlet ‘Considerations on the Bank of North America’ (1785) (Works, 2.824–47). His business ties also included service from 1779 to 1783 as American advocate-general for France. Wilson returned to political office in 1783, when he was reappointed to congress, only to leave in the same year, frustrated that the weak national legislature was so ineffective. Reappointed again in 1785, he left again, for the same reason, and for good, early in 1787.

Framer of the constitution

Nevertheless, an opportunity for truly historic public service came at last when Wilson secured election as a delegate to the federal convention in Philadelphia in 1787. There, in his efforts to shape the constitution ultimately promulgated in September, Wilson proved of nearly unsurpassed importance. According to the pre-eminent modern editor of the surviving records of the debates at the convention:
Second to [James] Madison and almost on a par with him was James Wilson. In some respects he was Madison's intellectual superior … He appreciated the importance of laying the foundations of the new government broad and deep, and he believed that this could only be done by basing it upon the people themselves. This was the principal thing for which he contended at the convention, and with a great measure of success. (Farrand, 197–8)
Sensible of his key role in creating the new constitution, Wilson, of all the delegates at the federal convention, was the first to popularize the case for ratification. On 6 October 1787 he gave his famous ‘State House yard speech’ (McMaster and Stone, 142–50), published within days both in Philadelphia newspapers and separately for national circulation, soon reprinted in thirty-four newspapers in twelve states, and thereafter broadly circulated as a pamphlet. As Bernard Bailyn argues:
in the ‘transient circumstances’ of the time it was not so much the Federalist papers that captured most people's imaginations as James Wilson's speech of October 6, 1787, the most famous, to some the most notorious, federalist statement of the time. (Bailyn, 328)
It was during the national ratification controversy that Wilson came to be widely disparaged in print with nicknames including ‘James, the Caledonian, lieutenant general of the myrmidons of power’ (McMaster and Stone, 631)—such epithets referring not only to the salience of his Scottish origins but also to his ‘aristocratic’ connections. Through his involvement in the ratification debate Wilson had become ‘a familiar figure in Philadelphia—a tall, solid man, thick-muscled, inclining a little to stoutness, with a ruddy complexion, a neat white wig, and thick-lensed glasses’ perceived as ‘“haughty” yet “intrepid, energetic, eloquent, profound, and artful”’, if occasionally given to ‘social lapses or gaucheries’ (Smith, 202). Among persons of influence throughout America he had both vehement enemies and loyal friends.

Wilson's marriage to Rachel Bird had brought enhanced access to the higher ranks of society in Pennsylvania and beyond. And ever since his youthful days in Philadelphia he had, to his social advantage, associated so closely with the city's Episcopalian élite that some of his contemporaries took—or rather, as most recent scholars believe, mistook—him to have converted formally from the Presbyterianism of his upbringing. With his tireless cultivation of a network of professional, financial, political, social, and intellectual connections, his ties to influence multiplied and deepened. For several years after Rachel died, at age thirty-nine, on 14 April 1786, Wilson remained single. But on 19 September 1793 he married Hannah Gray (d. 1807), from a distinguished Boston family and some thirty years his junior. His seventh child, Henry, was born in 1796.

Jurist and decline

Wilson's leadership of the successful ratification campaign in 1787 in the ‘all-important’ state of Pennsylvania was ‘a personal triumph’ (Smith, 279). And when national ratification of the constitution came at last in the summer of 1788, Wilson relished the official recognition of his leadership when he was chosen for the honour of capping the public celebration in Philadelphia by giving the city's fourth of July oration. In late 1789 and early 1790 Wilson was the chief protagonist, both publicly and behind the scenes, in a renewed drive, successful at last, to replace the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. That new constitution, finally framed and ratified in 1790, was a document so largely of Wilson's devising that it embodied even more of his dearest tenets of American republicanism than did the federal constitution. Wilson's ambitions as an architect of government were, however, at times overweening. In 1791 he proposed to the speaker of the Pennsylvania House that he be given a subvention to compose, single-handedly and according to an outline he submitted, a comprehensive digest of the laws of Pennsylvania. In the same year he also submitted to President George Washington a proposal for a still grander project, a digest of the laws of the United States. Both proposals were rebuffed.

Nevertheless, Wilson was more fortunate with another plan: his proposal for an extensive series of lectures to make up the first law course in the College of Philadelphia. Appointed by his fellow college trustees as professor of law, Wilson gave his inaugural lecture on 15 December 1790. It proved not only a ceremonial academic event but also something of a state occasion, attended by most of the dignitaries of the Pennsylvania and national governments, most notably George and Martha Washington. The moment might well seem the climax of Wilson's public life. He eventually delivered many but not all of the lectures he composed for his course; they were published, substantially as written, in the posthumous collection of his principal writings edited by his son Bird: The Works of the Honorable James Wilson, L.L.D., (3 vols., 1804). Today these lectures stand as Wilson's summa, something of a classic of American jurisprudence, the most elaborate work of legal theory by a late eighteenth-century American ‘founder’. Moreover, in the capaciousness of their avowedly philosophical vision for American government, law, and society, the lectures, according to their modern editor, constitute Wilson's ‘pretension to challenge the renown of the Federalist Papers, but extending to a far wider terrain’ (Works, 1.90).

The ultimate phase of Wilson's career as a jurist proved an anticlimax, however. Although in 1789 he had been appointed and confirmed an associate justice of the first United States supreme court, he had failed to convince Washington to appoint him as the first chief justice. And Wilson was conspicuously passed over again for this office several times, in 1795 and 1796. During his years on the court, he took—or was presented with—few opportunities to leave a lasting mark. He wrote fewer than two dozen judicial opinions, totalling little more than twenty pages in the official Reports. Only one of these—Wilson's elaborately erudite and philosophical opinion in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419 (1793)—has been widely deemed of lasting significance. There, in addressing a claim of sovereign immunity by the state of Georgia, he presciently articulated a general theory of popular sovereignty that would be embraced in the twentieth century as a fundamental principle of American constitutionalism; it remains the intellectual culmination of his legal career. Thus, according to the prominent commentary, the opinion
contains, either explicitly or impliedly, most of the major ideas that had been ripening in his [Wilson's] mind since the days at St. Andrews. His intellectual debt to Scottish common sense philosophy is suggested by an opening reference to Thomas Reid. (Works, 1.94)
Off the bench Wilson's life grew increasingly vexed. Already in 1793 his burgeoning investments in land and manufacturing were beginning to leave him financially overextended, despite the popular impression that ‘he was immensely wealthy and involved in deals that were to make him even wealthier’ (Smith, 374–5). By the mid-1790s the burden of his ‘riding the circuit’ of lower court proceedings (over which he presided as a justice of the supreme court), with its implications for family life, were added to by renewed threats to his financial situation. By the time of his youngest son's birth in 1796, the war in Europe had brought a calamitous credit squeeze among American speculators, including Wilson who was now pursued by creditors who threatened him with public disgrace and even debtors' prison. By the winter of 1796–7 Wilson was finding for the first time that he could not manage his way out of this parlous financial state. His refuge in the diversion of reading novels shocked his close friend Benjamin Rush, who expressed horror at such a sign of mental deterioration in a man noted for his gravity and intellectual rigour.

In the spring of 1797 Wilson fled Philadelphia but was caught at Burlington, New Jersey, by one of his creditors who had him arrested and gaoled. His son Bird somehow found sufficient money to extricate his father, and Wilson fled south. He made his way to Edenton, North Carolina, where he decided to remain, refusing to return to Philadelphia even for the February term of the supreme court. Once again, in the spring of 1798, he was arrested and gaoled on the instructions of a creditor. Having been discharged for a second time he resumed his life effectively as a fugitive; precipitous mental and physical deterioration further confined him to his dreary rooms in an Edenton tavern.

Although Hannah soon joined and diligently nursed him in Edenton, Wilson continued to decline. In July an attack of malaria left him further debilitated. Even sympathetic friends were lamenting that Wilson could not muster the resolve to resign from the supreme court, despite the prospects of his forced removal by conviction on impeachment. Nor could Wilson bring himself effectively to address his financial catastrophe. On 18 August 1798 he had a stroke, and died, bankrupt and disgraced, three days later at Horniblow tavern, Edenton. At some time between 21 August and 1 September he was buried, in a simple ceremony, in a private family cemetery on the estate of Samuel Johnston, outside the town. His death went unmentioned in the Philadelphia newspapers, and his name fell into a lasting obscurity. This is surprising, given a public career of so many accomplishments and contributions of undisputed historic importance—notwithstanding the personal traits and miscalculations, political controversies and vicissitudes which have always been widely acknowledged to imperil his dream of pre-eminent fame within the pantheon of American founding fathers. Throughout the twentieth century, repeated attempts to rehabilitate his reputation largely failed—even though they were inaugurated by his being reinterred in the cemetery of Christ Church, Philadelphia, on 22 November 1906, after an elaborately august civic ceremony, with Wilson's casket lying in state in Independence Hall.

Stephen Conrad

Sources  

C. P. Smith, James Wilson, founding father, 1742–1798 (1954) · M. D. Hall, The political and legal philosophy of James Wilson, 1742–1798 (1997) · G. Seed, James Wilson (1978) · R. G. McCloskey, ‘James Wilson’, Justices of the United States supreme court, 1789–1979, ed. L. Friedman and F. Israel, 4 vols. (1969), 1.79–96 · The works of James Wilson, ed. R. G. McCloskey, 2 vols. (1967) · J. B. McMaster and F. D. Stone, eds., Pennsylvania and the federal constitution, 1787–1788 (1888) · S. Conrad, ‘Metaphor and imagination in James Wilson's theory of federal union’, Law and Social Inquiry, 13 (1988), 1–70 · M. Farrand, The framing of the constitution of the United States (1913) · S. Conrad, ‘Polite foundation: citizenship and common sense in James Wilson's republican theory’, Supreme court review, ed. P. Kurland and others (1985), 359–88 · B. Bailyn, The ideological origins of the American revolution, enl. edn (1992) · S. Conrad, ‘The rhetorical constitution of civil society at the founding: one lawyer's anxious vision’, Indiana Law Journal, 72 (1997), 335–73

Archives  

Hist. Soc. Penn. |  Hist. Soc. Penn., Dreer collection · Hist. Soc. Penn., Gratz collection · Hist. Soc. Penn., John A. Montgomery collection · Library Company of Philadelphia, Rush MSS


Likenesses  

J. Trumbull, group portrait, oils, 1786–before 1797 (The Declaration of Independence), Yale U. Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn. · J. P. H. Elouis, watercolour on ivory, c.1792, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Museum of Art [see illus.] · portrait, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Museum of Art

Wealth at death  

died insolvent, with estate assets sold in bankruptcy; est. value of assets at death is £186,000, although funds of Wilson's business partner Mark Bird were commingled with these assets: Wilson papers, Hist. Soc. Penn.; Smith, James Wilson, 390