James Wilson: A Life of Law and Liberty
James Wilson was an American political philosopher and one of the founding fathers of the United States. He is widely regarded as one of the most important legal minds of the early republic and played a significant role in shaping American constitutional law. Known for his unwavering commitment to the rule of law and individual liberties, Wilson’s contributions to American jurisprudence remain an enduring legacy to this day.
Early Life and Education
James Wilson was born on September 14, 1742, in Carskerdo, Scotland, to a family of modest means. His father, William Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister, who instilled in James a strong sense of moral values, as well as a love for learning. At the age of 14, James began his formal education at the University of St. Andrews and went on to study at the University of Edinburgh.
In 1763, Wilson crossed the Atlantic to Philadelphia, where he began his legal education as an apprentice to John Dickinson, one of the most prominent lawyers in the colonies. After completing his apprenticeship, Wilson was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1767 and soon established himself as a successful attorney.
Political and Legal Career
During the early years of his career, James Wilson gained a reputation as a skilled litigator and a staunch defender of individual rights. His most famous case during this period was the “Conestoga Massacre” trial, in which he successfully defended a group of Native Americans accused of murdering several white settlers. Wilson argued that the tribe had been unfairly treated by the Pennsylvania government and that their actions were justified. The jury agreed, and the accused were acquitted.
In 1775, Wilson was elected to the Continental Congress and quickly became a leading voice for independence. He was a key figure in drafting the Declaration of Independence and played an important role in the debates over the Articles of Confederation. In 1787, Wilson traveled to Philadelphia to participate in the Constitutional Convention, where he was one of the most influential delegates. He was a strong advocate for a powerful central government and played a key role in shaping the final document.
After the ratification of the Constitution, Wilson was appointed as one of the six original justices of the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death. As a justice, Wilson played a vital role in establishing the principles of American jurisprudence. He authored several significant opinions, including Chisholm v. Georgia, which confirmed the right of citizens to sue their own states, and Calder v. Bull, which established the principle of judicial review.
In addition to his judicial work, Wilson was also a prolific writer and legal scholar. He wrote several influential treatises on law and government, including “Lectures on Law” and “The Works of the Honourable James Wilson.” In these works, Wilson discussed the importance of the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the need for limited government.
Wilson’s Legal Philosophy
One of James Wilson’s most significant contributions to American legal thought was his influential theory of natural law. Natural law, as Wilson understood it, was a set of objective moral principles that were discoverable through human reason and that formed the basis for all just laws. In his “Lectures on Law,” Wilson argued that “the law of nature is the foundation of our laws.”
Wilson’s understanding of natural law was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, particularly the works of thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He believed that individual rights were grounded in natural law and that all just governments should be based on principles of consent and representation. Wilson also believed that the Constitution was an expression of natural law and that the Supreme Court had a duty to ensure that the Constitution was interpreted in accordance with that law.
James Wilson was one of the most important legal figures of the early republic and played a crucial role in shaping American constitutional law. His commitment to individual rights, the rule of law, and limited government helped lay the foundations for American democracy.
Despite his importance, however, Wilson is often overlooked in the pantheon of American Founders. His contributions to American political thought have been overshadowed by his more well-known contemporaries, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Nevertheless, Wilson’s legacy remains a vital part of American legal and political history.
James Wilson was a towering figure in American jurisprudence and one of the most important legal minds of his time. His committed belief in natural law, individual rights, and the rule of law helped shape the foundations of American democracy. Through his works, legal opinions, and his enduring legacy, Wilson remains an inspiration to anyone who values the principles of liberty and justice for all.
Founding Father: James Wilson
James Wilson was born on September the 14th, 1742 in Scotland. Here, he went to the Universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh.
James Wilson never finished his studies or got his degree, since in 1765 he sailed for the New World.
With the help of some letters of introduction, James Wilson became a tutor for a short time at the College of Philadelphia. Here, he received an honorary degree soon after thereafter.
In November 1767, James Wilson was admitted to the bar, meaning he could practice law. James Wilson set up a practice in Pennsylvania in 1768. His practice was very successful, mostly because he handled almost half of the cases that were charged in the country court.
In 1774 James Wilson went to a provincial meeting, as the representative of Carlisle, where he was elected as a member of the Committee of Correspondence. He wrote an article called “Considerations on the Nature & Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.”
In this pamphlet, he said that the British Parliament had no right to pass laws for the American colonies. The pamphlet was published, and later it found its way all the way to Continental Congress, where it was read widely and commented on.
In 1775 James Wilson became a member of the Continental Congress, alongside many radical members who demanded separation from the British government. James Wilson’s speeches were often commented on favorably by members of Congress. However, he was in a bind.
Pennsylvania had mixed feelings regarding this issue of separation from the British government, and James Wilson would not vote against the will of his constituents. Some members thought that it was very hypocritical of James Wilson to argue so strongly for Independence, only just to vote against it.
With the support of three members who understood his position, James Wilson managed to delay the vote for three weeks, so that he could talk it over with people back in Philadelphia. When the vote happened, James Wilson was able to affirm his state’s desire for Independence.
After the Declaration of Independence, James Wilson’s attention went back to his state. In Pennsylvania, a new constitution was being proposed. James Wilson was strongly against it.
Because of this, he was recalled for two weeks in 1777 from Congress, but no one would replace him, so he was put back until the end of his term. After his term finished, James did not go back home.
James Wilson stayed in Annapolis for the winter, and then settled back in Philadelphia. He also resumed some parts of his law practice, except now he only consulted to corporations.
James Wilson was a leader in the Democratic-republican party. Unfortunately, he went back to his activities in speculation, which resulted in a large amount of debt. In 1779, he was appointed to serve as its US advocate general to France for maritime and commercial enterprises.
Wilson was also elected to Congress in 1782. In 1784, he was appointed to attend the Constitutional Convention. After ratification of the new Constitution, Wilson looked for an appointment to the Federal government, and was made an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by Washington in 1789.
The rest of his life was not very good. Wilson’s wife had passed away in 1786. He had destroyed his finances and spent time in a debtor’s prison. By 1798, James Wilson’s health was getting worse and worse. He often complained of mental fatigue and not being able to work. He died on August 28 of the same year while traveling to North Carolina to visit a friend.
Fun Facts About James Wilson
• When we went to debtor’s prison, he was still a Justice in the Supreme Court.
• James Wilson was attacked by a mob of working class people during the Revolution because he was suspected of hoarding goods, like wheat, to make the prices rise. This event is now called “Fort Wilson Riot.”