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- This article is about the James Wilson who was a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence and one of the original U.S. Supreme Court justices. For other James Wilsons, see James Wilson (disambiguation)
James Wilson (September 14, 1742–August 21, 1798), a complex and contradictory man, has been largely lost to history. 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 United States Supreme Court in 1789, he was also a brilliant mind short on practical sense, and a man of immense personal ambition but little personal control.
One of seven children, Wilson was born to a Presbyterian farming family in Fife in the Lowlands of Scotland and educated at the University of St. Andrews. Unable to graduate because of his father’s death, he sailed to America in 1765 and quickly became a tutor at the College of Philadelphia . He studied law for a single year in the Philadelphia office of John Dickinson, then established a practice in Reading, Pennsylvania, then in the town of Carlisle.
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 a 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.
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. 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.
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 unifying document.
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 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.
A man whose reach consistently exceeded his grasp, Wilson established a pattern of designing grand projects which he was unable to finish. His proposals to compile digests of all laws of both Pennsylvania and the entire United States came to nothing.
On the one hand, he was an enlightened man well in advance of his time. Though he moved ever rightward politically during his lifetime, Wilson, at least as much as Jefferson, continued to place his hope and trust in the people governed, rather than in those governing.
On the other hand, he seemed to stand outside time and place. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Adams, he was a man without acolytes. His final years were ones of tragedy and humiliation. His land speculation, built on a pyramid of credit-buying and paper transfer, collapsed under a mountain of debt. While a Supreme Court justice, he was arrested for a relatively small debt in Burlington, New Jersey, and imprisoned. After Bird satisfied that debt, Wilson fled to North Carolina hoping to escape his other creditors but was again briefly imprisoned. Following a bout of malaria, he died there of a stroke, destitute, in 1798.
James Wilson appears on the $10,000 Series EE Savings Bond issued by the United States Government.
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