WILSON was born September 14, 1742 near St. Andrews,
Scotland.He was educated
at the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, initially
studying to become a Presbyterian minister.However,
in his last year of divinity school, Wilson's father died and young
Wilson soon rejected the seminary and went to Edinburgh to study
bookkeeping.He saw little
future in Scotland and emigrated to America in 1765 and remained for
some time in New York city.Early
the next year, he accepted a position as Latin tutor at the College of
Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania) but almost
immediately abandoned it to study law under John Dickinson,
Philadelphia's leading lawyer at that time.
1768, the year after his admission to the Philadelphia bar, Wilson set
up practice at Reading, Pa. Finally, two years later, he moved to the
Scotch-Irish settlement of Carlisle, and in 1771 he married Rachel Bird.
Wilson built a successful law practice and built an impressive estate.He specialized in land law and developed a broad clientele. On
borrowed capital, he also began to speculate in land.
the beginning, Wilson became involved in Revolutionary politics,
contributing many essays to the controversy. In 1774 he took over
chairmanship of the Carlisle committee of correspondence, attended the
first provincial assembly, and completed his essay: Considerations
on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British
Parliament. One of its paragraphs read in part:"All men are by nature, equal and free.No one has a right to any authority over another without his
consent…The consequence is, that the happiness of the society is the first law of every government."The essay circulated widely in England and America and
established him as a Whig leader.
Wilson was elected to both the provincial assembly and the Continental
Congress, where he sat mainly on military and Indian affairs committees.
Surprisingly, and despite his curiosity about the basis of "this power
of Parliament over us," Wilson was not at first in favor of total
independence for the colonies. He joined the moderates in Congress
voting for a 3-week delay in considering Richard Henry Lee's resolution
of June 7 for independence. Nevertheless, it was his vote that broke the
deadlock of the Pennsylvania delegation.Wilson took an important part in the discussion of military
and commercial questions, and opposed the views of southern delegates on
questions of slavery and taxation.When hostilities began, Wilson was chosen colonel of a battalion
of militia that was raised in Cumberland county, with which he took part
in the New Jersey campaign of 1776.
strenuous opposition to the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, led to
his removal from Congress the following year.He moved to Annapolis, Maryland for a year and practiced law
during the winter of 1777-78 and then took up residence in Philadelphia.
closely identified with the aristocratic and conservative republican
groups, multiplying his business interests, and accelerating his land
speculation. He took a position as Advocate General for France in
America (1779-83), dealing with commercial and maritime matters.Wilson made himself obnoxious to the democracy by denying the
right of the town council to regulate the price of food, opposing the
more liberal provisions of the constitution and he legally defended
Loyalists and their sympathizers.
the fall of 1779, during a period of inflation and food shortages, a mob
which included many militiamen, set out to attack the conservative
leadership. Wilson was a prime target. He and some 35 of his colleagues
barricaded themselves in his home at Third and Walnut Streets,
thereafter known as "Fort Wilson." During a brief skirmish,
after many shots were fired, several people on both sides were killed or
wounded and Wilson and his friends were rescued by the city troops.In 1782, by which time the conservatives had regained some of their power, Wilson was reelected to Congress, and he also served in the
reached the apex of his career in the Constitutional Convention (1787),
where his influence was probably second only to that of Madison. Rarely
missing a session, he sat on the Committee of Detail and in many other
ways applied his excellent knowledge of political theory to convention
foot tall, imposing and bespectacled, Wilson was one of the early
congresses greatest orators.
his services, in 1789 President Washington named him as an associate
justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, though Wilson
expected to be appointed Chief Justice.He was chosen that same year as the first law professor at the
College of Philadelphia. In 1793, as a widower with six children, he
remarried to Hannah Gray; their one son died in infancy.
to avoid arrest for debt, Wilson moved from Philadelphia to Burlington,
New Jersey. The next year, apparently while on federal circuit court
business, he arrived at Edenton, North Carolina, in a state of acute
mental stress and was taken into the home of James Iredell, a fellow
Supreme Court justice. Within a few months, on August 28, 1798, James
Wilson died there.
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