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Wilson, James

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Birth: September 14, 1742, Carskerdo, Scotland.

Education: Attended University of St. Andrews (Scotland); read law privately; admitted to the bar in 1767; honorary M.A., College of Philadelphia, 1776; honorary LL.D., 1790.

Official Positions: Delegate, first Provincial Convention at Philadelphia, 1774; member, Continental Congress, 1775–1777, 1783, 1785–1786; delegate, U.S. Constitutional Convention, 1787; Pennsylvania delegate to the Federal Convention, 1787; delegate, Pennsylvania convention to ratify U.S. Constitution, 1787.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President George Washington, September 24, 1789; confirmed by the Senate, September 26, 1789, by voice vote; took judicial oath October 5, 1789; served until August 21, 1798; replaced by Bushrod Washington, nominated by President John Adams.

Death: August 21, 1798, Edenton, North Carolina.

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James Wilson
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James Wilson

James Wilson was born on a farm in Scotland and educated at the University of St. Andrews, where he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, logic, moral philosophy, ethics, and natural and political philosophy. As he was acquainted with the literature of the Scottish and English enlightenment, Wilson was well prepared to take an active part in revolutionary activities when he arrived in America in 1765. After a short time as a tutor at the College of Philadelphia, Wilson determined that studying law would more likely lead to his advancement, and he arranged to read law with John Dickinson, a prominent lawyer. Less than a year later, Wilson was ready to practice on his own, and he established himself in Reading. In 1770 he moved to Carlisle and in 1778, to Philadelphia, all the while expanding his clientele.

During these same years Wilson became involved in patriot politics. In 1774 he revised and published a pamphlet that he had written six years earlier, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. His radical view that Parliament had no legislative authority over the colonies contributed effectively to the patriot cause, and publication of it enlarged his reputation in America and England. In 1774 Wilson attended the Pennsylvania Provincial Convention as a delegate. He served several times as a member of the Continental Congress, where he was not an early supporter of independence. Yet Wilson was one of the three (out of seven) Pennsylvania delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Wilson's private activities, in addition to his ser-vice in the Continental Congress, contributed to his belief that a more powerful central government was needed. As an attorney, he had an extensive admiralty practice and became convinced of the necessity to create a federal court supreme over state courts. His business dealings led him to take an active part in the establishment of the first national bank, the Bank of North America. When the bank was attacked in 1785, Wilson wrote a defense of it, Considerations on the Power to Incorporate the Bank of North America, in which he formulated arguments favoring the implied powers of Congress under the Articles of Confederation to charter a bank. Wilson also found time to pursue his own scholarly studies in political theory, history, and philosophy, and his preeminence in these fields was recognized by the American Philosophical Society, which elected him a member in 1786.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Pennsylvania legislature appointed Wilson a delegate to the Federal Convention in 1787. By that time his views on government had become clear. In the convention he advocated popular election of both houses of Congress as well as of the executive, no property qualifications for voting, no restrictions on the admission of new states to the Union, the supremacy of the national government for the purposes of the new Union, the creation of a supreme court with judges appointed by the president and with the power of judicial review, and congressional authority to establish inferior federal courts. Wilson was a member of the Committee of Detail that prepared a draft of the Constitution. The convention did not adopt every measure that Wilson supported, but he did all in his power, as a member of the Pennsylvania Convention, to ensure the successful outcome of the ratification contest. George Washington rewarded Wilson's efforts by nominating him to the Supreme Court.

Wilson's moment of glory as a Supreme Court justice came, oddly enough, while sitting as a circuit judge (a duty required by the Judiciary Act of 1789) in Pennsylvania in April 1792. There the court, by refusing to hear the petition of William Hayburn, a veteran of the Revolutionary War seeking a pension under the Invalid Pensions Act of 1792, exercised judicial review for the first time. The court wrote no opinion but instead sent a letter to President Washington explaining its actions. The court could not proceed, the judges declared, “because the business directed by this act is not of a judicial nature” and

because, if, upon that business, the court had proceeded, its judgments …. might, under the same act, have been revised and controlled by the legislature, and by an officer in the executive department. Such revision and control we deemed radically inconsistent with the independence of that judicial power which is vested in the courts; and, consequently, with that important principle which is so strictly observed by the Constitution of the United States.

Known for giving long and learned grand jury charges while on circuit—Attorney General Edmund Randolph referred to him as “the professor”—Wilson's few Supreme Court opinions, with the exception of Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), are short and unremarkable, except for their inherent interest as rulings of a justice who had helped to frame the Constitution. In each case he upheld the power of the national government: in Hylton v. United States (1796), Wilson, who had affirmed the constitutionality of the federal Carriage Tax Act while on circuit, merely reiterated his belief that the tax was valid. In Ware v. Hylton (1796), he enforced the supremacy clause of the Constitution by declaring that a federal treaty was superior to a state law.

Wilson wrote an extensive, learned dissertation in Chisholm that led him to the same conclusion as a majority of the Court, sustaining the right of a citizen of one state to sue a different state in the U.S. Supreme Court. After defining the concepts of sovereignty and statehood and describing the practice of other states and kingdoms, Wilson determined that nothing stood in the way of the Supreme Court's jurisdiction over the state of Georgia. The “general texture” of the Constitution also contributed to Wilson's view that the people of the United States formed a nation and instituted a national government with complete power to achieve the purposes of the Union, and that “with Regard to such Purposes,” it would be incongruous for “any Man or Body of Men—any Person natural or artificial,… to claim successfully, an entire Exemption from the Jurisdiction of the national Government.” But it was the language of the Constitution itself that in the last analysis convinced Wilson of the accuracy of his belief: “The judicial Power of the United States shall extend to Controversies between two States.” Wilson asked, “Can the most consummate Degree of professional Ingenuity devise a Mode by which this ‘Controversy between two States’ can be brought before a Court of law; and yet neither of those States be a Defendant?”

James Wilson's exceptional intellectual promise, so evident throughout his career, should have made him a natural leader of the fledgling Supreme Court. But his preoccupation with financial affairs during the later years of his brief tenure on the bench—he even spent a short time in jail for debt in 1797—robbed him of the time and the stature to put his imprimatur on the Court's jurisprudence. Desirous of becoming the first chief justice in 1789—he actually wrote to President Washington on April 21, 1789, requesting the position—Wilson masked his disappointment at receiving a commission only as associate justice. When a vacancy occurred in the chief justiceship in 1795, and then again in 1796, Wilson hoped that he would be appointed. He was passed over both times, most probably because his speculation in western land had hurt his reputation. Wilson's frustration, coupled with constant worry about money, seriously affected his health, forced him to neglect his Supreme Court duties, and ultimately led to his death at age fifty-five.


More has been written about James Wilson than any other of the first six justices, but little of it concerns his tenure on the Supreme Court. Grand jury charges given by Wilson while on circuit, as well as letters relevant to his Supreme Court service, can be found in the volumes of Maeva Marcus, ed., The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 (1985Ð). A useful, complete biography is Charles Page Smith, James Wilson: Founding Father, 1742–1798 (1956). A concise, instructive, and authoritative essay about Wilson, written by Robert G. McCloskey, appears in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 1, 79. See also D.W. Maxey, “The Translation of James Wilson,” Journal of Supreme Court History (1990): 29.

Noteworthy Opinions

Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793)

Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. 171 (1796)

Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. 199 (1796)


Document Citation
Wilson, James, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 612 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18170-979664
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