James Wilson. Engraving.
University of St. Andrews.
Engraved by J. B. Longaere from a miniature in possession of Mrs. Hollingsworth.
Portrait Painting of James Wilson.
His parents aspired him to become a clergyman. To this end they sent him to a local parish school and, when he was 14 years of age, to the University of St. Andrews, which he attended with the help of a scholarship. In his fifth year at the university, he transferred to divinity school. But when his father died shortly thereafter, Mr. Wilson abandoned both his university studies and his plans for entering the ministry. He found work as a tutor and studied briefly to become an accountant, but he finally determined to cast his future with the New World.
In 1765 James Wilson arrived in Pennsylvania, where he had relatives, and found work as a tutor at the College of Philadelphia, later to become the University of Pennsylvania. Within a short time Mr. Wilson established his own legal practice in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. After a few years he transported his growing practice to Carlisle and eventually to Philadelphia in 1778.
On the eve of the Revolution, he served as a delegate from Carlisle to the Pennsylvania provincial convention, and by 1775 he had been named a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress. He took part in the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. He dabbled in a variety of ventures, he gravitated most to land speculation and became quite wealthy in short order. By 1778 he had moved to Philadelphia, where even more fertile business and law practice connections presented themselves. Though his principles made him a democrat of the first order, his legal and business associations branded hint the friend of wealth and privilege. Mr. Wilson served as a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and among its august body he played a principal role, overshadowed only by James Madison in the importance of his contribution to the Constitution’s framing.
In 1789, after leading the drive to ratify the Constitution in Pennsylvania, James Wilson proposed himself to President George Washington to become the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Wilson was confirmed to this position and took the oath of office in October 1789. The official life of a Supreme Court justice finds its record chiefly in judicial opinions crafted by that justice. It is therefore not surprising that few opinions mark James Wilson’s relatively undistinguished tenure. A single modern Supreme Court opinion sometimes spans more than 100 printed pages; Justice Wilson’s entire corpus of opinions consumes only a fraction of that, barely 20 pages of printed text. His concurring opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) represents perhaps his most significant judicial craftsmanship. When a citizen of South Carolina brought suit against the state of Georgia for a debt, the resulting case presented the Court with the controversial issue of whether a state could be sued in federal court by the citizens of another state.
By 1797 Mr. Wilson’s business and real estate speculations had begun to collapse into judgments against him, forcing the justice to flee from creditors even as his work as a justice frequently required him to ride circuit, deciding mostly trivial cases. He could not elude all his creditors, however, and he was eventually arrested in Burlington, New Jersey, and jailed until his son was able to post bail. James Wilson then escaped to Edenton, North Carolina, but he was discovered there and arrested again for failure to pay a $197,000 debt. His son rescued him again.
(Wilson penned another influential pamphlet, titled Consid...)
James Wilson became active politically as a Whig, and campaigned for William Henry Harrison in 1840. Mr. Wilson championed the principle of separation of powers, a political doctrine that would undergird crucial aspects of the new' nation’s formation. His political philosophy was based upon implicit confidence in the people, and he strove for such provisions as he thought would best guarantee a government by the people.
James Wilson and other Pennsylvania delegates at first were cool to the idea of separation from Britain, but eventually he, at least, sided with the revolutionaries and signed the Declaration of Independence. Through his defense of the Bank of North America, Mr. Wilson proved himself a vigorous advocate of a strong national authority. This position cast him at the forefront of the movement that would eventually replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution of the United States.
Mr. Wilson’s view of the matter, though consistent with those of every other justice save James Iredell, proved not so consistent with the views of most Americans. Opponents of the result were many, and they effectively mustered the political will necessary to amend the Constitution to override the result in Chisholm. The Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1798, repudiated Chisholm and converted James Wilson’s most careful writing into a minor tributary of historical curiosity.
Wilson was an extremely outspoken and active individual who never feared to express what he felt. He was a well-educated person, one of the most learned among the Founding Fathers of the U.S.
In 1771 Mr. Wilson married Rachel Bird, whose father had built the Hay Creek ironworks. His wife gave birth to six children: Mary, William, Bird, James, Emily and Charles. In 1786 she died. James Wilson married again in 1793, this time to 19-year-old Hannah Gray, who was 32 years his junior. The marriage produced a son named Henry, who died at age three. Mrs. Gray would accompany him for the remaining years of his life, which proved to be numbered.