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, immigrated 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.
In 1768, the year after his admission to the Philadelphia bar, Wilson set up practice at Reading, Pennsylvania. 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 1775, Wilson was elected to both the provincial assembly and the Continental Congress, where he sat mainly on military and Indian affairs committees. Surprisingly, and despite his curiosity about the basis of “this power of Parliament over us,” Wilson was not at first in favor of total independence for the colonies. He joined the moderates in Congress voting for a 3-week delay in considering Richard Henry Lee's June 7 resolution for independence. Nevertheless, it was his vote that broke the deadlock of the Pennsylvania delegation. 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. His command took part in the New Jersey campaign of 1776.
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, 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 defending 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, during which 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. He also served from 1785 to 1787.
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 ways applied his excellent knowledge of political theory to convention problems. Over six feet tall, imposing, and bespectacled, Wilson was one of Congress’ 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 married Hannah Gray; their one son died in infancy.
In 1797, to avoid arrest for debt, Wilson moved from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey. The next year, apparently while on federal circuit court business, he arrived at Edenton, North Carolina, in a state of acute mental stress and was taken into the home of James Iredell, a fellow Supreme Court justice. Within a few months, on August 28, 1798, James Wilson died.
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