James Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence and was a key architect of the US Constitution, helped found Penn Law School, and served as one of the first justices of the Supreme Court. He was also a reckless land-speculator—jailed more than once for debt—who died a fugitive.
BY DENNIS DRABELLE
Should a judge decide a case involving a law that he or she previously worked on as a legislator? The answer is obvious: of course not. What about a case calling for interpretation of the constitution that the judge had a hand in drafting? Same result, except perhaps all the more so: the judge should disqualify—or, as lawyers say, “recuse”—herself.
But these are modern-day answers. Back at the dawn of the American republic, no one seemed to mind when a man served in the Continental Congress; signed the Declaration of Independence; played a central role in the writing, debating, and selling of the Constitution; took a seat on the brand-new US Supreme Court; and then helped decide cases that clarified provisions of the same Constitution. That man, who also taught Latin and law at an early incarnation of Penn called the College of Philadelphia, was James Wilson. But if eyebrows failed to go up when Justice Wilson interpreted the document to which he had so heavily contributed, the same cannot be said of his off-the-bench addiction to land-speculation. An examination of Wilson’s career—from Founding Father to fugitive from justice—sheds light on both a complex figure and a volatile phase of American history.
Born in 1742 on a farm near St. Andrews, Scotland, young James Wilson was so bright that his parents made sacrifices to send him to school. After preparatory studies that included Latin and Greek, he attended St. Andrews University and its divinity school, St. Mary’s College. He was on track to be a clergyman in the Church of Scotland until the death of his father called for a change of plans. Rather than trudge back to the farm, however, Wilson studied accounting. Supported by loans from his family, he sailed to America in 1765, joining an exodus of promising young Scots with limited prospects in their homeland and small chance of succeeding in England unless they had connections there.
Wilson alighted in Philadelphia, where he put his knowledge of the Classics to work for him by tutoring at the College; he made such a good impression that he was awarded an honorary Master’s Degree. Fired with worldly ambition, however, he quit tutoring to read law with the eminent John Dickinson. In 1767, after only a year of legal studies, Wilson set up practice in Pennsylvania, first in Reading and later in Carlisle. There was plenty of work to be had in sorting out land claims on the frontier, and Wilson was soon investing in real estate himself. He fell into the habit of piling up deals, pledging the anticipated profits from the sale of one tract as a down payment on another, until he was engaged in a perennial juggling act.
He showed enough lawyerly promise, however, to be allowed to court an heiress, Rachel Bird, whose parents presided over their estate, Birdsboro, along the Schuylkill River. After some resistance, Rachel said yes. Marrying in 1771, the couple settled in Carlisle, where they had the first three of their six children. In a surviving portrait, Wilson is posed with his head turned so as to leave space between his eyes and his spectacles—an effect that seems to accentuate the sitter’s reputation for braininess. Charm was not one of his gifts, but in his day he had few rivals for erudition. As an observer at the Constitutional Convention was to note of Wilson, “All the political institutions of the World he knows in detail, and can trace the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Grecian commonwealth down to the present time.”
Wilson shot up to prominence just as American colonists’ long-simmering resentment of British tyranny was coming to a boil. He entered politics in 1774 as a delegate to the Provincial Convention called in response to the Coercive Acts and other Parliamentary insults. Dickinson wrote the convention’s report, which assailed Parliament and urged fellow colonists not to forfeit the liberties they were entitled to as Englishmen. Wilson took a stronger line in an essay he’d been working on for some time, “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” Applying Lockean principles, Wilson argued that Parliament had no authority whatever over the colonies because they had never consented to be governed by that body.
In a flight of rhetoric, Wilson invoked his personal history: “Do those, who embark, freemen, in Great-Britain, disembark, slaves, in America? … Is this the return made us for leaving our friends and our country—for braving the danger of the deep—for planting a wilderness, inhabited only by savage men and savage beasts—for extending the dominion of the British Crown—for increasing the trade of British merchants—for augmenting the rents of the British landlords—for heightening the wages of the British artificers?” Americans owed Britain nothing more than loyalty to the king, Wilson went on; otherwise, they should be left in charge of themselves. In the words of his biographer, Charles Page Smith, Wilson meant this rousing essay to be “his card of entry into the higher circle of colonial leaders.”
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FEATURE: Flawed Founder by Dennis Drabelle
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Photography by Candace diCarlo
Portrait of James Wilson by Albert Rosenthal, 1899, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection