Founding Fathers Friday: James Wilson

by Derrick G. Jeter

In the delightful musical 1776, judge James Wilson is portrayed as a kind of bumbling nitwit. The lackey of John Dickinson, the eloquent conservative who fought against independence in hopes of reconciliation with Great Britain, Wilson, is cast as the crucial vote to determine the fate of American independence. In the climatic scene, Wilson turns to Dickinson and says: “I’m the one who’ll be remembered for [voting against independence]. I’m different from you John. I’m different from most the men here. I don’t want to be remembered. I just don’t want the responsibility. . . . If I go with them, I’ll just be one among dozens. No one would ever remember the name of James Wilson. But if I vote with you, I’ll be the man who prevented American independence. I’m sorry, John, I just didn’t bargain for that.”
Well, it’s a dramatic climax in the musical, but it didn’t actually happen that way in reality.
James Wilson was nobody’s lackey. And he was the furthest thing from being a nitwit. Wilson was one of the most educated and accomplished men in Congress. Before immigrating to America, from his native homeland of Scotland, Wilson had studied at three prestigious universities. Arriving in Philadelphia, he did apprentice in the law under the famous John Dickinson, but once he was admitted to the bar, Wilson packed his bags and set up a practice in Reading, and then in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—both of which became quite lucrative.
Wilson was a true intellectual. He often lectured in Philadelphia on literature and the law. In fact, he was the first to argue that Parliament had no constitutional authority over the colonies in America, only the king did. Without colonial representation in Parliament, Wilson argued that that body violated the constitutional of Great Britain by closing the Boston port. These argument won his wide support among the radicals who were looking for cause to break with the mother country, even though Wilson himself was a political moderate.
Elected to Congress in 1775, the six-foot bespectacled Scotsman cut an impressive figure. Benjamin Rush, his fellow delegate from Pennsylvania, called Wilson “a profound and accurate scholar. His mind, while he spoke, was one blaze of light.”
When it came time to debate and vote on independence, Wilson first voted to postpone the Lee resolution. A postponement that, in the end, was advantageous to the radicals. But when the time came to actually voice the yeas and nays, Wilson was a firm yea—along with Benjamin Franklin. (John Morton, by the way, was the critical vote to swing Pennsylvania toward independence. He should have been the one portrayed in 1776.)
After the vote for independence and signing the Declaration, Wilson stumbled politically. The new state of Pennsylvania drew up a new constitution, declaring that power lay in the laps of the citizens. In an unusual move, Wilson attacked the constitution, even though he actually believed that political power rested with the people. His attack became a bur under the saddle of the good folks of Pennsylvania, so the rubbed-raw citizenry yanked Mr. Wilson from Congress and flung him away in 1777.
But Wilson’s attack on the Pennsylvania constitution was hardly the worse of his public sins. Mysteriously, though perhaps motivated by greed, Wilson began defending Tory merchants in court. To have a supposed patriot—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—defending loyalist businessmen was just too much for the patriot mob in Philadelphia. So, when inflation was going through the roof and food supplies were going through the floor in the fall of 1779, a cash-strapped and hungry rabble surrounded Wilson’s swanky Philadelphia townhouse at Third and Walnut Streets, hoping to exact their pound of flesh from the man who enriched himself off their backs. Wilson and some of his cronies barricaded themselves inside and were only rescued by a militia group, but not until some people were killed and injured. Wilson, wisely, left town for awhile. The following spring, the Pennsylvania legislature pardoned everyone involved in what became known as the “Fort Wilson” incident.
Wilson stayed out of the public limelight for a number years, but in 1787 he was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and became a major playing in forming the current U.S. Constitution. Wilson’s influence during the summer of 1787 was so palpable he is often considered to be the second father of the Constitution (James Madison is usually called the father of the Constitution). Some of the ideas put forth by Wilson include: political power emanates from the people and the diffusion of power through checks and balances. Wilson voted in favor of the new national constitution, signed it, and later argued for its adoption by Pennsylvania—which it did, making Pennsylvania the second state to do so. (Delaware was the first.)
After helping draft the new federal constitution, Wilson was then asked to draft a new state constitution for Pennsylvania. It appear that James Wilson had come back from the political wasteland.
With the formation of a United States Supreme Court, Wilson hoped to be nominated as its first chief justice. He was the first justice selected by president George Washington, but only as an associate justice. John Jay became the first chief justice. About the same time that Wilson joined the high court, he also became the first law professor at the College of Philadelphia (later to became a part of the University of Pennsylvania).
It’d be nice to say that James Wilson ended his days well, fondly remembered by his countrymen. Unfortunately, Wilson ended his days a debtor. Like fellow Pennsylvanian and signer Robert Morris, Wilson speculated in land, including tracts in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia—all on borrowed money. Like Morris, Wilson hoped that new immigrants to America would buy at a premium, allowing him to pay his creditors and turn a tidy profit. And like Morris, Wilson discovered that his plan didn’t work out. Wilson owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. So many creditors pursued him, he told a friend he was being “hunted like a wild beast.” Even while sitting on the Supreme Court, Wilson was arrested and thrown into debtor’s prisons, serving time in New Jersey and North Carolina. After his release in North Carolina, in 1798, Wilson visited his friend and fellow jurist, James Iredell. It was then that the mental strain of his debts broke him. Unable to get up from his bed, Wilson died on August 21, 1798, a month shy of his fifty-sixth birthday.
In a biography published in 1848, Wilson is remembered with these glowing sentiments: “As a patriot none was firmer; as a Christian none sincerer; and as a husband, father, neighbor and friend, he was beloved and esteemed in the highest degree.” Perhaps a bit overblown, but clearly James Wilson should be rescued from the nitwit-status popular culture has assigned to him and remembered as a liberty-loving patriot who put his neck on the line when it most counted and gave some of his best brainwork to creating the longest enduring constitution in the history of mankind. And for that, he deserves a hearty huzzah.