In polished form, the new document went to the 13 states for approval. At the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, radicals protested (correctly) that the federal Constitution would undermine the state constitution for which they had fought so hard. Their chief bugbear was Wilson, who led the pro-ratification contingent. In speeches that sometimes lasted for hours, he carefully explained what more conventional minds had a hard time understanding: that sovereignty need not be lodged solely in one place, either giving the central government excessive power or allowing the states to neuter the central government. If, as he was convinced, sovereignty inhered in the people, they could delegate it as they wished, assigning some tasks to the central government and others to the states. The lopsided final vote, 46 in favor of ratification and 23 against, fails to reflect how much effort Wilson put into countering his opponents’ arguments throughout the fall of 1787. Indeed, his powers of persuasion almost cost him dearly. At a post-victory rally in Carlisle, he was knocked to the ground; only the timely intervention of a war veteran, who threw himself on top of Wilson, saved him from a severe beating or worse.

Wilson brashly wrote the incoming president, George Washington, to recommend himself for chief justice of the new Supreme Court. Instead, Washington chose John Jay, naming Wilson as one of the five associate justices. When someone questioned even that lesser appointment in light of Wilson’s reputation as a reckless speculator, Wilson’s fellow-Pennsylvanian Benjamin Rush replied, “But where will you find an American landholder free from embarrassments?”

Ever bustling, the new associate justice helped launch what became Penn Law School with a series of lectures starting in December of 1789. The federal government was then headquartered in Philadelphia, and Wilson gave his opening talk to a stellar audience that included President Washington. Wilson’s subject was how to train American lawyers in a uniquely American brand of law, couched in plain language accessible to any educated person. The following spring, he had to cut his lecture program short and shoulder one of a Supreme Court justice’s duties at the time: hearing cases on the federal circuits. He remarried (his bride, Hannah Gray, was younger than his two eldest children) and became a father for the seventh time. On top of all this, he continued to traffic in land.

Although the Court as a whole had little to do during his tenure, one case, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), raised an issue Wilson cared deeply about: can a state plead sovereign immunity to avoid being sued in federal court by a citizen of another state? The Court said no, and in a concurring opinion Wilson pointed out that a greater issue was at stake: “do the people of the United States form a nation?” To him, of course, the answer was a resounding yes—nation-forming was the goal he’d kept uppermost in mind during the Constitutional Convention.

Chisholm raised enough of a ruckus among states-rights advocates that two years later it was overruled by the Eleventh Amendment. But the grounds for attacking the decision did not include the allegation that some of the justices who made it were compromised by their political pasts. (Indeed, one way to look at the matter is to consider Wilson the ideal interpreter of a document that bore so many of his fingerprints. Besides, many of the ablest American lawyers had played roles in making the Constitution; it would have been a pity—perhaps even foolish—to preclude them all from having a say in how it worked in practice.)



 
In recent decades, the adjective “tragic” has been cheapened by being applied to anything more than usually sad. But the last act of Wilson’s life was tragic in the original Greek sense: betrayed by flaws in his own character, an illustrious man suffers a dreadful fall from grace. In Wilson’s case, the precipitating event was the bursting of the first American land-bubble. His many creditors demanded their money, and by the fall of 1796 Wilson was in desperate straits—so changed, friends noted with dismay, that his powerful mind could find solace only in reading novels!

This was an era in which chronic debtors weren’t just bumblers, but criminals, and Wilson—still a sitting Supreme Court justice—was jailed in Philadelphia. Early in 1797, it happened again, this time in New Jersey. Upon his release, Wilson, who had understandably developed a morbid fear of imprisonment, fled to North Carolina. The slowness of the mails compounded his anxiety. He kept firing off letters to his son Bird, demanding that the young man take this or that step to sort out his father’s chaotic affairs, not realizing that conditions had changed in the meantime or how destitute the Wilson family had become. Back in Philadelphia, there was talk of impeachment. When Hannah went south to join her husband in March of 1798, she found him holed up in a room above a tavern. Haggard, depressed, and confused, he clung to the illusion that if he could just round up some cash, his troubles would be over. In July, he came down with malaria. He was recovering and devising new schemes to get out of debt when he had a stroke. On August 21, at age 56, he died.

Wilson was buried in North Carolina, where disgrace hovered over his grave. Not until 1906 were his remains dug up and re-interred at Christ Church in Philadelphia. His shabby end has long overshadowed his accomplishments, but today, as a people who have just run afoul of another real-estate bubble, we can perhaps be more forgiving.


Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.

 


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