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  • ID: I22984
  • Name: James Wilson
  • Sex: M
  • Birth: 14 SEP 1742 in Carskerdo, Fife, Scotland
  • Death: 21 AUG 1798 in Edenton, Chowan, North Carolina, USA 1 2 3 4 5 6
  • Occupation: 1790 Lawyer
  • Immigration: 1766 Scotland to USA (Fife to Boston)
  • Note:
    James Wilson (September 14, 1742 – August 21, 1798), was a Scottish lawyer, most notable as a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. He was twice elected to the Continental Congress, a major force in the drafting of the United States Constitution, a leading legal theoretician and one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.

    James Wilson was born in Scotland in 1742 He attended a number of Universities without attaining a degree. He emigrated to British America in 1766, carrying a number of valuable letters of Introduction with him. Through these connections he began tutoring and then teaching at the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. He petitioned there for a degree and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts several months later.

    The most popular prestigious career field in those days was the law. Wilson managed to secure studies at the office of John Dickinson a short time later. After two years of study he attained the bar in Philadelphia, and the following year (1767) set up his own practice in Reading. His office was very successful and he managed to earn a small fortune in a few short years. At that point he had bought a small farm near Carlisle, was handling cases in eight local Counties, and lecturing on English Literature at the College of Philadelphia. It was also during this period that he began a life-long fascination with land speculation.

    Taking up the proto-revolutionary cause in 1774, Wilson published "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament," a pamphlet denying all authority of Parliament over the Colonies. Though considered by scholars on par with the seminal works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of the same year, it was actually penned in 1768, perhaps the first cogent argument to be formulated against British dominance.

    In 1775 he was a Colonel in the 4th Battalion of Associators and rose to the rank of Brigadier General of State Militia.

    As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, Wilson was a firm advocate for independence and became an imposing figure that was looked upon favorably by his fellow Congressmen. But with Pennsylvania divided on the issue of separation, Wilson, not wanting to go against the wishes of his constituents, refused to vote. Only when he received more feedback did he vote for independence.

    While serving in the Congress Wilson was clearly among the leaders in the formation of Native American policy. "If the positions he held and the frequency with which he appeared on committees concerned with Indian affairs are an index, he was until his departure from Congress in 1777 the most active and influential single delegate in laying down the general outline that governed the relations of Congress with the border tribes.” (James Wilson: Founding Father, Charles Smith Page, 1956, p. 72.)

    Wilson also served from June 1776 on the Committee on Spies, along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, and Robert Livingston. They together defined treason. (Page, p. 119.)

    On October 4, 1779, the Fort Wilson Riot began. In response to inflation, poverty, and food shortages that had been on the rise in the last 3 years, a militia supporting price regulations and opposing Philadelphia's conservative leadership marched to James Wilson's house on Third and Walnut Streets. Wilson and thirty five of his colleagues who feared the crowd barricaded themselves in his home, which was later nicknamed Fort Wilson. In the short battle that ensued, 5 soldiers died, and 17-19 people were wounded. The city's soldiers, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and Baylor's 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, led by Joseph Reed [1] eventually intervened and rescued James Wilson and his colleagues. [2][3]

    In 1779 Wilson accepted the role of Advocate General for France in America. He held this post until 1783.

    for more info see:

    From Clark Wilson's Postem 2006 on Rankin-Wilson - Rootsweb:
    Extensive research has been done over the years on James Wilson, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. I also must tell you that only two of his children ever married and only one, his daughter Mary, had children. The following information is available on James Wilson children:
    CHILDREN WITH Rachel Bird
    I)Mary born Sept. 23, 1772, m. Paschel Hollingswort and had one child, Emily Hollingsworth - last of the family.
    2) William, born March 18, 1774, never married
    3)Bird, born January 18, 1777 - one citation says he never married but another says he married but had no children. Next to last of line.
    4) James Jr., Born November 10, 1779, never married.
    5) Emily, born May 11, 1782, never married.
    6) Charles, born August 1785, never married.

    I)Henry, born about 1794, died in infancy.

    James Wilson (1742-1798)

    Supreme court justice

    Man of Contradictions. James Wilson was unloved by the people, who thought him a wealthy, anti-democratic aristocrat, yet as a framer of the Constitution he championed the rights of the common man. A preeminent legal scholar, he was three times passed over for appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court. One of the best educated and most energetic men of his time, he spent his last years a debtor, hunted, in his words, “like a wild beast” by anxious creditors. James Wilson’s life was filled with contradictions, but it was, above all else, a life devoted to the law and to the new American republic.

    Early Years. Wilson was the product of an era now known as the Scottish Enlightenment—a time when great original thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Reid exercised enormous influence over the development of new theories and approaches to science, medicine, law, and philosophy. Born in Fife-shire, Scotland, on 14 September 1742, the eldest son of poor but deeply pious Calvinist parents, Wilson studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and philosophy at the University of Saint Andrews. He quickly demonstrated an affinity for scholarship. Restless with ambition and confined by the limits of opportunity in Glasgow and Edinburgh, James Wilson left Scotland for America in 1765. He proceeded directly to America’s largest city, Philadelphia, where he found his first job as a Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia. Not content with the modest life of an educator, Wilson looked to the law to satisfy his need for intellectual and monetary enrichment. He studied law under John Dickinson, who himself had studied at one of the Inns of Court in London. In 1767 Wilson began his law practice in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. He quickly established a reputation for hard work and reliable service. Four years later he married Rachel Bird, daughter of a prominent and prosperous ironworks owner. In six years James Wilson had become an established member of Pennsylvania society. He was also at the doorstep of a time of great political and social upheaval as the colonies sought their independence from England.

    Patriot. In 1768 Wilson wrote Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, a pamphlet articulating the notion of “consent of the governed.” Only those who have a say in choosing their rulers, he argued, could be governed by those rulers. The theory of dominion status (the idea of a commonwealth of nations independently governed but with common allegiance to the Crown) emerged from this treatise. In 1775 and 1776 as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, Wilson pushed dominion status as an alternative to independence. Although his view did not prevail, he signed the Declaration of Independence and supported the cause for liberty.

    Democracy. Independence enabled Wilson to explore more deeply his notions of democratic government. He believed government was like a pyramid: to reach great heights, it ought to have “as broad a basis as possible.” For Wilson that foundation was the great mass of common men, the people who would choose both the form of government and its leaders. In 1774 he had written that “all men are, by nature, equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it.” In an age where royalty ruled supreme across most of the world, and where even in America a self-appointed aristocracy of wealthy and educated men threatened to keep tight control over the reins of government, these were truly revolutionary ideas. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Wilson tried to make these ideas the intellectual framework for the Constitution. He believed that the simplest and surest way to secure popular support for the new government was to offer direct election of leaders. His concept of democratic nationalism led him to advocate popular elections for all members of Congress and for the chief executive. He opposed the electoral college and the election of senators by state legislators. Wilson’s contributions to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 are considered second in importance only to those of James Madison. Indeed, Wilson’s insistence on a nation based on the consent of the people and not the states would become one of the essential principles of sovereignty in the union.

    Lawyer. Wilson’s political adventures did not stall the growth of his law practice, which became one of Philadelphia’s largest and most successful. He gained the ire of patriots by defending the wealthy and Loyalist sympathizers. As his fame grew he was drawn into a life of wealth and comfort. In order to sustain his lifestyle, Wilson embarked on what would become a lifelong pursuit of land speculation and investment schemes. Wilson did not suffer from a small ego: he wrote to George Washington proposing his own appointment as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Put off perhaps by Wilson’s reputation for aristocratic leanings and unseemly land speculations, Washington turned instead to John Jay, offering Wilson a seat as associate justice, a position he held from 1789 to 1798.

    Law Lectures. In 1790 Wilson was appointed the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia. His lectures given in 1790 and 1791 were the first serious efforts to develop an American legal system based on emerging principles of liberty and democracy. Influenced by the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson and others, Wilson put forward his view of popular rule based on the notion that law arises not from the state but from the consent of the governed. His perspective on popular sovereignty continues to be a foundation of American constitutional law. He held that the desire for liberty could be accommodated with the rule of law as long as that rule emanates from the free and independent exercise of sovereignty and the established custom of the common law. According to Wilson “the happiness of the society is the first law of every government.” He was truly ahead of his time in his understanding of the need to establish an American legal system based on what in the eighteenth century were bold and innovative ideas. Wilson’s only substantial opinion on the Supreme Court came in Chisholm v. Georgia, a 1793 case that enabled him to give full voice to his ideas of sovereignty and nationalism as they applied under the new Constitution. The case presented a fairly simple question—whether a state could be sued in a federal court by a citizen of another state—but one that raised basic questions of federalism and state sovereignty. In Chisholm v. Georgia Wilson left no doubt that as far as he was concerned, “as to the purposes of the Union, Georgia is not a sovereign state.” In his opinion the people, not the states, were sovereign. It was an important decision, so much so that it precipitated the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment (1798) establishing the notion of sovereign immunity and, in effect, reversing Wilson’s opinion. Aside from marking the high point of his service on the Supreme Court, 1793 marked the occasion of Wilson’s marriage to Hannah Gray of Boston. (His first wife, Rachel, had died in 1786).

    A Sad End. Wilson’s intellectual strength did not prevent him from exercising very bad judgment in his business affairs. His reckless penchant for speculation could not be abated, and his finances fell victim to the economic downturn of the late 1790s. The combination of his duties riding the circuit as an associate justice and providing for Hannah and their infant son, all the while facing continuous harassment and occasional jailings by merciless creditors, proved too much for Wilson’s health. He sought refuge in a rundown inn in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1798. That July he caught malaria and several weeks later suffered a stroke. He died on 21 August 1798 a virtual pauper, with only his wife and Associate Justice James Iredell at his side.

    Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions (New York: Chelsea House, 1969);

    Charles Page Smith, James Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956).

    Father: William Robert Covill Wilson b: 19 MAR 1692/93 in St Andrews, Fife, Scotland
    Mother: Alison Landall b: 22 FEB 1712/13 in St Andrews, Fife, Scotland

    Marriage 1 Rachel Bird b: ABT. 1750 in Douglassville, Berks, Pennsylvania, USA
    • Married: 5 NOV 1770 in Cumberland, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA
    1. Has Children Mary Polly Wilson b: 23 SEP 1772 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
    2. Has Children William Wilson b: 15 JUL 1775 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
    3. Has Children Bird Wilson b: 18 JAN 1777 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
    4. Has Children James Bird Wilson b: 10 NOV 1779 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
    5. Has Children Tempest Wilson b: 20 JUN 1781 in Pennsylvania, USA
    6. Has No Children Emily Bird Wilson b: 11 MAY 1782 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
    7. Has No Children Charles Bird Wilson b: 5 AUG 1785 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Marriage 2 Hannah Grey b: 18 JUL 1744 in Boston, Middlesex, Massachusetts, USA
    • Married: 19 SEP 1793 in Philadelphia, USA
    1. Has No Children William Wilson b: ABT. 1788 in USA?
    2. Has No Children John Wilson b: ABT. 1790 in USA?
    3. Has No Children Andrew Wilson b: ABT. 1792 in USA?
    4. Has No Children Henry Wilson b: 12 MAY 1794 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

    1. Miller -
    2. IGI Birth Record
    3. Rankin-Wilson - Rootsweb
    4. The Family Tree of Clark Jay Wilson - Rootsweb
    5. Wikipedia
    6. Charles Page Smith, James Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956)
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