James Wilson Biography
"James Wilson (Pennsylvania) ranks among the foremost in legal and political knowledge. He has joined to a fine genius all that can set him off and show him to advantage. He is well acquainted with Man, and understands all the passions that influence him. Government seems to have been his peculiar Study, 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 Greecian commonwealth down to the present time. No man is more clear, copious, and comprehensive than Mr. Wilson, yet he is no great Orator. He draws the attention not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning. He is about 45 years old." -- Character Sketches of Delegates to the Federal Convention by William Pierce (1787)
James Wilson was a native of Scotland, where he was born about the year 1742. His father was a respectable farmer, who resided in the vicinity of St. Andrews, well known for its university. Though not wealthy, he enjoyed a competency, until at length, a passion for speculation nearly ruined him. James Wilson received an excellent education. He studied successively at Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh. He had the good fortune to enjoy the instruction of the distinguished Dr. Blair, and the not less celebrated Dr. Watts. By the former he was taught rhetoric; by the latter, both rhetoric and logic. Under these eminent men, Mr. Wilson laid the foundation of an impressive eloquence, and a superior and almost irresistible mode of reasoning.
After completing his studies under the superior advantages already named, he resolved to seek in America that independence which he could scarcely hope for in his native country. Accordingly, he left Scotland, and reached Philadelphia early in the year 1766. He was highly recommended to several gentlemen of that city, by one or more of whom he was introduced as a tutor to the Philadelphia college and academy. During the period that he served in this capacity, he enjoyed a reputation of being the best classical scholar who had officiated as tutor in the Latin department of the college.
He continued, however, only a few months to fill the above office, having received an offer, through the assistance of Bishop White and Judge Peters, of entering the law office of Mr. John Dickinson. In this office he continued for the space of two years, applying himself with great ardor to the study of the profession of law. At the expiration of this time, he entered upon the practice, first at Reading, but soon after removed to Carlisle, at which latter place he acquired the reputation of being an eminent counselor previous to the revolution. From Carlisle, Mr. Wilson removed to Annapolis, in Maryland, whence, in 1778, he came to Philadelphia, where he continued to reside for the remainder of his life.
At an early day, Mr. Wilson entered with patriotic zeal into the cause of American liberty. He was an American in principle from the time that he landed on the American shore; and at no period in the revolutionary struggle, did he for a single hour swerve from his attachment to the principles which he had adopted.
Mr. Wilson, who was a member of the provincial convention of Pennsylvania, was proposed as a delegate to the congress of 1774, in conjunction with his former instructor, Mr. Dickinson. Neither, however, was elected, through the influence of the speaker, Mr. Galloway, of whom we have spoken in our introduction, and who afterwards united himself to the British on their taking possession of Philadelphia. In the following year, however, Mr. Wilson was unanimously elected a member of congress, and in that body took his seat on the 10th of May, 1775. In thin distinguished station, he continued until 1777, when, through the influence of party feeling, he was superseded, and another appointed in his stead.
In 1782, however, he was again elected to congress, and took his seat in that body, on the second of January, 1783. A few months previously to his re-election, he was appointed by the president and supreme executive council, a counselor and agent for Pennsylvania, in the great controversy between that state and the state of Connecticut, relating to certain lands within the charter boundary of Pennsylvania. These lands the state of Connecticut claimed as belonging to her, being included within her charter. On the thirtieth of December, 1782, this great question was determined at Trenton, New Jersey, by a court of commissioners appointed for that purpose, who unanimously decided it in favor of Pennsylvania. To the determination of the question in this manner, Mr. Wilson, it is said, greatly contributed, by a luminous and impressive argument, which be delivered before the court, and which occupied several days.
The high estimation in which Mr. Wilson was held, about this time, may be learned from his receiving the appointment of advocate general for the French government, in the United States. His commission bore date the fifth of June, 1779; and at a subsequent date was confirmed, by letters patent from the King of France. The duties of this office were both arduous and delicate. Few men, however, were better qualified for such an office than Mr. Wilson. In 1781, difficulties having arisen as to the manner in which he should be paid for his services, he resigned his commission. He continued, however, to give advice in such cases as were laid before him, by the ministers and consuls of France, until 1783. At which time, the king of France handsomely rewarded him by a gift of ten thousand livres.
The standing of Mr. Wilson, during the whole course of his attendance in congress, was deservedly high. As a man of business, Pennsylvania had, probably, at no time, any one among her delegation who excelled him. He was placed on numerous committees, and in every duty assigned him exhibited great fidelity, industry, and perseverance.
Notwithstanding this high and honorable conduct of Mr. Wilson, and the active exertions which he made in favor of his adopted country, he had enemies, whose slanders he did not escape. It was especially charged against him, that he was opposed to the declaration of independence. This, however, has been amply refuted by gentlemen of the highest standing in the country, who were intimately acquainted with his views and feelings on that important subject. Many who voted for the measure, and who sincerely believed in the ultimate expediency of it, were of the opinion, that it was brought forward prematurely. But when, at length, they found the voice of the nation loudly demanding such a measure, and saw a spirit abroad among the people determined to sustain it, they no longer hesitated to vote in its favor. Mr. Wilson, probably, beloved to this class. Though at first doubtful whether the state of the country would justify such a measure, he at length became satisfied that existing circumstances rendered it necessary; and accordingly it received his vote.
Notwithstanding that a declaration of independence had been spoken of for some time previously to the fourth of July, 1776, no motion was brought forward in congress respecting it, until the 7th of June. This motion was referred the following day to a committee of the whole, but it was postponed until the tenth of June. On the arrival of the tenth of that month, the following resolution was offered:
"That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
The consternation of this resolution was postponed to the first of July, on which day it was expected that the committee which was appointed to draft a declaration, and which consisted of Mr. Jefferson, J. Adams, Dr. Franklin, and R. R. Livingston, would report.
At length, the first of July arrived, when the motion was further discussed, and the question taken in committee of the whole. The declaration received the votes of all the states excepting Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The delegates of the former state were four to three in the opposition; the delegates of the latter, Thomas M'Kean and George Read were divided, the one in favor of the measure, the other opposed to it. The final question was postponed from day to day, until the fourth of July, when it was taken, and an unanimous vote of all the states was obtained. The day was rainy. Of the Pennsylvania delegation, Messrs. Morris and Dickinson were absent, and consequently the vote of Pennsylvania was now in favor of the measure, Messrs. Wilson, Franklin, and Morton, being in favor of it, and Messrs. Humphreys and Willing being opposed to it. Fortunately, at this juncture, Caesar Rodney, a delegate from Delaware, arrived. He had been sent for by an express from Mr. M'Kean, and arrived in time to vote with that gentleman, in opposition to their colleague, George Read.
Thus, an unanimous vote of the thirteen colonies was secured. Thus, a question was decided which deeply agitated the whole American community, and the decision of which was fraught with blessings to the country, which will go down, we trust, to the end of time.
In a preceding paragraph we have intimated that a charge was brought against Mr. Wilson of being opposed to the declaration of independence. Had such been his sentiments, who could have charged him with a want of patriotism? The truth is, there were hundreds, and even thousands, at that day, in America, as strongly attached to the cause, as friendly to her liberties, and as firmly resolved never to surrender the rights which the God of nature had given them, as were those who voted in favor of a declaration of independence, but who yet thought the time had not arrived when the wisest policy dictated such a measure. Mr. Wilson was, indeed, not altogether of this class. He would perhaps not have brought forward the subject at so early a day; but when it was brought forward, he voted in favor of it, on the first of July, even in opposition to the majority of his colleagues; and on the fourth, as it happened, fortunately for the cause of his country, in a majority.
Another charge has also been brought against Mr. Wilson, (viz.) a participation in the combination which was formed against General Washington, towards the close of the year 1777. This conspiracy, if it may be so called, originated in the discontent of many who felt envious at the exalted station which Washington occupied; and was founded, at this time, upon the high military reputation which General Gates had acquired by the capitulation of Saratoga, and the gloomy aspect of affairs in the region where Washington was in particular command. In this combination, it was supposed several members of congress, and a very few officers of the army, were concerned. Among these officers, it is believed, General Gates himself may be included. "He had not only omitted," says Marshall, in his life of Washington, "to communicate to that general the successes of his army, after the victory of the seventh of October had opened to him the prospect of finally destroying the enemy opposed to him; but he carried on a correspondence with General Conway, in which that officer had expressed himself with great contempt of the commander in chief, and on the disclosure of this circumstance, General Gates had demanded the name of the informer, in a letter expressed in terms by no means conciliatory, and which was accompanied by the very extraordinary circumstance of being passed through congress.
"The state of Pennsylvania, too, chagrined at losing its capital, and forgetful of its own backwardness in strengthening the army, which had twice fought superior numbers in its defense, furnished many discontented individuals, who supposed it to be the fault of General Washington that he had not, with an army inferior to that of the enemy in numbers, and in every equipment, effected the same result, which had, been produced in the north, by a continental army, in itself much stronger than its adversary, and so reinforced by militia as to amount to three times the number opposed to them. The legislature of that state, on the report that General Washington was moving into winter quarters, addressed a remonstrance to congress on the subject, which manifested, in very intelligible terms, their dissatisfaction with the commander in chief. About the same time, a new board of war was created, of which General Gates was appointed the president; and General Mifflin, who was supposed to be also of the party unfriendly to Washington, was one of its number. General Conway, who was, perhaps, the only brigadier in the army that had joined this faction, was appointed inspector general and was elevated above brigadiers older than himself, to the rank of major general. There were other evidences that, if the hold which the commander in chief had taken of the affections and confidence of the army, and of the nation, could be shaken, the party in congress which was disposed to change their general, was far from being contemptible in point of numbers."
Fortunately for America, it was impossible to loosen this hold. Even the northern army clung, to Washington as the savior of their country. The only effect of this combination was, to excite a considerable degree of resentment, which was directed entirely against those who were believed to be engaged in it. General Gates himself, in consequence of this, and of the disastrous battle of Camden, fell into obscurity; and General Conway, the great calumniator of General Washington, scorned by honorable men, on account of his cowardice at the battle of Germantown, and other equally unworthy conduct, resigned his commission on the 28th of April, 1778.
The charge brought against Mr. Wilson, of having been hostile to General Washington, and of having participated in the combination formed against him, was wholly unfounded. The evidence on this point is complete.
Of the celebrated convention of 1787, which was assembled in Philadelphia, for the purpose of forming the constitution of the United States, Mr. Wilson was a member. During the long deliberations of the convention on that instrument, he rendered the most important services. He possessed great political sagacity and foresight, and being a fluent speaker, he did much to settle upon just principles the great and important points which naturally arose in the formation of a new government. On the twenty-third of July, the convention resolved,
"That the proceedings of the convention for the establishment of a national government, except what respects the supreme executive, be referred to a committee for the purpose of reporting a constitution, conformably to the proceedings aforesaid."
In pursuance of this resolution. a committee was appointed on the following day, consisting of Messrs. Wilson, Rutledge, Randolph, Gorham, and Ellsworth, who accordingly, on the sixth of August, reported the draft of a constitution.
When the state convention of Pennsylvania assembled to ratify the federal constitution, Mr. Wilson was returned a member of that body, and as he was the only one who had assisted in forming that instrument, it devolved upon him to explain to the convention the principles upon which it was founded, and the great objects which it had in view. Thus he powerfully contributed to the ratification of the constitution in that state. The following language, which he used in conclusion of his speech, in favor of this ratification, deserves a place here:
"It is neither extraordinary nor unexpected, that the constitution offered to your consideration, should meet with opposition. It is the nature of man to pursue his own interest, in preference to the public good and I do not mean to make any personal reflection when I add, that it is the interest of a very numerous, powerful, and respectable body, to counteract and destroy the excellent work produced by the late convention. All the officers of government, and all the appointments for the administration of justice, and the collection of the public revenue, which are transferred from the individual to the aggregate sovereignty of the states, will necessarily turn the stream of influence and emolument into a new channel. Every person, therefore, who enjoys, or expects to enjoy, a place of profit under the present establishment, will object to the proposed innovation; not, in truth, because it is injurious, to the liberties of his country, but because it affects his schemes of wealth and consequence. I will I confess, indeed, that I am not a blind admirer of this plan of government, and that there are some parts of it which, if my wish had prevailed, would certainly, have been altered. But, when I reflect how widely men differ in their opinions, and that every man, (and the observation applies likewise to every state,) has an equal pretension to assert his own, I am satisfied that any thing nearer to perfection could not have been accomplished. If there are errors, it should be remembered, that the seeds of reformation are sown in the work itself, and a concurrence of two thirds of the congress may, at any time, introduce alterations and amendments. Regarding it, then, in every point of view, with a candid and disinterested mind, I am bold to assert, that it is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world."
After the ratification of the federal constitution in Pennsylvania, a convention was called to alter the constitution of that state, to render it conformable to that of the United States. Mr. Wilson was one of the committee appointed to prepare the form of a constitution, and upon him devolved the task of making the draft.
In the year 1789, General Washington appointed Mr. Wilson a judge of the supreme court of the United States, under the federal constitution. In this exalted station he was associated with John Jay, who was placed at the head of the department, and Judge Rutledge, of South Carolina, William Cushing, of Massachusetts, Robert Harrison, of Maryland. and John Blair, of Virginia. In this office he continued until his death, which occurred on the twenty-eighth of August, 1798, at Edenton, in North Carolina, while on a circuit attending to his duties as a judge. He is supposed to have been about fifty-six years of age.
In stature, Judge Wilson was about six feet. His appearance was dignified and respectable, and in his manners he was not ungraceful. As a lawyer, he stood at the head of his profession, while he practiced at the Philadelphia bar. He was not less eminent as a judge on the bench. He entered with great readiness into the causes which came before him, and seldom did he fail to throw light on points of law of the most difficult and perplexing character.
In his domestic relations, such was his happy and consistent course, as to secure the respect and affection of his family and friends. Towards all with whom be had intercourse from abroad, he was friendly and hospitable, and within his family he was affectionate and indulgent. He was distinguished for great integrity of character, and for an inviolate regard for truth. Mr. Wilson was twice married, the first time to a daughter of William Bird, of Berks county, and the second time to a daughter of Mr. Ellis Gray, of Boston. By the former wife, he had six children; and by the latter one. Two only of these children are now living [in 1829], the one at Philadelphia, the other in the state of New-York. After the death of Mr. Wilson, his wife became connected in marriage with Dr. Thomas Bartlett, of Boston, whom she accompanied to England, where she died in 1807.
SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich