Wilson, James (1742-1798)

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James Wilson (1742-1798)


Supreme court justice

Man of Contradictions. James Wilson was unloved by the people, who thought him a wealthy, anti-democratic aristocrat, yet as a framer of the Constitution he championed the rights of the common man. A preeminent legal scholar, he was three times passed over for appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court. One of the best educated and most energetic men of his time, he spent his last years a debtor, hunted, in his words, like a wild beast by anxious creditors. James Wilsons life was filled with contradictions, but it was, above all else, a life devoted to the law and to the new American republic.

Early Years. Wilson was the product of an era now known as the Scottish Enlightenmenta time when great original thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Reid exercised enormous influence over the development of new theories and approaches to science, medicine, law, and philosophy. Born in Fife-shire, Scotland, on 14 September 1742, the eldest son of poor but deeply pious Calvinist parents, Wilson studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and philosophy at the University of Saint Andrews. He quickly demonstrated an affinity for scholarship. Restless with ambition and confined by the limits of opportunity in Glasgow and Edinburgh, James Wilson left Scotland for America in 1765. He proceeded directly to Americas largest city, Philadelphia, where he found his first job as a Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia. Not content with the modest life of an educator, Wilson looked to the law to satisfy his need for intellectual and monetary enrichment. He studied law under John Dickinson, who himself had studied at one of the Inns of Court in London. In 1767 Wilson began his law practice in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. He quickly established a reputation for hard work and reliable service. Four years later he married Rachel Bird, daughter of a prominent and prosperous ironworks owner. In six years James Wilson had become an established member of Pennsylvania society. He was also at the doorstep of a time of great political and social upheaval as the colonies sought their independence from England.

Patriot. In 1768 Wilson wrote Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, a pamphlet articulating the notion of consent of the governed. Only those who have a say in choosing their rulers, he argued, could be governed by those rulers. The theory of dominion status (the idea of a commonwealth of nations independently governed but with common allegiance to the Crown) emerged from this treatise. In 1775 and 1776 as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, Wilson pushed dominion status as an alternative to independence. Although his view did not prevail, he signed the Declaration of Independence and supported the cause for liberty.

Democracy. Independence enabled Wilson to explore more deeply his notions of democratic government. He believed government was like a pyramid: to reach great heights, it ought to have as broad a basis as possible. For Wilson that foundation was the great mass of common men, the people who would choose both the form of government and its leaders. In 1774 he had written that all men are, by nature, equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it. In an age where royalty ruled supreme across most of the world, and where even in America a self-appointed aristocracy of wealthy and educated men threatened to keep tight control over the reins of government, these were truly revolutionary ideas. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Wilson tried to make these ideas the intellectual framework for the Constitution. He believed that the simplest and surest way to secure popular support for the new government was to offer direct election of leaders. His concept of democratic nationalism led him to advocate popular elections for all members of Congress and for the chief executive. He opposed the electoral college and the election of senators by state legislators. Wilsons contributions to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 are considered second in importance only to those of James Madison. Indeed, Wilsons insistence on a nation based on the consent of the people and not the states would become one of the essential principles of sovereignty in the union.

Lawyer. Wilsons political adventures did not stall the growth of his law practice, which became one of Philadelphias largest and most successful. He gained the ire of patriots by defending the wealthy and Loyalist sympathizers. As his fame grew he was drawn into a life of wealth and comfort. In order to sustain his lifestyle, Wilson embarked on what would become a lifelong pursuit of land speculation and investment schemes. Wilson did not suffer from a small ego: he wrote to George Washington proposing his own appointment as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Put off perhaps by Wilsons reputation for aristocratic leanings and unseemly land speculations, Washington turned instead to John Jay, offering Wilson a seat as associate justice, a position he held from 1789 to 1798.

Law Lectures. In 1790 Wilson was appointed the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia. His lectures given in 1790 and 1791 were the first serious efforts to develop an American legal system based on emerging principles of liberty and democracy. Influenced by the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson and others, Wilson put forward his view of popular rule based on the notion that law arises not from the state but from the consent of the governed. His perspective on popular sovereignty continues to be a foundation of American constitutional law. He held that the desire for liberty could be accommodated with the rule of law as long as that rule emanates from the free and independent exercise of sovereignty and the established custom of the common law. According to Wilson the happiness of the society is the first law of every government. He was truly ahead of his time in his understanding of the need to establish an American legal system based on what in the eighteenth century were bold and innovative ideas. Wilsons only substantial opinion on the Supreme Court came in Chisholm v. Georgia, a 1793 case that enabled him to give full voice to his ideas of sovereignty and nationalism as they applied under the new Constitution. The case presented a fairly simple questionwhether a state could be sued in a federal court by a citizen of another statebut one that raised basic questions of federalism and state sovereignty. In Chisholm v. Georgia Wilson left no doubt that as far as he was concerned, as to the purposes of the Union, Georgia is not a sovereign state. In his opinion the people, not the states, were sovereign. It was an important decision, so much so that it precipitated the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment (1798) establishing the notion of sovereign immunity and, in effect, reversing Wilsons opinion. Aside from marking the high point of his service on the Supreme Court, 1793 marked the occasion of Wilsons marriage to Hannah Gray of Boston. (His first wife, Rachel, had died in 1786).

A Sad End. Wilsons intellectual strength did not prevent him from exercising very bad judgment in his business affairs. His reckless penchant for speculation could not be abated, and his finances fell victim to the economic downturn of the late 1790s. The combination of his duties riding the circuit as an associate justice and providing for Hannah and their infant son, all the while facing continuous harassment and occasional jailings by merciless creditors, proved too much for Wilsons health. He sought refuge in a rundown inn in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1798. That July he caught malaria and several weeks later suffered a stroke. He died on 21 August 1798 a virtual pauper, with only his wife and Associate Justice James Iredell at his side.


Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions (New York: Chelsea House, 1969);

Charles Page Smith, James Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956).

Wilson, James

views updated May 23 2018

Wilson, James

WILSON, JAMES. (1742–1798). Signer, jurist, speculator. Scotland and Pennsylvania. Born in Carskerdo, Scotland, on 14 September 1742, Wilson studied at St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh (1757–1765). While learning accounting in the latter city, Wilson suddenly decided to move to America. He reached Philadelphia in the middle of the Stamp Act crisis and immediately began tutoring Latin at the College of Philadelphia. The following year, 1766, he abandoned teaching to study law under John Dickinson. Admitted to the bar in 1767, he practiced briefly at Reading, Pennsylvania, before moving to the Scots-Irish community of Carlisle and married Rachel Bird. Here he quickly became the leading lawyer and acquired a taste for land speculation. Having also taken an active part in Patriot politics, on 12 July 1774 he became chairman of the local Committee of Correspondence and was elected to the first Provincial Congress.

That same year, 1774, Wilson published Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, which argued that Parliament had no authority of any kind over the colonists and advocated that America become an independent state within the British empire. Even more dramatically, Wilson insisted that legitimate authority derived solely from the people. This pamphlet was widely read, and it immediately marked Wilson as a leading intellectual in the Patriot struggle.

On 3 May 1775 Wilson was elected colonel of the Fourth Battalion of the Cumberland County associators, and served as commissioner and superintendent of Indian affairs for the Middle Department in 1775, although an Indian conference at Pittsburgh was fruitless. Elected to the Continental on 6 May 1775, Wilson was quickly recognized as an able writer, and he was called on to draft a number of papers. Early in 1776 he was directed to craft an address to the people, to prepare them for the idea of independence, but Thomas Paine's Common Sense made Wilson's task unnecessary; it was never published. Although Wilson believed in independence for America, he shared the convictions of conservatives such as John Dickinson, Edward Rutledge, and Robert R. Livingston, that neither the American people nor their government were capable at that time of making this jump. Wilson and James Duane led the opposition against John Adams and Richard Henry Lee in the four-day debate on the preamble to the Congressional resolution in favor of independence (May 1776). "Before we are prepared to build the new house," Wilson asked, "why should we pull down the old one, and expose ourselves to the inclemencies of the season?" After continuing to oppose the Declaration of Independence in the debate of 8 June, Wilson joined Benjamin Franklin and John Morton in voting for it on 2 July, and eventually signed the finished document. Wilson's heated opposition to the new state constitution resulted in his being removed from the Pennsylvania delegation to Congress on 14 September 1777. This ended his congressional career during the war, but he returned to Congress in 1783 and for the period 1785–1787.

Wilson's conservative views and his continued opposition to the state constitution, which he considered too "democratic," made him so unpopular in Philadelphia that he had to spend the winter of 1777–1778 in Annapolis, Maryland. When he returned to the city he had to barricade his house for protection against the mob. Though Wilson supported independence and the war effort, and his wife Rachel raised more money for the troops than anyone else, he allied himself with the state's financial elite, apparently not hiding his desire to become one of them. As a consequence, he was identified with the conservative opposition to the more democratic impulses of the Revolution. Wilson compounded this negative image by defending Loyalists in court. In October 1779 "Fort Wilson" was attacked by a militia force in response to a handbill of 4 October calling on them to "drive off from the city all disaffected persons and those who supported them." Wilson and his friends were rescued by the timely arrival of the First City Troop and President Joseph Reed (the title of president was accorded to the head of the Pennsylvania government at the time).

In the last years of the Revolution, Wilson took part in many speculative schemes, and he became legal adviser to Robert Morris in the formation of the Bank of America in 1780. Wilson borrowed heavily from the bank to finance his other investments, particularly in land. Wilson's postwar congressional career was highlighted by his proposal to erect states in the western lands (9 April 1783) and the major part he played in the adoption of the Constitution. Wilson sought a strong central government that could promote national economic development. He favored proportional representation, opposed slavery, and generally demonstrated a greater commitment to democracy than most of the other delegates. On the other hand, he did not completely trust the people, proposing a powerful President with an absolute veto over all legislation. Ultimately, though, Wilson went along with the Convention and helped craft the final wording of the Constitution, taking an active part in gaining its ratification. Wilson modeled Pennsylvania's state constitution of 1790, which he largely wrote, on the federal constitution. Replacing the democratic constitution of 1776, Wilson's frame of government sought a careful balance between the three branches of government.

Wilson sought the office of chief justice of the United States in 1789, writing to President George Washington to apply for the position. The President was a bit taken aback, but did name him an associate justice on the first court. On 17 August 1789, Wilson was appointed to the chair of law at the College of Philadelphia. Alert to the possibilities of establishing a new system of American jurisprudence, he launched a series of lectures in which he departed from Blackstonian views and contended instead that law was the rule of the individual, "whose obedience the law requires." Blackstone had defined law as the rule of a sovereign superior and maintained that revolution was illegal, whereas Wilson maintained that sovereignty resided in the individual and used this as the basis for legally justifying the American Revolution. Wilson's call for an American common law fell on deaf ears, most American jurists preferring statute and constitutional law as the nation's legal basis.

Wilson's early interest in land speculation continued throughout his life, and ultimately led to his destruction. Having been interested in various western land companies in 1785—he was president of the Illinois and Wabash Company—in 1792 he involved the Holland Land Company in unwise purchases in Pennsylvania and New York, and three years later he bought a large interest in one of the Yazoo companies which were later shown to be involved in a massive land-fraud scheme in Georgia. In 1797 the bubble of speculation burst as Wilson was launching into a grandiose plan for immigration and colonization. That summer he moved to Burlington, New Jersey, to avoid arrest for debt, but he retained his supreme court seat despite talk of impeachment. His mind began to break under the stress of this financial and professional failure. Early in 1798 he moved to the home of a friend in Edenton, North Carolina, and on 21 August he died of what was called a "violent nervous fever."

SEE ALSO Independence.


McCloskey, Robert G., ed. The Works of James Wilson. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Seed, Geoggrey. James Wilson. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1978.

Smith, Page. James Wilson, Founding Father 1742–1798. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

Wilson, James

views updated Jun 08 2018


Lawyer, author, theorist, and justice, James Wilson helped write the U.S. Constitution and served as one of the first justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Wilson emigrated from Scotland in the mid 1760s, studied law, and quickly gained prominence and success in Philadelphia. As a Federalist, Wilson believed in strong central government. This theme pervaded the pamphlets he wrote in the 1770s and 1780s. These

highly influential tracts won him a national reputation. In 1787, he was a leading participant at the Constitutional Convention where the U.S. Constitution was written. Wilson served on the Supreme Court from 1789 to 1798, but the latter years of his life ended in disgrace.

Born on September 14, 1742, near St. Andrews, Scotland, Wilson came from a rural working class background. His quick intelligence took him far from his roots, however. He attended the University of St. Andrews from 1757 to 1759, the University of Glasgow from 1759 to 1763, and the University of Edinburgh from 1763 to 1765. At the age of twenty-three, he set out to make his fortune by emigrating to the American colonies, where he promptly began studying law under one of America's best lawyers, john dickinson. Two years later, in 1767, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.

Over the next two decades, Wilson wrote political pamphlets that brought him national attention and launched his public career. In 1774 he argued that the American colonies should be free from the rule of British lawmakers in his widely read Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. His writing soon led to involvement in the planning for American independence. He represented Pennsylvania at the continental congress from 1775 to 1776, and 1782 to 1783, and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Wilson's most important role came at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where he argued on behalf of key features of the Constitution such as the separation of powers, which divided federal government into three parts, and the sovereignty of the people. A year later he helped persuade Pennsylvania to adopt the Constitution.

In 1789 President george washington considered Wilson for the position of chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a post Wilson desired but never attained. He became an associate justice, and, in the same year, was made the first law professor of the University of Pennsylvania. The few short opinions he wrote for the Court embodied his strong federalism. His most famous opinion was chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L. Ed. 440 (1793), which upheld the right of citizens of one state to sue another state.

Despite the accomplishments of his early life, Wilson remained a minor figure on the

"Laws may be unjust … may be dangerous, may be destructive; and yet not be unconstitutional."
James Wilson

Court. As a result of bad investments he became heavily in debt in the 1790s and was jailed twice before fleeing his creditors. He died on August 21, 1798, in Edenton, North Carolina.

further readings

Conrad, Stephen A. 1989. "James Wilson's 'Assimilation of the Common-Law Mind.'" Northwestern University Law Review 84 (fall).

——. 1984. "Polite Foundation: Citizenship and Common Sense in James Wilson's Republican Theory." Supreme Court Review (annual).

Delahanty, Mary T. 1969. The Integralist Philosophy of James Wilson. New York: Pageant Press.

Hills, Roderick M., Jr. 1989. "The Reconciliation of Law and Liberty in James Wilson." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 12 (summer).

Smith, Page. 1973. James Wilson, Founding Father, 1742–1798. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Wilson, James. 2004. The Works of the Honourable James Wilson. Published Under the Direction of Bird Wilson. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

James Wilson

views updated Jun 11 2018

James Wilson

James Wilson (1742-1798) was a patriot leader during the American Revolution and an influential delegate at the Federal Convention of 1787. He served on the first U.S. Supreme Court.

James Wilson was born on Sept. 14, 1742, on a farm in Fifeshire, Scotland. His family expected him to become a minister, and at 15 he entered St. Andrews University, but a family crisis interrupted his education. He took passage for America in 1765. In Philadelphia, Wilson turned to law studies; admitted to the bar in 1767, within six months he began practicing in Reading, Pa.

Wilson started his patriotic career in 1774 as head of the Carlisle Committee of Correspondence. In his pamphlet Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament (1774) he argued that the colonists, promoting genuine British constitutionalism, were being victimized by a corrupt ministry. He was sent to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Wilson stood as a moderate but surrendered his early caution on July 2, 1776.

For the next decade, Wilson was mainly committed to the law and to his dream of vast wealth. He speculated in bank shares, land warrants, and similar ventures on borrowed capital. These involvements gave a misleading impression of great wealth, which in turn enabled Wilson to borrow more for speculations. In the Continental Congresshe sought a national fiscal policy far sounder than that he personally practiced.

Wilson welcomed the Federal Convention call. He served on the Pennsylvania delegation, was on the powerful Committee of Detail, and was a persistent advocate for the direct election of both Congress and the president. His plan for an electoral college was ultimately accepted. His influence helped carry ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania in 1787.

With the establishment of the national government, Wilson vainly hoped to become chief justice of the Supreme Court but accepted an associate justiceship. On the Court he consistently favored the nationalistic position, and in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) he insisted that states were as liable to a "controlling judiciary" as an individual citizen.

Wilson enjoyed the thrill of speculation but was ultimately unsuccessful at it. His health and his credit began to fail perceptibly. In the winter of 1796/1797, he took flight to escape imprisonment for debt. A defaulted $197,000 debt sent him to jail. He died at Edenton, N.C., on Aug. 21, 1798.

Further Reading

The Works of James Wilson, edited by Robert Green McCloskey (1967), contains a lengthy, thoughtful introduction and analysis of Wilson's main ideas. Selected Political Essays of James Wilson, edited by Randolph G. Adam (1930), also contains an assessment of Wilson's contribution to American political ideas. The best biography of Wilson is Charles Page Smith, James Wilson, Founding Father: 1742-1798 (1956).

Additional Sources

Seed, Geoffrey, James Wilson, Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1978. □

Wilson, James (fl. 18th century)

views updated May 17 2018

Wilson, James (fl. 18th century)

Through the seventeenth century, astrology enjoyed broad support in the West, though it had come under attack by Protestant church leaders and from the same skeptical voices that had taken the lead in denouncing the witchcraft hysteria. In the eighteenth century it suffered greatly from the new scientific worldview and appeared to be on its way to disappearing completely. However, in the early nineteenth century, as part of the general post-scientific occult revival, astrology also experienced a rebirth. At the fountainhead of that revival in the English-speaking world was James Wilson.

Little is known of this astrologer who worked during the early decades of the nineteenth century except that he published what became the seminal work from which modern astrology would develop. The Dictionary of Astrology, a comprehensive new astrology textbook, appeared in 1819. Wilson had made an extensive study of the teachings accumulated by astrologers over the centuries and rejected everything for which he could find no evidence. He paid particular attention to horary astrology, a branch of astrology that assumes that whenever a question is asked, the answer is reflected in the patterns of the planets at that particular moment. The following year Wilson released a new set of astrological tables, the charts of planetary positions needed by the astrologer to construct a horo-scope. Later in the decade he would publish a new edition of Ptolomy's Tetrabiblos, the book from which all Western astrology derives.

Wilson's Dictionary went through several editions and was periodically reprinted throughout the century. It would influence several generations of British astrologers until replaced by the writings of William J. Simmonite and Raphael (Robert Cross Smith ). It was regularly quoted by Luke Broughton, the founder of contemporary American astrology.


Holden, James H., and Robert A. Hughes. Astrological Pioneers of America. Tempe, Ariz.: American Federation of Astrologers, 1988.

McCaffery, Ellen. Astrology: Its History and Influence in the Western World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942.

Wilson, James. Dictionary of Astrology. London: W. Hughes,1819. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969.

. A New and Complete Set of Astrological Tables. London: W. W. Hughes, 1920.

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