Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Monday, June 3, 2013

James Wilson

                James Wilson signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.  He was born on September 14, 1742, in Carskerdo, Fife, Scotland.  He was one of seven children born to William Wilson and Alison Landall, Presbyterian farmers. 

Wilson attended the University of St. Andrews on a scholarship; for two years after graduating from the university he studied Scottish Enlightenment thinkers.  He immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (still British America) carrying valuable letters of introduction as well as the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.  He begin tutoring and then taught at The Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania.  A few months later and as a result of his petition, he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts.

                Not long afterwards Wilson started studying law with John Dickinson; two years later he passed the bar in Philadelphia and set up his own successful law practice in Reading, Pennsylvania a year after passing the bar.  As a successful lawyer, he soon earned a small fortune and owned a small farm near Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  He took cases from eight local counties and lectured at The Academy and College of Philadelphia.

                Wilson married Rachel Bird, daughter of William Bird and Bridget Hulings on November 5, 1771.  Six children were born to the couple:  Mary, William, Bird, James, Emily and Charles.  Rachel passed away in 1786, and Wilson married Hannah Gray, daughter of Ellis Gray and Sarah D-Olbear and widow of Thomas Bartlett, M.D., in 1793.  This couple had one son, Henry who died at age three.

                Joining the patriot cause of liberty, Wilson published a pamphlet entitled “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament” in 1774.  “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.  Though considered by scholars on par with the seminal works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of the same year, it was actually penned in 1768, perhaps the first cogent argument to be formulated against British dominance.”

                Wilson was commissioned Colonel of the 4th Cumberland County Battalion in 1775 and through promotions reached the rank of Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania State Militia.  He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1776 and “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.”  Beginning in June 1776, Wilson served on the Committee on Spies with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, and Robert R. Livingston; this committee determined the definition of treason.

                The Fort Wilson Riot began on October 4, 1779, when a mob – drunken with liquor and enraged by the writings and speeches of Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council – “marched on Congressman Wilson’s home.”  Why did they march against Wilson?  He had successfully represented twenty-three “people from property seizure and exile by the radical government of Pennsylvania.”  Wilson barricaded himself in his home – along with thirty-five of his colleagues; thus, his home was nicknamed “Fort Wilson.”  Six people lost their lives in the Fort Wilson Riot and at least seventeen people were wounded.  Eventually, Philadelphia’s soldiers rescued Wilson and his colleagues.  Joseph Reed pardoned and released the rioters.

                “Wilson closely identified with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplied his business interest, and accelerated his land speculation.  He also took a position as Advocate General for France in America (1779-83), dealing with commercial and maritime matters, and legally defended Loyalists and their sympathizers.  He held this post until 1798 (until his death).”

                As a very successful lawyer, Wilson was considered to be “the most learned of the Framers of the Constitution.  A fellow delegate in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia made the following assessment of James Wilson:  `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 Grecian commonwealth down to the present time.”

                Wilson was a member of the Committee of Detail, “which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution in 1787….  He wanted senators and the president to be popularly elected.  He also proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise at the convention, which made only three-fifths of the South’s slave population total to be counted for purposes of distributing taxes ad apportioning representation in the House and Electoral College.  Along with James 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.”  Addressing the Convention 168 times, Wilson’s mind was described by Dr. Benjamin Rush as being “one blaze of light.” 

                Because of the compromises necessary, Wilson did not totally agree with the full Constitution, but he worked diligently for it to be ratified by his state.  Following his lead at its convention, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the document.  “His October 6, 1787 speech in the State House courtyard has been seen as particularly important in setting the terms of the ratification debate, both locally and nationally.  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.’”  He was later a leader 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.”

                President George Washington nominated Wilson to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court on September 24, 1789.  He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789, and received his commission on September 29, 1789.  The Court heard only nine cases from the time of his appointment in 1789 until his death in 1798.  He was one of the six original Supreme Court justices appointed by George Washington.

                In 1790 Wilson became the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia.  He “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 had serious financial difficulties in his last years, mainly because he invested heavily “in land that became liabilities with the onset of the Panic of 1796-1797.  He spent some time in a Debtors’ Prison in Burlington, New Jersey, until his son paid the debt.  Wilson then went to North Carolina to avoid other creditors but was imprisoned briefly again. 

                James Wilson suffered a bout of malaria in 1798 and died of a stroke at age 55 while visiting a friend in Edenton, North Carolina.  His body was interred in the Johnston cemetery on the Hayes Plantation near Edenton but was moved in 1907 to the Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia.

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