James Wilson was a member of the founding fathers for his signature on the Declaration of Independence; however many do not realize he was relatively new to the America’s, having emigrated from Scotland shortly before the colonies break for independence. During this point in history, many of the founders were generational Americans, meaning they were either born or raised in the colonies. Wilson arrived from Scotland carrying letters of recommendation, which he was able to use to secure a tutoring position at Philadelphia college; this later turned into a professorship, and the college was eventually renamed the University of Pennsylvania (Lossing, 1850).
Wilson’s life is intriguing, because it shows a man with enormous potential who seemed to struggle when it came to finding himself. He attended several Universities, but never graduated or earned a degree. Wilson petitioned for and received an honorary Masters degree from Philadelphia College, where he taught English Literature; he also took up the study of law under John Dickenson and eventually started his own practice where he was able to amass a small fortune (Lossing, 1850). Wilson also dabbled in land speculation; an interest, which would reduce him to poverty later in life.
Wilson’s legal studies and practice of law led to his introduction into Pennsylvania politics. He attended the Provincial convention of Pennsylvania representing Carlisle, and was eventually named to the Committee of Correspondence in Cumberland County. It was during this period where Wilson published a pamphlet titled, “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.”, which he had written several years prior. He argued Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the colonies, widely used to justify the separation between the colonies and the British government. Wilson later become an elected representative in the Continental congress for the state of Pennsylvania, and joined some of the most outspoken members of the Continental congress calling for complete and total separation from British Rule.
Wilson won the respect of many in the Continental congress following his pamphlet, “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.”; however, he was also respected for his oratory ability. There are conflicting historical reports of the veracity of Wilson’s support for Independence. Based on the sources I have researched I believe Wilson was a passionate supporter of independence, even though he was an elected representative of a state who was still not fully convinced to support independence. I think this led to situations where was seen as passionately in favor of independence, yet expected to vote against it when the time came. Wilson decided he could not vote against the will of his constituents, which could be where the historical confusion comes from.
Contributions to American Independence and the New Government.
During the American Revolution, Wilson moved his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and continued his private law practice. He helped support and raise money for the revolution, while also working toward amassing wealth for his family. Wilson also worked with Robert Morris to help secure the charter for The First National Bank.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was split on the issue of Independence. Wilson was able to secure a delay on the vote for the Declaration of Independence, while he attempted to sway Pennsylvania in favor in Independence. Due to this delay and the push Wilson made as an advocate for Independence, Pennsylvania was willing to join an affirmative vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence. Wilson was also the main author of Pennsylvania’s new constitution, arguing for a governor with limited veto power, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary (University of Pennsylvania, 2010).
When the continental congress drafted the articles of confederation, Wilson advocated for several key points to be included; a strong national government, the concept of implied powers, and dual sovereignty of the states and the central government (University of Pennsylvania, 2010). These features were not adopted for the articles of confederation, but helped lay the groundwork for the formation of the United States Constitution.
Wilson offered his legal reasoning skills to the continental congress during the early days of the articles of confederation, when the Constitution of the United States was being formed. His contributions to the constitution are not his only mark on politics during the early days of American government. Wilson almost didn’t participate in the formation of the United States Constitution, as he fell out of favor with constituents in Pennsylvania. Following his opposition to the Pennsylvania constitution, Wilson’s political ideology became aligned with conservatism, which benefited his business interests and allowed him to amass more wealth but it came at the cost of his support among the frontier constituents in Pennsylvania (National Archives, 2010).
This political realignment resulted in his ouster from congress in 1777; although, he was reelected in 1785 when the conservative movement regained power (National Archives, 2010). Wilson’s reelection allowed for his participation in the Constitutional convention. Wilson had the second highest number of speeches given during the Constitutional Convention; however, Wilson’s ambition was not in legislative power, but in the power of the Judiciary. Wilson petitioned George Washington for a spot on the Supreme Court, as Chief Justice. Washington gave the position of Chief Justice to John Jay; however, Wilson was named an associate on the first Supreme Court and participated in the first judicial rulings from the Supreme Court.
One of the most overlooked areas of importance James Wilson played during the founding period of our nation, with respect to the creation of our constitution was the physical creation of the constitution document itself. During this period in history, written constitutions were almost unheard of. Wilson believed a written version of the United States Constitution served two essential functions; it memorialized the primacy of liberty by announcing the authority of government derives only from a free people; furthermore, the written constitution uplifts and refines the character of its citizens and thus helps to constitute a people (Zink, 2009).
Wilson not only served on the initial Supreme Court as an associate justice; he also lectured in Law at the University of Pennsylvania. In a sense, Penn State University has a Law program due directly to the lectures Wilson held during his tenure. Wilson was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1789, but in 1790 he almost single-handedly wrote the new Pennsylvania constitution (Dickenson College, 2010). This shows Wilson was a legal titan, on par with the likes of John Adams, for his legal expertise. He was and remained a strict constitutionalist through the rest of his life. Wilson was not without fault; however, as he frequently indebted himself to the point of being hunted by creditors and even being sent to a debtors prison, while a Supreme Court Justice.
The Importance of James Wilson in our Nations Early Years
Wilson was a nationalist who believed sovereignty was within the people. He supported a strong federal government, but insisted in a separation of powers. Wilson’s nationalistic leanings while he was a member of the Supreme Court are most noticeable in his opinion of Chisholm vs. Georgia 1793. This decision ended the States argument of Sovereign Immunity from suit in the Federal court. Many legal scholars today regard this decision as a pre-cursor to modern day American Legal Jurisprudence.
James Wilson’s understanding of the law, his drafting of the new Pennsylvania constitution and assistance with the creation of the Federal Constitution show impeccable legal credentials. It is for these reasons he was responsible for pushing through the ratification of the Federal constitution by Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania delegates gathered together to discuss the Federal Constitution and Wilson was called upon to argue in favor of ratification. Once again Wilson demonstrated his ability to lead by convincing the other Pennsylvania representatives in congress to ratify the new Constitution. James Wilson can also arguably hold the title of being our nation’s first Constitutional lawyer.
Wilson was a strong believer in a checks and balances system of representative government, in order to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Wilson felt that to leave a government up to the whims of the majority without any sort of check or balance on that power would lead to a mob rule. This legal philosophy is viewed as common sense today, but in the Eighteenth century this was a ground-breaking philosophy.
James Wilson pushed for a stronger central government by urging the states to surrender their western land claims, proposing greater revenue and taxation powers for Congress, and arguing for representation in Congress based on free population (Wright, Jr, & MacGregor, Jr, 1946). I think Wilson understood the need for a strong centralized government; although, unlike most of the founding fathers he believed the people should have control over the election of the president through a direct election, rather than the Electoral College vote. He also was a strong advocate for the election of the legislature by the people, considering it "not only the cornerstone, but the foundation of the fabric." (Wright, Jr, & MacGregor, Jr, 1946).
Many of the legal theories and philosophical revelations Wilson had during this period were foreshadowings of later American legal thought. The size and strength of our federal government, advocated for by Wilson enabled our early nation to defend itself adequately first from French aggression under Adams, through the war of 1812. Had our federal government been less powerful, it is possible these threats would have toppled our fledgling nation; however, through the foresight of men like James Wilson, our nation had the capability of defending itself.
Wilson was a man of compromise who was able to find amicable resolutions in just about any political situation. During his ouster from Pennsylvania politics following 1777 through 1784, Wilson endured scandal which almost ruined his future in American politics. Wilson had opposed the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776, which in turn led the leaders of the Pennsylvania state government to remove him from congress and his commission with the militia. Wilson then moved to Annapolis, Maryland and was subsequently charged with abandoning his state. He moved back to Pennsylvania the following year and was attacked by a mob, having been accused of hoarding food, and supplies. When the ideological winds changed in Pennsylvania to give conservative politicians more power, Wilson was able to once again win election to the congress and begin the process of reshaping the Pennsylvania and Federal Constitutions.
The fact that our system of government stands today; a three branch government of checks and balances, with a directly elected legislature, and strong centralized Federal government with a formidable executive branch, James Wilson’s vision and impact on early American government has withstood the test of time; even his early calls for the scrapping of the electoral college and a direct election of the President are still echoed today. Perhaps modern day, "Strict constructionists", as well as Tea party Republicans who invoke the founding fathers, should pay more attention to the founders who do not share their narrow viewpoints.
Lossing, B.J. (1850). The Pictorial field-book of the revolution. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.
National Archives. (2010, March 8). The Founding fathers: Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_founding_fathers_pennsylvania.html
University of Pennsylvania. (2010). Penn in the 18th Century. University of Pennsylvania archive. Retrieved (2010, March 8) from http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/wilson_jas.html
Wright, Jr, R.K., & MacGregor, Jr, M.J. (1946). Soldier-statesmen of the constitution. Retrieved from http://www.history.army.mil/books/RevWar/ss/wilson.htm
Zink, J. R. , 2009-04-02 "James Wilson on America's Written Constitution" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association 67th Annual National Conference, The Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, IL Online. Retrieved (2010, March 8) from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p363684_index.html