James Wilson was born September 14, 1742 near St. Andrews, Scotland. He was educated at the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, initially studying to become a Presbyterian minister. However, in his last year of divinity school, Wilson’s father died and young Wilson soon rejected the seminary and went to Edinburgh to study bookkeeping. He saw little future in Scotland and emigrated to America in 1765 and remained for some time in New York city. Early the next year, he accepted a position as Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania) but almost immediately abandoned it to study law under John Dickinson, Philadelphia’s leading lawyer at that time.
In 1768, the year after his admission to the Philadelphia bar, Wilson set up practice at Reading, Pa. Finally, two years later, he moved to the Scotch-Irish settlement of Carlisle, and in 1771 he married Rachel Bird. Wilson built a successful law practice and built an impressive estate. He specialized in land law and developed a broad clientele. On borrowed capital, he also began to speculate in land.
From the beginning, Wilson became involved in Revolutionary politics, contributing many essays to the controversy. In 1774 he took over chairmanship of the Carlisle committee of correspondence, attended the first provincial assembly, and completed his essay: Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. One of its paragraphs read in part: “All men are by nature, equal and free. No one has a right to any authority over another without his consent…The consequence is, that the happiness of the society is the first law of every government.” The essay circulated widely in England and America and established him as a Whig leader.
In 1774 Wilson attended a provincial meeting, as a representative of Carlisle, and was elected a member of the local Committee of Correspondence. He wrote a pamphlet titled “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” In it, he argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the colonies. It was published, and later found its way to the Continental Congress, where it was widely read and commented on. In 1775, Wilson was elected to both the provincial assembly and the Continental Congress, where he sat mainly on military and Indian affairs committees. He was elected to the Continental Congress, where he assumed a position with the most radical members-a demand for separation from Britain. James Wilson’s powers of oration, the passion of his delivery and the logic he employed in debate, were commented on favorably by many members of the Congress. He was, however, in a bind. Pennsylvania was divided on the issue of separation, and Wilson refused to vote against the will of his constituents. Many members felt that it was hypocritical to have argued so forcefully and so long for Independence, only to vote against it when the occasion came. Wilson, with the support of three other members who were sympathetic to his position, managed a delay of three weeks, so that he could consult with people back home. When the vote came, he was able to affirm Pennsylvania’s wish for Independence. Wilson took an important part in the discussion of military and commercial questions, and opposed the views of southern delegates on questions of slavery and taxation. When hostilities began, Wilson was chosen colonel of a battalion of militia that was raised in Cumberland county, with which he took part in the New Jersey campaign of 1776.
Conflict and Controversy
Wilson’s strenuous opposition to the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, led to his removal from Congress the following year. He moved to Annapolis, Maryland for a year and practiced law during the winter of 1777-78 and then took up residence in Philadelphia.
Wilson closely identified with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplying his business interests, and accelerating his land speculation. He took a position as Advocate General for France in America (1779-83), dealing with commercial and maritime matters. Wilson made himself obnoxious to the democracy by denying the right of the town council to regulate the price of food, opposing the more liberal provisions of the constitution and he legally defended Loyalists and their sympathizers.
In the fall of 1779, during a period of inflation and food shortages, a mob which included many militiamen, set out to attack the conservative leadership. Wilson was a prime target. He and some 35 of his colleagues barricaded themselves in his home at Third and Walnut Streets, thereafter known as “Fort Wilson.” During a brief skirmish, after many shots were fired, several people on both sides were killed or wounded and Wilson and his friends were rescued by the city troops. In 1782, by which time the conservatives had regained some of their power, Wilson was reelected to Congress, and he also served in the period 1785-87.
Wilson reached the apex of his career in the Constitutional Convention (1787), where his influence was probably second only to that of Madison. Rarely missing a session, he sat on the Committee of Detail and in many other ways applied his excellent knowledge of political theory to convention problems. Over six foot tall, imposing and bespectacled, Wilson was one of the early congresses greatest orators.
For his services, in 1789 President Washington named him as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, though Wilson expected to be appointed Chief Justice. He was chosen that same year as the first law professor at the College of Philadelphia. In 1793, as a widower with six children, he remarried to Hannah Gray; their one son died in infancy.
Wilson’s final years were marked by failure. He assumed heavy debts investing in land that became real liabilities with the onset of the Panic of 1796-1797. 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