James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Scotland in 1742 and immigrated to America in 1766. He was educated by "some of the best teachers in Edinburgh" and received outstanding recommendations from them. He was soon employed as an assistant teacher in the college in Philadelphia. A few months later he began studying law with John Dickenson, "one of the most eminent lawyers in America." Two years later he established a law office in Reading; he later moved his office to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but eventually made his home in Philadelphia. He quickly rose to a position of great superiority or distinction in his profession. He was also distinguished as an avid supporter of the cause of liberty whenever possible.
He adopted America as his home and espoused her cause of liberty as though he were a native-born son. He became quite popular and was elected as a member of the Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1774. In May of 1775, he was selected as a delegate, along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Willing, to the General Congress. He was elected to the General Congress again in 1776 and eagerly supported independence as proposed by Richard Henry Lee. He voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence and remained an active member of Congress until 1777. Wilson, along with George Clymer, was not re-elected in 1777 "in consequence of the operations of a strong party spirit which at that time existed in the Pennsylvania Assembly."
As a private citizen, Wilson continued to be actively involved in public works and didn't let anything lessen his zeal to work for the welfare of his adopted country. He worked tirelessly with a Mr. Smith to organize a volunteer military corps and was elected as a regimental colonel in 1774. He exerted much energy in raising recruits for the Continental army and was instrumental in strengthening the Pennsylvania line.
In 1777 Wilson was sent as a commissioner to settle some Indian problems in Pennsylvania, and he successfully fulfilled his commission. France signed a treaty with the Americans and openly declared that they would support the United States. They sent a fleet of twelve ships to America under the direction of Count D'Estaing, and sent a Mr. Gerard as a minister to Congress along with the ships. Gerard appointed Wilson to be the Advocate General of the French nation in the United States, a position that required a "thorough knowledge of international and commercial laws." The King of France confirmed the appointment but later notified Wilson that he would not receive the promised salary. Wilson resigned the office at once.
Wilson was again elected to be a delegate to the General Congress near the end of 1782 and took his seat in January, 1783. During the same year he served as an agent and counselor for Pennsylvania in a controversy with Connecticut about the Wyoming domain and was successful in settling the matter in an "amicable settlement." He was again elected to the General Congress in late 1785 and took his seat in March, 1786.
Wilson was an active member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and served as chairman of the committee responsible for the first draft. He served as a member of the Pennsylvania state convention that ratified the Constitution and was a speaker at a celebration in Philadelphia honoring the ratification. He was a member of the convention that wrote a new constitution for the state of Pennsylvania in 1788. He was appointed by President George Washington as one of the judges of the United States Supreme Court.
In 1790, he was appointed to be the first Professor of Law in the College of Philadelphia. When the college merged with the University of Pennsylvania in 1792, he continued in the same professorship. He held both the office of Professor of Law and the position as Judge of the Supreme Court until his death.
In 1791, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives selected him by unanimous vote "to revise and properly digest the laws of the state," and he immediately started to work on the assignment. After he made "considerable progress," the Senate refused to concur in the project and stopped his labors. He never resumed the work.
As a judge of the United States Supreme Court, Wilson made frequent journeys into other states in an official capacity. He was on one such judicial circuit in North Carolina when he died on August 28, 1798, in the house of his friend, Judge Iredell of Edenton, in the fifty-sixth year of his life.
Wilson was at the head of the Philadelphia bar for many years. He was such a popular lawyer that he defended "nearly every important case that came before the higher tribunals of that State." Wilson was a firm patriot, a sincere Christian, and a beloved and esteemed husband, father, neighbor, and friend.
Facts and quotes are from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, pp. 126-129
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