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James Wilson: A Forgotten Father

by Gerard J. St. John

Winter 2004, Vol. 66, No. 4

On August 21, 1798, a reclusive old man was found dead in his room at Horniblow’s Tavern, in the tiny tidewater town of Edenton, North Carolina. He was gaunt. His clothes were ill fitting and stained. He was a man on the run, a fugitive trying to elude a swarm of creditors. Twice he had been jailed, most recently on the complaint of Pierce Butler, the influential senator from South Carolina. He needed a place to hide, but where? Who could he trust? Stress became depression. Malaria set in, and finally there was a stroke. He looked much older than his fifty-six years. But this man was no derelict. He was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; he was a Philadelphia lawyer; he signed the Declaration of Independence; and he was a key figure in making the Constitution of the United States. He was James Wilson, a “founding father.”

Born in the Scottish Lowlands, Wilson always seemed to be short of money. His parents sacrificed the few possessions they had to finance his education for the ministry. It was a first-rate education that included studies at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. But Wilson was not inclined toward the ministry. Instead, he borrowed money to immigrate to America. In Philadelphia, he found a job teaching at what is now the University of Pennsylvania. The job did not pay very much. Again he borrowed money, this time to pay for the privilege of reading the law in John Dickinson’s law office. Dickinson was a scholar and a patriot, the author of the influential Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer.

Upon his admission to the bar in 1766, Wilson found himself unable to compete with established lawyers for the representation of “Old Philadelphia” clients. He headed west, first to Reading and then to Carlisle, which, at that time, was the outer edge of the untamed frontier. He was a forceful advocate for the rough-and-tumble frontiersmen. As he rode the circuit of courts in Lancaster, Reading and Carlisle, Wilson began to acquire real estate. He borrowed the money necessary to make those purchases. In 1778, Wilson moved back to Philadelphia where he joined with other like-minded property owners to form a commercial bank. The banking enterprise was followed by the acquisition of speculative real estate in New York, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and the western territory. Extensive land holdings along the Lackawaxen River in northeast Pennsylvania, known as “Wilsonville,” were being developed for metalworking and textile industries. It was a vast empire and it gave the impression of immense wealth. But appearances were deceiving. The empire was constructed with borrowed money and it was stretched to the breaking point.

Wilson was a formidable trial lawyer. His courtroom skills were valued by his Carlisle clients. But those self-sufficient frontiersmen were increasingly upset by Wilson’s actions as their representative in the Continental Congress. It was his position in Congress that gave Wilson the opportunity to sign the Declaration of Independence. Wilson labored as a legislator. He was frequently frustrated by the inability of the Confederation to take concerted action and even to pay and equip the soldiers who were fighting a difficult war. Nonetheless, Wilson persisted in his legislative duties, all the while studying governmental theory, searching for a means to improve the machinery of government.

After his return to Philadelphia, the scope of Wilson’s law practice expanded beyond property claims. He now handled admiralty disputes and criminal defense cases, often representing well-to-do Quaker businessmen accused of consorting with the enemy during the British occupation. Wilson’s outspoken dislike for the Articles of Confederation, coupled with his unpopular defense of “traitors,” angered many people. At one point, a group of thirty or more armed militiamen took things into their own hands and attacked Wilson’s house at Third and Walnut streets. Five men were killed and seventeen were wounded in the firefight at the house that Philadelphians would later call “Fort Wilson.”

When he was chosen to be a delegate to the convention that was called to propose improvements to the Articles of Confederation, Wilson’s place in history was assured. Wilson’s long service in the Congress convinced him of the need for a strong central government, capable of raising funds sufficient to support itself. His wide-ranging practice of law convinced him of the need for a strong and independent judiciary, a judiciary that would determine the supreme law of the land. His intellectual study of government gave him a solid foundation for the task. And his experience as a trial lawyer gave him the ability to advocate those objectives in a forceful and effective manner.

The fifty-five delegates who met in Philadelphia in May 1787 brought with them not only their collective wisdom but also their individual weaknesses and self-interests. Prominent among those personal agendas were the power considerations that pitted small states against large states, and sovereign states against a strong national government. The concept of sovereignty demanded that there be only one sovereign, one supreme authority. If sovereignty was vested in the states, then by definition the national government could not be sovereign, and vice versa. The convention nearly ground to a halt on issues of state and federal sovereignty.

Wilson took the lead in resolving this thorny issue. His biographer, Charles Page Smith, concludes that “Wilson did more than any other man in the convention, Madison included, to enunciate the rather novel theory that both state and national government might be supreme within their respective orbits—that sovereignty might indeed be divided.” Wilson’s view was that government arose from the collective will of the people. From that proposition, it followed not only that the people could vest power in both a state and a national government, but also that government at every level should be determined by the will of the people.

Consistent with this basic principle, Wilson forcefully advocated the interests of the people. He was successful in achieving a lower house of Congress that would be elected by the people. On the other hand, he was not able to persuade his fellow delegates to allow the direct election of senators. It was in the self-interest of those delegates that senators be elected by representatives such as themselves. One-hundred-and-twenty-six years later, in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment would be ratified, putting into effect the direct election of senators that Wilson had advocated from the beginning. Wilson was partially successful effecting his proposal that the President be elected by the people rather than by Congress. A compromise was worked out and a system of presidential electors resulted in an indirect election by the people.

Finally, Wilson did succeed in his efforts to establish a strong and independent judiciary, defeating the efforts of those delegates who wanted to make the judiciary subordinate to Congress. The judicial structure of a Supreme Court as the highest authority in the land and the appointment of judges by the President are also ideas championed by Wilson.

In the years following the adoption of the constitution, whenever the delegates were asked to identify the most influential people at the convention, James Wilson was always among those mentioned. Even today, when historians and other scholars identify the most influential delegates of the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson is always among the names—usually listed second only to James Madison. His convention colleague Dr. Benjamin Rush described Wilson’s mind as “one blaze of light.” Nonetheless, as Catherine Drinker Bowen noted in her story of the Constitutional Convention, Miracle at Philadelphia, “Wilson has not been much described by historians.”

Why historians have not much described Wilson is difficult to explain. The breadth of his achievements was matched by few of his contemporaries. In addition to his participation in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention, Wilson took the lead in drafting the Constitution of Pennsylvania in 1790. In December of that year, Wilson began a series of four lectures on law at the College of Philadelphia. Today, the University of Pennsylvania traces the roots of its law school to Wilson’s lectures. Wilson was the fourth person appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States by President George Washington. As a member of the original Supreme Court, Wilson participated in the important cases of first impression upon which the power of the judiciary developed.

Wilson was an outstanding lawyer, an effective advocate. He had a great intellect. He did not hesitate to represent unpopular causes. He accomplished his successes without the benefit of wealth or social contacts. There was, however, much to dislike about James Wilson. A single-minded advocate, he could alienate his opponents to the point of violence. His participation in real estate and business schemes was compulsive—bordering on addiction—and it subjected him to accusations of avarice.

James Wilson was a complex man. Viewed in retrospect, it appears as though Wilson’s life was designed for one very specific purpose. The years of preparation—the advocacy of rugged American frontiersmen, the dreadful hours devoted to an ineffective Continental Congress, the embarrassment of a nation unable to support its patriotic army, the ineffectiveness of the confederated judicial system—it all came together in four short months in 1787, when James Wilson was a driving force of the convention that produced the Constitution of the United States. For that enduring achievement, James Wilson should live in our memory.

In 1798, it was difficult for Wilson to live anywhere. The cold winds of economic depression tore his paper empire to shreds. As he rode the circuits assigned to members of the Supreme Court, Wilson was ever conscious of the possibility of imprisonment. A creditor caught up with him in Burlington, New Jersey, and he was thrown in jail until he could raise the sum of three hundred dollars. Upon his release from the Burlington jail, he traveled south. Judge James Iredell (pronounced “ire-dell”), a colleague on the bench of the Supreme Court, suggested that Wilson might find refuge in Iredell’s hometown of Edenton, North Carolina. Even there, he was discovered and jailed, this time by Pierce Butler who had represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention a decade earlier. Butler held a substantial note that had been co-signed by Wilson. When the end finally came, Judge Iredell saw to it that Wilson was buried in the family burial plot of Iredell’s father-in-law, at Hayes Plantation, on the south side of Queen Anne’s Creek, outside Edenton. Wilson was quickly forgotten.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt sparked renewed interest in Wilson. During the dedication of Pennsylvania’s new capitol building in Harrisburg, Roosevelt singled out James Wilson for special praise. Roosevelt saw in Wilson’s constitutional experience the philosophical roots of his own Progressive Movement. One month after the Harrisburg speech, Wilson’s remains were removed from Hayes Plantation and reinterred at Old Christ Church in Philadelphia. But Roosevelt’s praise also triggered a hostile reaction by opponents of the Roosevelt Administration—mainly big businesses and the corporate lawyers who represented them (the Chancellor of the Bar Association included)—who feared that a surge of interest in Wilson might generate increased public support for Roosevelt’s efforts to regulate private enterprise. Again, James Wilson lapsed into relative obscurity; even the marker on his grave states the wrong date. Ironically, his final resting place is just a short walk from the grave of his creditor, South Carolina’s Pierce Butler.