Wilson was born on 14 September 1742 at Carskerdo, near St. Andrews, Scotland, and educated at the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. There is some speculation that he did not finish his studies for he emigrated to America, arriving in the midst of the Stamp Act agitations in 1765. 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, a Quaker who famously refused to vote for independence or sign the declaration and the author of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.”
In 1768, the year after his admission to the Philadelphia bar, Wilson set up practice at Reading, Pennsylvania. Two years later, he moved westward to the Scotch-Irish settlement of Carlisle and set up a lucrative practice, and the following year he took a bride, Rachel Bird. He specialized in land law and built up a broad clientele. These dealings provided him privileged information regarding land parcels. On borrowed capital, Wilson also began to speculate in land. In some way he managed, too, to lecture on English literature at the College of Philadelphia, which had awarded him an honorary master of arts degree in 1766.
In 1774, Wilson attended a provincial meeting, as a representative of Carlisle, and was elected a member of the local Committee of Correspondence. He wrote a pamphlet titled Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. In it, he argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the colonies. It was published, and later found its way to the Continental Congress, where it was widely read and commented on.
He termed the British Parliament’s decision to close the port of Boston “unconstitutional.” Wilson reasoned that if the colonists had no say in Parliament, the move was unconstitutional. Wilson’s words were forward thinking. He was saying that judges should hold legislators accountable. “Judicial review” would become a central tenet of the U. S. Constitution.
In 1775 he was elected to the Continental Congress, where he assumed a position with the most radical members-a demand for separation from Britain. James Wilson’s powers of oration, the passion of his delivery and the logic he employed in debate, were commented on favorably by many members of the Congress. He was, however, in a bind. Pennsylvania was divided on the issue of separation, and Wilson refused to vote against the will of his constituents. Many members felt that it was hypocritical to have argued so forcefully and so long for Independence, only to vote against it when the occasion came. Wilson, with the support of three other members who were sympathetic to his position, managed a delay of three weeks, so that he could consult with people back home. When the vote came, he was able to affirm Pennsylvania’s wish for Independence.
The next year, Wilson was elected to both the provincial assembly and the Continental Congress, where he sat mainly on military and Indian affairs committees. In 1776, reflecting the wishes of his constituents, he joined the moderates in Congress voting for a 3-week delay in considering Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of June 7 for independence. On the July 1 and 2 ballots on the issue, however, he voted in the affirmative (along with Ben Franklin and John Morton) and signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2. Later, he attacked Pennsylvania’s state constitution that present power to the citizens. Eventually, such wavering made Wilson unpopular and he was not returned to Congress in 1777.
There is a legend that the British attacked Wilson’s home while he was holed up in it. In truth, his fellow citizens attacked the house. According to Denise KIernan and Joseph D’Agnest in Signing Their Lives Away (page 114), “In the years following the signing of the Declaration, Wilson transformed himself from a frontier lawyer into a slime ball corporate attorney. He switched from being a Whig to a Conservative. He changed his religion from a traditional Scottish Presbyterian to an Episcopalian. He bout a nice townhouse in Philly, kept buying land, and defended beleaguered Tory merchants in court. Philadelphia’s patriots grew to detest him. In fall 1779, when inflation was at an all-time high and food was scarce, a mob of angry citizens and militiamen swarmed Wilson’s townhouse at Third and Walnut Streets, hoping to tear him to pieces. Wilson and his cronies barricaded themselves inside until another group of militia could rescue them. Some people were injured or killed during the skirmish, and Wilson left town for a while to let emotions cool. The following spring, the legislature pardoned everyone involved in what was sarcastically called the ‘Fort Wilson’ incident.”
Wilson’s strenuous opposition to the republican Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, besides indicating a switch to conservatism on his part, led to his removal from Congress the following year. To avoid the clamor among his frontier constituents, he repaired to Annapolis during the winter of 1777-78 and then took up residence in Philadelphia.
Wilson affirmed his newly assumed political stance by closely identifying with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplying his business interests, and accelerating 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.
During 1781 Congress appointed Wilson as one of the directors of the Bank of North America, newly founded by his close associate and legal client Robert Morris. In 1782, by which time the conservatives had regained some of their power, the former was reelected to Congress, and he also served in the period 1785-87.
Wilson 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 problems. Only Governor Morris delivered more speeches.
That same year, overcoming powerful opposition, Wilson led the drive for ratification in Pennsylvania of the U. S. Constitution, the second state to endorse the instrument. The new commonwealth constitution, drafted in 1789-90 along the lines of the U. S. Constitution, was primarily Wilson’s work. Although James Madison is credited as being the Father of the U. S. Constitution, Wilson did contribute a draft of the document. Many of his ideas became part of the “American conscience,” for example, the power of government emanates from the people and a system of checks and balances ensures that power cannot be abused.
For his services in the formation of the federal government, though Wilson expected to be appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in 1789 President Washington named him as an associate justice. John Jay became the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was chosen that same year as the first law professor at the College of Philadelphia. Two years later he began an official digest of the laws of Pennsylvania, a project he never completed, though he carried on for a while after funds ran out.
Wilson, who wrote only a few opinions, did not achieve the success on the Supreme Court that his capabilities and experience promised. Indeed, during those years he was the object of much criticism and barely escaped impeachment. For one thing, he attempted to influence the enactment of legislation in Pennsylvania favorable to land speculators. Between 1792 and 1795 he also made huge but unwise land investments in western New York and Pennsylvania, as well as in Georgia. This did not stop him from conceiving a grandiose but ill-fated scheme, involving vast sums of European capital, for the recruitment of European colonists and their settlement in the West.
Meantime, in 1793, as a widower with six children, he remarried to Hannah Gray; their one son died in infancy.
Four years later, to avoid arrest for debt, the distraught Wilson moved from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey. He owned hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also spent time in North Carolina, but his debts followed him. While still serving on the nation’s highest court, he was arrested and several times placed in debtor’s prison in both New Jersey and North Carolina.
In 1798, Wilson was released from a stay in debtor’s prison. He sought the counsel and protection of fellow justice James Iredell from North Carolina. The years of staying one step ahead of his creditors caused Wilson’s mind to snap. He fell ill. He died a few months, just short of his fifty-sixth birthday. Although first buried at Hayes Plantation near Edenton, North Carolina, his remains were later reinterred in the yard of Christ Church at Philadelphia.