James Wilson (Founding Father)

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James Wilson
Wilson, James.jpg
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: September 26, 1789 – August 21, 1798
Nominator George Washington
Predecessor None
Successor Bushrod Washington
Party Federalist
Spouse(s) Rachel Bird
Religion Christian- Episcopalian; Presbyterian[1]

James Wilson (September 14, 1742 – August 21, 1798) was a Founding Father who signed the Declaration of Independence, served twice in the Continental Congress, played a key role at the Constitutional Convention, and served on the original United States Supreme Court.

Early life

James Wilson was born in Carskerdo, Scotland,[2](now Ceres, Fife) on the 14th of September 1742. His parents were William and Alison Landall Wilson.[3] He matriculated at the University of St Andrews in 1757 and was subsequently a student at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1765 he emigrated to America.[4]


Landing at New York in June, he went to Philadelphia in the following year and in 1766-1767 was instructor of Latin in the college of Philadelphia, later the university of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile he studied law in the office of John Dickinson, was admitted to the bar in 1767, removed first to Reading and soon afterward to Carlisle, and rapidly rose to prominence.

In August 1774 he published a pamphlet Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, in which he argued that parliament had no constitutional power to legislate for the colonies; this pamphlet strongly influenced members of the Continental Congress which met in September. Wilson was a delegate to the Pennsylvania provincial convention in January 1775, and he sustained there the right of Massachusetts to resist the change in its charter, declaring that as the force which the British Government was exercising to compel obedience was “force unwarranted by any act of parliament, unsupported by any principle of the common law, unauthorized by any commission from the crown,” resistance was justified by “both the letter and the spirit of the British constitution”; he also, by his speech, led the colonies in shifting the burden of responsibility from parliament or the king's ministers to the king himself.

Continental Congress

In May 1775 Wilson became a member of the Continental Congress. When a declaration of independence was first proposed in that body he expressed the belief that a majority of the people of Pennsylvania were in favour of it, but as the instructions of the delegates from Pennsylvania and some of the other colonies opposed such a declaration, he urged postponement of action for the purpose of giving the constituents in those colonies an opportunity of removing such instructions. When independence was finally declared the unanimity of all the colonies except New York had been obtained.

Wilson had a brief role in the Revolutionary War, having received a commission as colonel in May 1775. Wilson raised a battalion of troops in his county of Cumberland, and for a short time in 1776 he took part in the New Jersey campaign, but his principal labours in 1776 and 1777 were in Congress.

In January 1776 he was appointed a member of a committee to prepare an address to the colonies, and the address was written by him; he served on a similar committee in May 1777, and wrote the address To the Inhabitants of the United States, urging their firm support of the cause of Independence; he drafted the plan of treaty with France together with instructions for negotiating it; he was a member of the Board of War from its establishment in June 1776 until his retirement from Congress in September 1777; from January to September 1777 he was chairman of the Committee on Appeals, to hear and determine appeals from the courts of admiralty in the several states; and he was a member of many other important committees. In September 1777 the political faction in his state which had opposed Independence again came into power, and Wilson was kept out of Congress until the close of the war; he was back again, however, in 1783, and 1785–1786, and, advocating a sound currency, laboured in co-operation with Robert Morris to direct the financial policy of the Confederation.

Law Practice

Soon after leaving Congress in 1777, Wilson removed to Annapolis, Maryland, to practise law, but he returned to Philadelphia in the following year. In 1779 he was commissioned Advocate-General for France, and in this capacity he represented Louis XVI in all claims arising out of the French alliance until the close of the war. In 1781-1782 he was the principal counsel for Pennsylvania in the Wyoming Valley dispute with Connecticut, which was decided in favour of Pennsylvania in December 1782 by an arbitration court appointed by Congress.

Bank of North America

Wilson was closely associated with Robert Morris in organizing the Bank of North America, and in the Act of Congress incorporating it (December 31, 1781) he was made one of the directors. In 1782 the legislature of Pennsylvania granted a charter to this bank, but three years later it passed an act to repeal it. Wilson responded with a famous constitutional argument in which he sustained the constitutionality of the bank on the basis of the implied powers of Congress.

Constitutional Convention

As a constructive statesman Wilson had no superior in the Federal Convention of 1787. He favoured the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial departments, the supremacy of the Federal government over the state governments, and the election of senators as well as representatives by the people, and was opposed to the election of the President or the judges by Congress. 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. When the constitution had been framed Wilson pronounced it “the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world,” and he, at least, among the framers regarded it not as a compact but as an ordinance to be established by the people.

Other members of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Convention were George Clymer, Thomas Fitzsimons, Benjamin Franklin, Jared Ingersoll, Thomas Mifflin, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Morris.

During the struggle for ratification he made a speech before a mass meeting in Philadelphia titled Speech in the State House Yard, which has been characterized as "the ablest single presentation of the whole subject."[5] In the speech, Wilson had harsh criticism for the proposed Bill of Rights. Powers over assembly, the press, search and seizure, and others covered in the Bill of Rights were, according to Wilson, not granted in the Enumerated Powers so therefore were unnecessary amendments.[6][7][8][9]

Pennsylvania Ratification

In the Pennsylvania ratification convention (November 21 to December 15, 1787) he was the constitution's principal defender. Having been appointed professor of law in the university of Pennsylvania in 1790, he delivered at that institution in 1790– 1791 a course of lectures on public and private law; some of these lectures, together with his speeches in the Federal convention, before the mass meeting in Philadelphia, and in the Pennsylvania ratification convention, are among the most valuable commentaries on the constitution. Wilson was a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1789-1790, and a member of the committee which drafted the new constitution.

James Wilson was also the only member of the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention who had a seat at the Federal Convention. He declared the following in his summation at the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention:[10]

As we shall become a nation, I trust that we shall also form a national character; and that this character will be adapted to the principles and genius of our system of government, as yet we possess none – our language, manners, customs, habits, and dress, depend too much upon those of other countries. Every nation in these respects should possess originality, there are not on any part of the globe finer qualities, for forming a national character, than those possessed by the children of America. ... [In addition to a respectable national character,] I think there is strong reason to believe, that America may take the lead in literary improvements and national importance. This is a subject, which I confess, I have spent much pleasing time in considering. That language, sir, which shall become most generally known in the civilized world, will impart great importance over the nation that shall use it. The language of the United States will, in future times, be diffused over a greater extent of country, than any other that we now know. The French, indeed, have made laudable attempts toward establishing an [sic] universal language, but, beyond the boundaries of France, even the French language is not spoken by one in a thousand. Besides, the freedom of our country, the great improvements she has made and will make in the science of government, will induce the patriots and literati of every nation to read and understand our writings on that subject, and hence it is not improbable that she will take the lead in political knowledge.

Supreme Court

Official Supreme Court portrait

In 1789 Washington appointed him an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and in 1793 he wrote the important decision in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, the purport of which was that the people of the United States constituted a sovereign nation and that the United States were not a mere confederacy of sovereign states. He continued to serve as associate justice until his death, near Edenton, North Carolina, on the 28th of August 1798.


Wilson's Works, consisting principally of his law lectures and a few speeches, were published under the direction of his son, Bird Wilson (3 vols., Philadelphia, 1803-1804). A revised edition in two volumes with notes by James D. Andrews was published in Chicago in 1896.


  • "Government, in my humble opinion, should be formed to secure and to enlarge the exercise of natural rights of its members, and every government, which has not this in view, as its principal object, is not a government of the legitimate kind."[11]
  • "Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge."[12]
  • "With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger." - Of the Natural Rights of Individuals, 1790[13]
  • "Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power in the master over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law. Indeed, it is repugnant to the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist in any social system. The reasons, which we sometimes see assigned for the origin and the continuance of slavery, appear, when examined to the bottom, to be built upon a false foundation. In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all."[14]
  • "Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine."[15]
  • "Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other. The divine law, as discovered by reason and the moral sense, forms an essential part of both."[16]


  • Documentary History of the Constitution of the United States of America, vols. i. and iii. (Washington, 1894)
  • J. B. McMaster and F. D. Stone, Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, # (Philadelphia, 1888)
  • L. H. Alexander (ed.), James son (Philadelphia, 908)
  • “James Wilson, Nation-Builder,” by L. H. Alexander, in the Green Bag, vol. 19 (1907)
  • “James w: Patriot, and the Wilson Doctrine," by Alexander, in the North American Review, vol. 183 (1996)
  • Justice J. M. Harlan, “James Wilson and the Formation of the Constitution,” in the American Law Review, vol. 34
  • B. A. Konkle et al. “The James Wilson Memorial,” in the American Law Register, vol. 55 (1907).

See also


External links