James Wilson was born in Scotland, near St. Andrews, on
September 14, 1742. Between November
1757 and June 1765 he studied at St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh
before he emigrated to Philadelphia. He was employed as a Latin tutor
at the College of Philadelphia for a time before he decided to take
up the law under the tutelage of John Dickinson. He was admitted to
the Bar in November 1767. He began his practice in Reading, Pennsylvania
before moving to the more Scots-Irish town of Carlisle in 1771. There
he quickly began a thriving practice in Cumberland County and seven
neighboring counties. By 1774 he was well known and respected; in July
of that year, when Carlisle came to open a committee on correspondence,
he was named as its head and also elected to represent the town at the
first provincial conference in Philadelphia. At that time he was a Whig
and on the extreme wing of that party, but his future career would see
him become steadily more conservative.
At the outbreak of war in May 1775, Wilson was elected to the Continental
Congress. Hard working and an impressive figure at well over six feet
tall, he served on several important committees and urged careful consideration
of moves towards independence. He helped John Dickinson delay the July
declaration, but three weeks later he approved and signed the Declaration
of Independence. His industrious service in the running of the new national
government probably helped his shift to the right, a movement that brought
him into direct conflict with the new constitution of his home state
and led to his removed from Congress in September 1777. His political
transformation became complete as he reestablished himself in Pennsylvania;
he took up residence in Philadelphia, left the Presbyterians to became
an Episcopalian, and joined the Republican Society. Most conservatives,
many of them open to the popular charge of war-profiteering, were taking
a risk in remaining in a radical city, and Wilson himself had to defend
his home in October 1779 from the city militia that came to expel him
and his friends from the capital. Removed from politics until the conservatives
regained some power in the state, Wilson devoted himself to an array
of business endeavors and land speculations.
By 1787, Wilson had returned to Congress and had been appointed a delegate
to the Constitutional Convention. Here his experience and his learning
were invaluable as he was an important member of the committee that
actually drafted the details of the document. His efforts were then
turned to the ratification convention in his home state. These led to
his effigy being burned in the town where he had made his early mark
in the law. The success of the reactionaries in Pennsylvania was complete,
however, when Wilson almost single handedly put together the new state
constitution in 1790.
Under newly elected President Washington, Wilson was named an associate
justice of the Supreme Court in 1789, a position he retained until his
death. In that same year, he became the College of Philadelphia's first
professor of law. Meanwhile, his personal wealth, which had already
suffered damage from three years of tireless efforts to secure new constitutions
for nation and state, continued to deteriorate. His hasty land speculation
in New York and Pennsylvania failed, and Wilson slipped into an indebtedness
that would last the remainder of his life.
As a friend of William Bingham and others in Philadelphia, and as trustee
of the Carlisle Grammar School from its founding in March 1773, Wilson
joined as a founding member of the board of the new college in Carlisle,
named for his first mentor in the law. He remained a member of the Dickinson
College board from its inception in 1783 until his death.
James Wilson married Rachel Bird of Reading on November 5, 1771, and
the couple had six children before her death in 1786. In September 1793,
Wilson married nineteen-year-old Hannah Gray. Their son died in infancy,
and Wilson came under increasing mental pressure as debt collectors
began to pursue him and efforts were made to impeach him from the bench.
James Wilson died on August 21, 1798 while staying at the home of friend
and fellow justice James Iredell in Edenton, North Carolina. He was
fifty-six years old.
Please visit the following link for materials
authored by James Wilson maintained in the Their Own Words database:
Wilson, James, 1742-1798.