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Lawyer, author, theorist, and justice, James Wilson helped write the U.S. Constitution and served as one of the first justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Wilson emigrated from Scotland in the mid 1760s, studied law, and quickly gained prominence and success in Philadelphia. As a Federalist, Wilson believed in strong central government. This theme pervaded the pamphlets he wrote in the 1770s and 1780s. These highly influential tracts won him a national reputation. In 1787, he was a leading participant at the Constitutional Convention where the U.S. Constitution was written. Wilson served on the Supreme Court from 1789 to 1798, but the latter years of his life ended in disgrace.
Born on September 14, 1742, near St. Andrews, Scotland, Wilson came from a rural working class background. His quick intelligence took him far from his roots, however. He attended the University of St. Andrews from 1757 to 1759, the University of Glasgow from 1759 to 1763, and the University of Edinburgh from 1763 to 1765. At the age of twenty-three, he set out to make his fortune by emigrating to the American colonies, where he promptly began studying law under one of America's best lawyers, John Dickinson. Two years later, in 1767, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.
Over the next two decades, Wilson wrote political pamphlets that brought him national attention and launched his public career. In 1774 he argued that the American colonies should be free from the rule of British lawmakers in his widely read Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. His writing soon led to involvement in the planning for American independence. He represented Pennsylvania at the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1776, and 1782 to 1783, and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Wilson's most important role came at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where he argued on behalf of key features of the Constitution such as the Separation of Powers, which divided federal government into three parts, and the sovereignty of the people. A year later he helped persuade Pennsylvania to adopt the Constitution.
In 1789 President George Washington considered Wilson for the position of chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a post Wilson desired but never attained. He became an associate justice, and, in the same year, was made the first law professor of the University of Pennsylvania. The few short opinions he wrote for the Court embodied his strong Federalism. His most famous opinion was Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L. Ed. 440 (1793), which upheld the right of citizens of one state to sue another state.
Despite the accomplishments of his early life, Wilson remained a minor figure on the "Laws may be unjust … may be dangerous, may be destructive; and yet not be unconstitutional."
Court. As a result of bad investments he became heavily in debt in the 1790s and was jailed twice before fleeing his creditors. He died on August 21, 1798, in Edenton, North Carolina.
Conrad, Stephen A. 1989. "James Wilson's 'Assimilation of the Common-Law Mind.'" Northwestern University Law Review 84 (fall).
——. 1984. "Polite Foundation: Citizenship and Common Sense in James Wilson's Republican Theory." Supreme Court Review (annual).
Delahanty, Mary T. 1969. The Integralist Philosophy of James Wilson. New York: Pageant Press.
Hills, Roderick M., Jr. 1989. "The Reconciliation of Law and Liberty in James Wilson." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 12 (summer).
Smith, Page. 1973. James Wilson, Founding Father, 1742–1798. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Wilson, James. 2004. The Works of the Honourable James Wilson. Published Under the Direction of Bird Wilson. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.