Founding Fathers - James Wilson

James Wilson

Born: September 14, 1742 (Fife, Scotland)

Died: August 21, 1798 (Edenton, North Carolina)

My mom is currently on vacation in Scotland, so I thought this week would be a fun time to delve into the history of one of our Scottish-born Founding Fathers.  Born on a farm near St. Andrews, Scotland, James Wilson was the son of William and Aleson Wilson, who seemingly had a solid reputation but were certainly not financially well-off.  Young James was a bright student who received a scholarship to the nearby University of St. Andrews, and later also took classes at Glasgow and Edinburgh, but never completed a degree due to the passing of his father in 1763 and the need to help support several members of his family.  Before long he had helped stabilize their financial situation and, having studied many of the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment, he abandoned his plans to join the clergy and choose to travel to the American colonies to pursue mathematics and law.  James emigrated in 1765 and landed in Philadelphia, and soon began an apprenticeship there under the prestigious lawyer John Dickinson.  Within two years he was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, and four years later he married Rachel Bird, with whom he would have six children.

Arriving in Pennsylvania when he did, James Wilson quickly became aware of the political friction between the colonies and the British government.  The Stamp Act had just been passed, which he discovered affected his daily activities as he taught at the College of Philadelphia, developed a very successful law practice, and began speculating in land.  In 1768 Wilson was admitted to the American Philosophical Society and began to study the relationship between a legislative body like Parliament and the unrepresented population that it intended to govern, determining that there could be no authority in their laws.  Although he conceded that the subjects of the Crown owed their loyalty and obedience to the Sovereign, he also showed that they had not been granted the same rights and freedoms as other British subjects.  When he published his conclusions in 1774, he made a point of distributing the resulting document to members of the First Continental Congress, which had gathered in Philadelphia.  Interestingly, one of the delegates was his former legal mentor, John Dickinson, who argued that Parliament did not have the right to levy taxes without colonial consent but was nevertheless opposed to fully breaking ties with England.

In 1775 James Wilson was elected to the Second Continental Congress as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation, which was still divided on the issue of independence.  When an initial vote was inconclusive, Wilson joined several other leaders on both sides of the debate in securing a three-week recess so that the matter could be discussed and the will of the constituents determined.  After the majority determined that Pennsylvania would vote for the resolution, the dissenting members of the delegation excused themselves from proceedings so that the vote would be unanimous.  Once the idea of forming a new nation was established, Wilson was heavily involved in helping form the documents that would shape it.  He was strongly opposed to the Pennsylvania state convention and also argued that the original Articles of Confederation should allow for free men to make decisions, rather than agreements between states.  Wilson also sought avenues to improve his personal station, gambling heavily with borrowed funds in speculative deals while also accepting any political appointment that was offered.  His legal practice shifted to advise corporate interests and defend wealthy British sympathizers, which proved to be financially lucrative but also gained him an unflattering reputation as a profiteer.  In 1779 he was actually forced to barricade himself and others within his home, dubbed "Fort Wilson", against an angry mob until soldiers were called upon to save him.

Although he had his dissenters, James Wilson continued to serve in many important roles, including as advocate general for France beginning in 1779.  In return for his services on behalf of French subjects King Louis XVI paid Wilson handsomely, but much of the money he received was quickly invested in groups including the Illinois-Wabash Company and the Canna Company, through whom he owned more than a million acres of land.  Wilson also became one of the original directors of the Bank of North America, despite legal challenges that the Articles of Confederation did not allow for national banks.  He was elected to return to Congress in 1782 and, when it came time to resolve the many weaknesses of the federal government, Wilson was selected to represent Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention.  Among his primary contributions were the idea of a single-person executive branch, the Electoral College, a legislative house based on popular vote, and the infamous Three Fifths Compromise that allowed three of every five slaves to be counted towards a state's population.  Although he owned a single slave, Wilson argued against the institution and came to detest his compromise that ultimately helped secure passage of the Constitution.  In 1789 he asked George Washington for a position in the federal court system and was named an associate justice to the Supreme Court.  His tenure was exceptionally rocky, as he was frequently absent to manage his many land holdings that soon drove him into debt.  He then tried to evade his creditors but was placed in debtor's prison for a time.  He remarried in 1793 after having been a widower for seven years, but his only child with Hannah Gray did not survive childhood.  By 1798 he was, by all accounts, a broken man.  In a state of mental and physical exhaustion he traveled to North Carolina to visit fellow justice James Iredell where, possibly due to effects from malaria and a stroke, Wilson was bedridden for a number of months before passing away nearly penniless at the age of 55.  The first Supreme Court Justice to pass away was buried at a nearby plantation, but in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt had his remains transferred to Philadelphia and placed alongside Benjamin Franklin.

The signature of James Wilson can be found as the eighth name on the fourth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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