Wilson helped launch Penn’s law school with a series of lectures on training American lawyers. George Washington was among the attendees at his opening talk.


And a high card it was. John Adams, no fan of Dickinson’s, praised Wilson as a young man “whose fortitude, rectitude, and abilities too, greatly outshine his master’s.” Two years later, Wilson was elected (by the colonial legislature) to be one of Pennsylvania’s representatives to the second Continental Congress. In the interim, however, American politics had evolved in such a way that he now found himself in the moderate camp, not quite ready to take the step urged by the impatient Adams: a clean break with the mother country. Wilson feared that, unless well prepared for, independence might lead to the dissolution of all government, leaving Americans “instantly in a state of nature.” (It bears pointing out that a state of nature might have meant curtains for Wilson’s burgeoning land empire.) When radicals accused him of disloyalty, his fellow delegates drew up a Defense of Wilson to reassure the populace. On July 4, 1776, Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence; Adams later admitted that the foot-dragging by Wilson and others might actually have been a boon, giving the people time to catch up with their fiery leaders.

The post-Declaration Congress had knotty problems to work on, and Wilson attacked several of these. For example, he threw out a challenge to those small colonies, such as Rhode Island and Delaware, which sought to counter the outsized influence wielded by more populous ones: “I defy the wit of man to invent a possible case or to suggest any one thing on earth which shall be for the interests of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and which shall not be also for the interests of the other states.” (He eventually changed his mind on this point.) Like Adams, Wilson favored a strong central government and opposed the notion that “all sovereign power was in the States separately.” These were among many issues left unresolved, however, while Congress concentrated on waging the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, Wilson had lost support back home. Angered by his opposition to the commonwealth’s new constitution, radicals in the Pennsylvania Assembly unseated him.

Wilson used the respite to refurbish his law practice. It was time to move from provincial Carlisle to Philadelphia, where he found a niche as a defense attorney in treason cases. Although he didn’t get all his clients off, he gained expertise that served him well a decade later, when the subject of treason came up in the national constitutional debates. Arguing that treason trials “have often been the most tremendous Engines of despotic Power or of legislative Tyranny,” Wilson was instrumental in adding the requirement that to prove a charge of treason you must have two witnesses to an overt act.

Among clients represented by Wilson in these years was Benedict Arnold, still loyal and serving as military governor of Philadelphia, who had purchased an American seaman’s claim to prize money resulting from seizure of a British ship. The Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania had awarded the seaman a modest amount, and in his place Arnold was seeking more. The Continental Congress allowed for appeal of state admiralty-court decisions to a board of commissioners, before which Wilson successfully pleaded Arnold’s cause. But Pennsylvania refused to recognize the commissioners’ authority, a timid Congress declined to back up its own creation, and the case became a symbol of governmental impotence under the Articles of Confederation. (A generation later, by which time Wilson was dead and Arnold disgraced, the original seaman finally got the extra money he thought he deserved.)

While out of office, Wilson stayed politically active by advocating the replacement of Pennsylvania’s radically democratic constitution with one that placed more checks on legislative power. For doing so, he became the radicals’ whipping boy. In Philadelphia, they rounded up a militia, which on October 4, 1779, marched to the Wilson house at the corner of Walnut and Third Streets. Rachel and the children took shelter with friends, but Wilson and a band of supporters converted the house into a makeshift fort. There they held off their attackers, though not before a defender was killed by a musket ball and four militiamen died of their wounds. Afterward, Wilson lay low for a while at the estate of a friend. By March of the following year, almost everyone was eager to forget the outburst, and a general pardon was granted.

All the while, Wilson continued to speculate in land. His intentions were not wholly self-serving. He saw himself as a middleman in a process that joined surplus European labor and capital with surplus American acreage, to the benefit of all. He wrote a tract in which he laid out a philosophy of land acquisition and ground rules for getting involved. The most arresting of these is “never to be in want of Money”—advice that Wilson himself couldn’t follow. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate already, in January of 1783 the Pennsylvania legislature returned him to Congress.

Working with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Delegate Wilson took up the subject of taxation. While acknowledging that Americans’ experience under British rule had made them allergic to taxes, he argued necessity: unless Congress could rely on a steady source of general revenue, the Revolution might fail. The issue led to endless wrangling, the states continued to resist Congressional requests for money, and Wilson lamented the “imbecility” of the Articles of Confederation. Amid these frustrations, on April 14, 1786, Rachel died.

For the grieving husband, however, a riveting distraction lay ahead. In May of 1787, when a convention gathered in Philadelphia to recommend a new form of central government, Wilson was there representing Pennsylvania. One of the tasks he took on was minor but poignant. A fellow-delegate, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, could no longer project well enough to be an effective orator. Whenever Franklin had a prepared statement to make during what became known as the Constitutional Convention, Wilson delivered it for him.

Wilson and Madison enjoyed a distinct advantage as the convention got under way. Almost alone among the delegates, they could draw on a deep knowledge of history and political theory to imagine how a federal system, with power divided among the states and the central government, might work. In Miracle at Philadelphia, her classic account of the framing of the Constitution, Catherine Drinker Bowen cites Wilson’s “brilliance” and the “telling” speeches he made. To those who objected that the people would never support a strong central government, he retorted: “Why should a national government be unpopular? Will each citizen enjoy under it less liberty or protection? Will a citizen of Delaware be degraded by becoming a citizen of the United States?” He could also split differences so that the delegates could move on. It was he who proffered the pragmatic, if morally repugnant, solution that ended a standoff between free and slave states: count each slave as three-fifths of a person in determining how many representatives a state is entitled to in the lower house.

Wilson endorsed the Great Compromise that gave representation based on population to one chamber of the bicameral legislature (the House) and equal representation to the other (the Senate) but lost on a related point: he urged direct popular election of senators, but the convention reserved that power to the state legislatures. (Wilson’s posthumous vindication came with the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.) He was named to the five-man Committee of Detail, which compiled the delegates’ many tentative decisions into a single draft suitable for debate. Charles Page Smith sums up Wilson’s Conventional performance this way: “The Constitution was unmistakably a cooperative venture; no one man was responsible for the final result. But Wilson … espoused more of those principles which have since become prominent features of American democracy than any other delegate.”

 


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