|Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States|
October 5, 1789 – August 21, 1798
|Nominated by||George Washington|
|Preceded by||Seat established|
|Succeeded by||Bushrod Washington|
|Born||September 14, 1742|
Carskerdo Farm, Fife, Scotland, Great Britain
|Died||August 21, 1798 (aged 55)|
Edenton, North Carolina, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Rachel Bird (1771–1786)|
Hannah Gray (1793–1798)
|Education||University of St Andrews|
University of Glasgow
University of Edinburgh
James Wilson (September 14, 1742 – August 21, 1798) was an American statesman, politician, legal scholar, and a Founding Father of the United States who served as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1789 to 1798. He was elected twice to the Continental Congress, was a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence, and was a major participant in drafting the United States Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States. In his capacity as first professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, he taught the first course on the new Constitution to President Washington and his Cabinet in 1789 and 1790.
Born near Leven, Fife, Scotland, Wilson immigrated to Philadelphia in 1766 and became a teacher at the College of Philadelphia. After studying law under John Dickinson, he was admitted to the bar and set up a legal practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. He wrote a well-received pamphlet arguing that Parliament's taxation of the Thirteen Colonies was illegitimate because Colonies lacked representation in Parliament. He was elected to the Continental Congress and served as president of the Illinois-Wabash Company, a land speculation venture.
Wilson was a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, where he served on the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution. He was the principal architect of the executive branch and an outspoken supporter of greater popular control of governance, a strong national government, and legislative representation proportional to population. Along with Roger Sherman and Charles Pinckney, he proposed the Three-fifths Compromise, which counted three-fifths of each state's slave population toward that state's total population for the purposes of representation in the United States House of Representatives. While preferring the direct election of the president through a national popular vote, he proposed the use of an electoral college, which formed the basis of the Electoral College ultimately adopted by the convention. After the convention, he campaigned for the ratification of the Constitution, with his "speech in the statehouse yard" reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, and opposed the Bill of Rights. Wilson also played a major role in drafting the 1790 Pennsylvania Constitution.
In 1789, Wilson became one of the first associate justices of the Supreme Court. He also became a professor of law at the College of Philadelphia (which later became the University of Pennsylvania). Wilson suffered financial ruin from the Panic of 1796–1797 and was briefly imprisoned in a debtors' prison on two occasions. He suffered a stroke and died in August 1798, becoming the first U.S. Supreme Court justice to die.
Wilson was born at Carskerdo, near Ceres, Fife, Scotland, on September 14, 1742. He was the fourth of the seven children of Alison Landall and William Wilson, a Presbyterian farming family. He studied at the universities of St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh, but never obtained a degree. While he was a student, he studied Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, including Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith. He also played golf. Imbued with the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in British America in 1765, carrying letters of introduction that enabled him to begin tutoring and then teaching at The Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). He petitioned there for a degree and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts several months later. In 1790, the university awarded him the honorary degree of LL.D.
While tutoring and teaching, Wilson began to study law in the office of John Dickinson. He attained admission to the bar in Philadelphia in 1767 and established a practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. His office was very successful, and he earned a small fortune in a few years. By then he had a small farm near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was handling cases in eight local counties, became a founding trustee of Dickinson College, and was lecturing at The Academy and College of Philadelphia. In 1768 he was elected to membership of the American Philosophical Society, and from 1781–1783 he was the vice president of the society. Wilson's religious beliefs evolved throughout his life and have been the subject of some dispute, as there are writings from various points of his life from which it can be argued that he leaned towards Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, Thomism, or Deism, although it has been deemed likely that he eventually favored some form of Christianity.
On November 5, 1771, he married Rachel Bird, daughter of William Bird and Bridget Hulings; they had six children together: Mary, William, Bird, James, Emily, and Charles. Rachel died in 1786, and in 1793 he married Hannah Gray, daughter of Ellis Gray and Sarah D'Olbear; the marriage produced a son named Henry, who died at age four. After Wilson's death, Hannah married Thomas Bartlett, M.D.
In 1774, Wilson published "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament." In this pamphlet, Wilson argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the American colonies because the colonies had no representation in Parliament. It presented his views that all power derived from the people. Yet, he wrote that the people owed their allegiance to the British king: "A denial of the legislative authority of the British parliament over America is by no means inconsistent with that connexion, which ought to subsist between the mother country and her colonies." Scholars considered his work on par with the seminal works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of the same year. However, it was actually penned in 1768, perhaps the first cogent argument to be formulated against the authority of the Crown. Some scholars see Wilson as a leading revolutionary while others see him as a reluctant, elite revolutionary reacting to the stream of events determined by the radicals on the ground.
In 1775, he was commissioned colonel of the 4th Cumberland County Battalion and rose to the rank of brigadier general of the Pennsylvania State Militia.
As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, Wilson was a firm advocate for independence. Believing it was his duty to follow the wishes of his constituents, Wilson refused to vote until he had caucused his district. Only after he received more feedback did he vote for independence. While serving in the Congress, Wilson was clearly among the leaders in the formation of French policy. "If the positions he held and the frequency with which he appeared on committees concerned with Indian affairs are an index, he was until his departure from Congress in 1777 the most active and influential single delegate in laying down the general outline that governed the relations of Congress with the border tribes."
Wilson also served from June 1776 on the Committee on Spies, along with Adams, Jefferson, John Rutledge, and Robert R. Livingston.
On October 4, 1779, the Fort Wilson Riot began. After the British had abandoned Philadelphia, Wilson successfully defended at trial 23 people from property seizure and exile by the radical government of Pennsylvania. A mob whipped up by liquor and the writings and speeches of Joseph Reed, president of Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council, marched on Congressman Wilson's home at Third and Walnut Streets. Wilson and 35 of his colleagues barricaded themselves in his home, later nicknamed Fort Wilson. In the fighting that ensued, six died, and 17 to 19 were wounded. The city's soldiers, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and Baylor's 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, eventually intervened and rescued Wilson and his colleagues. The rioters were pardoned and released by Reed.
Wilson closely identified with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplied his business interests, and accelerated his land speculation. He became involved with the Illinois-Wabash Company during the War for Independence and was made its president in 1780. He became the company's largest single investor, owning one and a half shares outright and two shares by proxy, totaling over 1,000,000 acres (400,000 ha) of land. Wilson further expanded his land holdings by cofounding the Canna Company with Mark Bird, Robert Lettis Hooper, and William Bingham in order to sell land along the Susquehanna River in New York. Additionally, Wilson individually bought huge quantities of land in Pennsylvania in 1784 and 56,000 acres (23,000 ha) of land in Virginia during the 1780s. To round out his holdings, Wilson, in conjunction with Michael and Bernard Gratz, Levi Hollingsworth, Charles Willing, and Dorsey Pentecost, purchased 321,000 acres (130,000 ha) of land south of the Ohio River.
During the war, Wilson took a position as advocate general for France in America (1779–1783), dealing with commercial and maritime matters, and legally defended Loyalists and their sympathizers. He held this post until his death in 1798.
Main article: Constitutional Convention (United States)
We now see the circle of government, beautiful and complete. By the people, its springs are put in motion originally: By the people, its administration is consummated: At first; at last; their power is predominant and supreme.
One of the most prominent lawyers of his time, Wilson was the most learned of the Framers of the Constitution. He was one of the most prolific speakers at the Constitutional Convention, with James Madison's notes indicating that Wilson spoke 168 times, second only in number to Gouverneur Morris. Like Roger Sherman, Wilson wished the Constitution to make clear that the federal government (like the state governments) had no power to make anything other than gold or silver a tender in payment of debts, formally forbidding the federal government from issuing paper money. Wilson argued in support of greater popular control of governance, a strong national government, and for legislative representation to be proportional to population; he championed the popularly elected House of Representatives, opposed the Senate (and unable to prevent its inclusion, advocated for the direct election of senators), supported a national popular vote for the selection of the president, and argued that the Constitution should be ratified directly by citizens in state conventions rather than by state legislatures. Wilson also advocated for broader suffrage (he was, for instance, one of the few delegates who believed the vote should not be restricted only to property owners) and was one of the few major Founders to articulate a belief in the principle of one man, one vote (that is, the belief that districts should each contain approximately the same number of people so that each person's vote has equal power), which would not become a feature of American constitutional law until Baker v. Carr (1962). As historian Nicholas Pederson puts it:
Wilson, more than any other delegate, consistently advocated placing as much power as was feasible with the people themselves—giving them as direct control as was possible over operation of the federal government's machinery...Wilson alone, who wielded formidable intellect on behalf of democracy throughout the Convention, is a major part of the reason why the Constitution ended up as democratic a document as it did.
While Wilson was an opponent of slavery (despite owning a slave himself) and would forcefully argue that the Constitution laid the foundation for "banishing slavery out of this country", he remained relatively quiet on the issue at the convention, taking only minor steps like objecting to the Fugitive Slave Clause on technical grounds so as to prevent roiling pro-slavery delegates, whose support was needed to ratify the new constitution. Even with his strong opposition to slavery, Wilson proposed the Three-fifths Compromise, which counted three-fifths of each state's slave population toward that state's total population for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, in an effort to placate southern antipathy towards the House of Representatives; as the Convention proceeded, however, he would come to disavow the compromise.
Wilson has been variously called by scholars the "principal architect of the executive branch", "probably the single most important author of Article II", and the man whose "conception of the presidency...was in the final analysis the presidency we got". Using his understanding of civic virtue as defined by the Scottish Enlightenment, Wilson was active in the construction of the presidency's structure, its power, and its manner of selection. He spoke 56 times, calling for a chief executive who would be energetic, independent, and accountable. He was the first to propose a unitary executive (a proposal which initially provoked concern—having only recently won independence from the British Crown, many delegates were concerned vesting executive power in a single individual would lead to monarchy), and was its strongest proponent. Rival proposals included a triumvirate or leaving the composition of the executive to the legislature. Wilson, however, maintained that a single chief executive would provide for greater public accountability than a group and hence protect against tyranny by making it plain who was responsible for executive actions. He also submitted that a singular chief executive was necessary to ensure promptness and consistency and guard against deadlock, which could be essential in times of national emergency. Wilson's unitary executive was ultimately adopted by the Convention.
One of the issues that most divided the Convention was the method of selecting the president, with Wilson observing that the issue had "greatly divided" the Convention and was "in truth the most difficult". For his part, Wilson forthrightly supported the direct election of the president through a national popular vote. He believed that a popular election would make the presidency accountable to the people, and he believed more broadly that direct elections would make each branch of government "as independent as possible of each other, as well as of the states". This proposal, however, received only a tepid response, in part because some delegates wanted the selection of the president to be insulated from the popular will and in part because it would not count southern states' slave populations towards their voting power (which had been the major concern leading to the infamous Three-fifths Compromise). In an attempt to accommodate these objections, Wilson proposed selection by an electoral college, which would divide the states into districts in number proportional to their population, from which voters would choose electors who would in turn cast ballots for the president on their behalf. But this, too, was greeted unenthusiastically.
The proposal that at first received the greatest traction was one that Wilson disliked: selection by the legislature (Wilson had tried to accommodate the desires of these "congressionalists" in his electoral college proposal by including a contingent election, which would hand the selection of the president to Congress if no candidate received a majority of electoral votes). Yet further discussion uncovered consequences of legislative selection that many delegates considered objectionable; in particular, they worried that if the president was allowed to seek a second term (a widely supported notion), then legislative selection would make the president dependent on the legislature for re-eligibility, imperiling the principle of separation of powers.
Deadlocked on the method for selecting the president, the issue was ultimately left to the Committee of Unfinished Parts (also called the Committee of Postponed Parts or the Committee of Eleven), which near the end of the months-long Constitutional Convention was tasked with resolving the remaining unfinished portions of the constitution. It was in this committee that an "eleventh-hour compromise", as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has described it, was struck, which settled on the use of an electoral college very similar to the one Wilson had earlier proposed. The committee constructed a complex structure that, with few alterations, would become the Electoral College. In this system, each state would be awarded a number of electors equal to its number of House Representatives and Senators (this encoded within it the Three-fifths Compromise, boosting the slave states' representation in the Electoral College above their voting populations). Each state's legislature would decide upon the manner in which that state's electors would be chosen, and the electors would cast votes for the presidency. In the case that no presidential candidate received a majority of electoral votes, a contingent election would be triggered, handing the selection of the president to the Senate. After the Committee released their proposal, and at Wilson's urging, the contingent election was shifted from the Senate to the House of Representatives. With this alteration, the Electoral College—embodying a "web of compromises" that functioned as a "consensus second choice, made acceptable, in part, by the remarkably complex details of the electoral process"—was accepted by the Convention.
Wilson believed that the moderate level of class conflict in American society produced a level of sociability and inter-class friendships that could make the presidency the symbolic leader of the entire American people. Wilson did not consider the possibility of bitterly polarized political parties. He saw popular sovereignty as the cement that held America together linking the interests of the people and of the presidential administration. The president should be a man of the people who embodied the national responsibility for the public good and provided transparency or accountability by being a highly visible national leader, as opposed to numerous largely anonymous congressmen.
Wilson's most lasting impact on the country came as a member of the Committee of Detail, which wrote out the first draft of the United States Constitution. He wanted senators and the president to be popularly elected. Along with Madison, he was perhaps the best versed of the framers in the study of political economy. He understood clearly the central problem of dual sovereignty (nation and state) and held a vision of an almost limitless future for the United States. A witness to Wilson's performance during the convention, Dr. Benjamin Rush, called Wilson's mind "one blaze of light." Madison and Wilson far outdistanced the others at the Convention as political theorists, and they were two of the closest allies in both the convention debates and ratification effort afterward.
Though not in agreement with all parts of the final, necessarily compromised Constitution, Wilson stumped hard for its adoption, leading Pennsylvania, at its ratifying convention, to become the second state (behind Delaware) to accept the document.
His October 6, 1787, "speech in the statehouse yard" (delivered in the courtyard behind Independence Hall) has been seen as particularly important in setting the terms of the ratification debate, both locally and nationally. During the debates, it was more influential than The Federalist Papers. It was printed in newspapers, and copies of the speech were distributed by George Washington to generate support for the ratification of the Constitution.
In particular, it focused on the fact that there would be a popularly elected national government for the first time. He distinguished "three simple species of government": monarchy, aristocracy, and "a republic or democracy, where the people at large retain the supreme power, and act either collectively or by representation." During the speech, Wilson also had harsh criticism for the proposed Bill of Rights. Powers over assembly, the press, search and seizure, and others covered in the Bill of Rights were, according to Wilson, not granted in the Enumerated powers so therefore were unnecessary amendments.
Wilson was later instrumental in the redrafting of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, leading the group in favor of a new constitution, and entering into an agreement with William Findley (leader of the Constitutionalist Party) that limited the partisan feeling that had previously characterized Pennsylvanian politics.
After the ratification of the Constitution, Wilson, a learned legal mind, desired to be the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. President Washington, however, ultimately selected John Jay for that position. Instead, on September 24, 1789, Washington nominated Wilson to be an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789, and was sworn into office on October 5, 1789.
Wilson and the other early judges spent most of their time circuit riding, overseeing cases on the circuit courts rather than on the Supreme Court bench. Only nine cases were heard by the court from his appointment in 1789 until his death in 1798. Important among these were Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), which granted federal courts the affirmative power to hear disputes between private citizens and states (this ruling was superseded by the Eleventh Amendment, which conflicted with Wilson's view that states did not enjoy sovereign immunity from suits made by citizens of other states in federal court); Hylton v. United States (1796), which clarified the power of Congress to levy taxes (Wilson concurred with the unanimous majority); and Ware v. Hylton (1796), which held that treaties take precedence over state law under the U.S. Constitution (Wilson concurred with the majority). During Wilson's last two years on the court, he largely abdicated his role on the Supreme Court bench and rode circuit in the South to avoid creditors (he was a notorious speculator of land). He served on the Supreme Court until his death on August 21, 1798.
Wilson became the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia in 1790—only the second at any academic institution in the United States. Wilson mostly ignored the practical matters of legal training; like many of his educated contemporaries, he viewed the academic study of law as a branch of a general cultured education, rather than solely as a prelude to a profession.
Wilson broke off his first course of law lectures in April 1791 to attend to his duties as Supreme Court justice on circuit. He appears to have begun a second-year course in late 1791 or in early 1792 (by which time the College of Philadelphia had been merged into the University of Pennsylvania), but at some unrecorded point the lectures stopped again and were never resumed. They were not published (except for the first) until after his death, in an edition produced by his son, Bird Wilson, in 1804. The University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia officially traces its foundation to Wilson's lectures.
Wilson's final years were marked by financial failures. He assumed heavy debts investing in land that became liabilities with the onset of the Panic of 1796–1797. Of note was the failure in Pennsylvania with Theophilus Cazenove. In debt, Wilson was briefly imprisoned in a debtors' prison in Burlington, New Jersey. His son paid the debt, but Wilson went to North Carolina to escape other creditors. He was again briefly imprisoned but continued his duties on the Federal judicial circuit. In 1798, he suffered a bout of malaria and then died of a stroke at age 55, while visiting a friend in Edenton, North Carolina. He was buried in the Johnston cemetery on Hayes Plantation near Edenton but was reinterred in 1906 at Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia.
In the lectures mentioned above, James Wilson, among the first of American legal philosophers, worked through in more detail some of the thinking suggested in the opinions issuing at that time from the Supreme Court. He felt, in fact, compelled to begin by spending some time in arguing out the justification of the appropriateness of his undertaking a course of lectures. But he assures his students that: "When I deliver my sentiments from this chair, they shall be my honest sentiments: when I deliver them from the bench, they shall be nothing more. In both places I shall make―because I mean to support―the claim to integrity: in neither shall I make―because, in neither, can I support―the claim to infallibility." (First lecture, 1804 Philadelphia ed.)
With this, he raises the most important question of the era: having acted upon revolutionary principles in setting up the new country, "Why should we not teach our children those principles, upon which we ourselves have thought and acted? Ought we to instil into their tender minds a theory, especially if unfounded, which is contradictory to our own practice, built on the most solid foundation? Why should we reduce them to the cruel dilemma of condemning, either those principles which they have been taught to believe, or those persons whom they have been taught to revere?" (First lecture.)
That this is no mere academic question is revealed with a cursory review of any number of early Supreme Court opinions. Perhaps it is best here to quote the opening of Justice Wilson's opinion in Chisholm v. State of Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793), one of the most momentous decisions in American history: "This is a case of uncommon magnitude. One of the parties to it is a State; certainly respectable, claiming to be sovereign. The question to be determined is, whether this State, so respectable, and whose claim soars so high, is amenable to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States? This question, important in itself, will depend on others, more important still; and, may, perhaps, be ultimately resolved into one, no less radical than this: 'do the people of the United States form a Nation?'"
In order to arrive at an answer to this question, one that would provide the foundation for the United States of America, Wilson knew that legal thinkers had to resolve in their minds clearly the question of the difference between "the principles of the constitutions and governments and laws of the United States, and the republics, of which they are formed" and the "constitution and government and laws of England." He made it quite clear that he thought the American items to be "materially better." (First lecture.)
During the dedication of Pennsylvania's new capitol building in Harrisburg, Roosevelt singled out James Wilson for special praise ... One month after the Harrisburg speech, Wilson's remains were removed from Hayes Plantation and reinterred at Old Christ Church