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JAMES WILSON (1742—1798)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 693 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JAMES WILSON (1742—1798), American statesman and jurist, was born in or near St Andrews, Scotland, on the 14th of September 1742. He matriculated at the University of St Andrews in 1757 and was subsequently a student at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1765 he emigrated to America. Landing at New York in June, he went to Philadelphia in the following year and in 1766—1767 was instructor of Latin in the college of Philadelphia, later the university of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile he studied law in the office of John Dickinson, was admitted to the bar in 1767, removed first to Reading and soon afterward to Csr1isle, and rapidly rose to prominence. In August 1774 he published a pamphlet Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, in which he argued that parliament had no constitutional power to legislate for the colonies; this pamphlet strongly influenced members of the Continental Congress which met in September. Wilson was a delegate to the Pennsylvania provincial convention in January 1775, and he sustained there the right of Massachusetts to resist the change in its charter, declaring that as the force which the British Government was exercising to compel obedience was " force unwarranted by any act of parliament, unsupported by any principle of the common law, unauthorized by any commission from the crown," resistance was justified by " both the letter and the spirit of the British constitution "; he also. by his speech, led the colonies in shifting the burden of responsibility from parliament or the king's ministers to the king himself. In May 1775 Wilson became a member of the Continental Congress. When a declaration of independence was first proposed in that body he expressed the belief that a majority of the people of Pennsylvania were in favour of it, but as the instructions of the delegates from Pennsylvania and some of the other colonies opposed such a declaration, he urged postponement of action for the purpose of giving the constituents in those colonies an opportunity of removing such instructions. When independence was finally declared the unanimity of all the colonies except New York had been obtained. Receiving a commission as colonel in May 1775, Wilson raised a battalion of troops in his county of Cumberland, and for a short time in 1776 he took part in the New Jersey campaign, but his principal labours in 1776 and 1777 were in Congress. In January 1776 he was appointed a member of a committee to prepare an address to the colonies, and the address was written by him; he served on a similar committee in May 1777, and wrote the address To the Inhabitants of the United States, urging their firm support of the cause of Independence; he drafted the plan of treaty with France together with instructions for negotiating it; he was a member of the Board of War from its establishment in June 1776 until his retirement from Congress in September 1777; from January to September 1777 he was chairman of the Committee on Appeals, to hear and determine appeals from the courts of admiralty in the several states; and he was a member of many other important committees. In September 1777 the political faction in his state which had opposed Independence again came into power, and Wilson was kept out of Congress until the close of the war; he was back again, however, in 1783, and 1785—1786, and, advocating a sound currency, laboured in co-operation with Robert Morris to direct the financial policy of the Confederation. Soon after leaving Congress in 1777 Wilson removed to Annapolis, Maryland, to practise law, but he returned to Philadelphia in the following year. In 1779 he was commissioned Advocate-General for France, and in this capacity he represented Louis YVI. in all claims arising out of the French alliance until the close of the war. In 1781—1782 he was the principal counsel for Pennsylvania in the Wyoming Valley dispute with Connecticut, which was decided in favour of Pennsylvania in December 1782 by an arbitration court appointed by Congress. Wilson was closely associated with Robert Morris in organizingthe Bank of North America, and in the Act of Congress incorporating it (December 31, 1781) he was made one of the directors. In 1782 the legislature of Pennsylvania granted a charter to this bank, but three years later it passed an act to repeal it. Wilson responded with a famous constitutional argument in which he sustained the constitutionality of the bank on the basis of the implied powers of Congress. As a constructive statesman Wilson had no superior in the Federal Convention of 1787. He favoured the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial departments, the supremacy of the Federal government over the state governments, and the election of senators as well as representatives by the people, and was opposed to the election of the President or the judges by Congress. His political philosophy was based upon implicit confidence in the people, and he strove for such provisions as he thought would best guarantee a government by the people. When the constitution had been framed Wilson pronounced it " the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world," and he, at least, among the framers regarded it not as a compact but as an ordinance to be established by the people. During the struggle for ratification he made a speech before a mass meeting in Philadelphia which has been characterized as " the ablest single presentation of the whole subject." In the Pennsylvania ratification convention (November 21 to December 15, 1787) he was the constitution's principal defender. Having been appointed professor of law in the university of Pennsylvania in 1790, he delivered at that institution in 1790—1791 a course of lectures on public and private law; some of these lectures, together with his speeches in the Federal convention, before the mass meeting in Philadelphia, and in the Pennsylvania ratification convention, are among the most valuable commentaries on the constitution. Wilson was a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1789—1790, and a member of the committee which drafted the new constitution. In 1789 Washington appointed him an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and in 1793 he wrote the important decision in the case of Chisolm v. Georgia, the purport of which was that the people of the United States constituted a sovereign nation and that the United States were not a mere confederacy of sovereign states. He continued to serve as associate justice until his death, near Edenton, North Carolina, on the 28th of August 1798. Wilson's Works, consisting principally of his law lectures and a few speeches, were published under the direction of his son, Bird Wilson (3 vols., Philadelphia, 1803—1804). A revised edition in two volumes with notes by James D. Andrews was published in Chicago in 1896. See also Documentary History of the Constitution of the United States of America, vols. i. and iii. (Washington, 1894) ; J. B. McMaster and F. D. Stone, Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, 1787—1788 (Philadelphia, 1888) ; L. H. Alexander (ed.), James Wilson (Philadelphia, 1908), a biographical sketch entitled " James Wilson, Nation-Builder," by L. H. Alexander, in the Green Bag, vol. 19 (1907); " James Wilson, Patriot, and the Wilson Doctrine," by Alexander, in the North American Review, vol. 183 (1906) ; Justice J. M. Harlan, " James Wilson and the Formation of the Constitution," in the American Law Review, vol. 34; B. A. Konkle et al. " The James Wilson Memorial," in the American Law Register, vol. 55 (1907).
End of Article: JAMES WILSON (1742—1798)

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