Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Carlisle buzzed that night with festivities. On the streets of the usually quiet little Cumberland County town bonfires blazed while spirited political speeches rang out on every corner, all in celebration of Pennsylvania’s vote to ratify the new Constitution of the United States. The Federalists had finally won their cause, and it was time to savor the victory. But not everyone was in a festive mood that Decem­ber evening in 1787.

Mobs of “Antifeds,” armed with clubs, stalked the celebrants in search of a target on which to vent their hostility toward the new government. Soon they found one. Standing near a bonfire was James Wilson, the very individual who was not only primar­ily responsible for Pennsylvania’s vote to ratify, but who was also one of the principal, indispensable architects of the federalist document. As soon as they recognized Wilson, members of the mob attacked, and, when the Pennsylvania attorney defended himself, they knocked him to the ground and savagely beat him with clubs. He survived only because – as some later recounted the incident – an old Revolutionary War veteran threw himself over Wilson and took the worst of the blows.

The Antifederalists knew what many today have forgotten: that James Wilson had been second only to James Madison in his influence on the Constitutional Convention of 1787. However, even in his home state of Pennsylvania, Wilson’s name is little known, and his contributions to the enduring and cherished American principles of government little recognized. In reality, James Wilson was neither Federalist nor Antifederalist. With outstanding scholarship and the keenest of legal minds, the Scottish-born Wilson was able to cut through both ideologies and offer a synthesis which, in large part, the future of his adopted country was to realize. As signers of the Declaration of Indepen­dence, he and Madison formed the true dynamic duo behind the U.S. Constitution. Later, his voice would be crucial in the de­bates over ratification in Pennsylvania. In 1790 he was the key individual in the development of a new state constitution for Pennsylvania. For the last nine years of his life he served as As­sociate Justice of the Supreme Court, a body which he had helped to bring into being. Still, he remains almost unknown to Americans, including Pennsylvanians. But just who was this James Wilson?

Detractors would call him “James de Caledonia” to mock his aristocratic comportment. He was certainly the most learned delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but his appearance may have caused others to criticize him as a pedant. His profes­sion in law aligned him with the interests of East Coast finan­ciers, making it difficult for many to imagine him as a champion of democratic frontier farmers. Nevertheless, James Wilson had been born – some called him lowborn – into a farm family in Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1742. As the first son of ardently Calvinist parents, great hope was placed in him. His parents did not want their son to be a lawyer, but a minister, one who would fight for return to the traditional, strict Calvinism of the old doctrine. James proved to possess the discipline and intellect of a scholar, but his studies at the University of Edinburgh led him not to­ward old doctrine but toward the new ideas of the Age of Enlightenment.

Although he would rebel against his parents’ religion, James Wilson did inherit from the church a deep respect for the right and ability of people to choose their own leaders, whether minis­ters or political representatives, and their right to dissent from those leaders whenever they saw the need. Espousing this unique combination of the new order and the old doctrine, Wilson, at the age of twenty-three, abandoned Scotland for the American colonies.

America appealed to another, perhaps darker, side of James Wilson, as well. For some inexplicable reasons, this young, schol­arly farmer’s son was also a gambler. Perhaps it was the Scottish love of melding wild idealism with hard practical realities. It may have been a manifestation of a deep-rooted rebellion against the poverty of his youth. Whatever the reason, land speculation and risky business ventures would intrigue Wilson throughout his life. He would pour his boundless energy into one extravagant scheme after another, until it led to his disastrous undoing. But he set out for America with high hopes, in search of a new life in the fabled land of opportunity.

He held a teaching appointment at the College of Philadel­phia, but yearned to be involved in the great stir created by the Stamp Act. His devotion to the colonial cause eventually caught the attention of John Dickinson, a prominent Philadelphia law­yer, and Wilson soon decided that an apprenticeship in law un­der Dickinson would both steer him in the right professional path and keep him close to the struggle between England and the colonies. At the time Dickinson was working on his famous Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer – a vindication of the American cause – and it is likely that Wilson served as a copyist for many of the missives.

In 1767, Wilson completed his apprenticeship with Dickinson and journeyed west to participate in the testy land litigation squabbles erupting constantly on the frontier. As his law practice grew, so did his friendship with Rachel, sister of wealthy iron­master Mark Bird of Birdsboro. On November 5, 1771, the two married, and moved to a house in Carlisle, located on the corner of Pitt and High streets, one block from the courthouse. Wilson was quickly inducted as a member of Carlisle’s board of direc­tors, the individuals who guided the town’s role in revolutionary affairs.

Wilson was beginning to attract some notoriety for his beliefs. His essay, “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Leg­islative Authority of the British Parliament,” first drafted in 1769, appeared in print in 1774. While the piece did not advance new ideas, it did mark Wilson as one of the most able thinkers in the colonies. When Samuel Adams called for the formation of “com­mittees of correspondence” to unite the colonists’ efforts against Great Britain, Wilson was elected as one of Pennsylvania’s depu­ties to the Provincial Convention in Philadelphia. In his first public appearance at the Provincial Convention, he read a pol­ished version of “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” His phrase, “All men are, by nature, equal and free;’ would be paraphrased two years later in the Declaration of Independence. Although his speech was long and ponderous, it was the most visionary and coherent statement of the colonists’ cause made before the out­break of the Revolutionary War. And Wilson had first drafted it at the age of twenty-six.

In 1775, Wilson was elected a representative to the Continen­tal Congress. He tried to remain a moderate on the question of independence, but John Adams persuaded him to join the revo­lutionary faction. In July 1776, when the Declaration of Indepen­dence was presented in Congress, Wilson, along with Benjamin Franklin, voted for it. He would affix his signature the following month. In Congress, the issue of proportional representation versus equal representation for each colony or state had begun to stir the debate over the Articles of Confederation, the very issue that would plague the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Lead­ers of large states wanted representation in proportion to popula­tion, while delegates of small states, fearing a reduction of their power, vied for equal – that is, one vote for each state – representation.

Wilson sided with the large states, encouraging proportional representation, not so much because he wanted his own state of Pennsylvania to enjoy special prominence, but because he saw majority rule as a more important principle than state sover­eignty. He sensed what the failure of the Articles of Confedera­tion would eventually prove: uncontrolled state sovereignty would only cripple the effectiveness of national government. To deal with the problems of the whole country, a strong, central­ized federal authority was critical.

Although burdened with Congressional duties, Wilson was also entangled in the harsh, partisan battles for a constitution for Pennsylvania. Moderates, including James Wilson, would lose this fight in 1776 to the radically independent farmers of western Pennsylvania. The resulting document would bestow fourteen years of internal strife upon the Commonwealth. It was such an amorphous, ineffectual piece of work that one of Wilson’s fellow moderates would later describe it as something resembling “Ovid’s description of matter before the creation.”

The 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution gave western Pennsylva­nia radicals control of Carlisle. At the time, Wilson’s law practice was gaining prominence, and his complex business and land interests expanding. To better control his diverse affairs, Wilson would have to leave the frontier, and in 1778 he decided to move to Philadelphia. British Gen. Henry Clinton had just evacuated the city recently captured by his predecessor, Gen. William Howe, and on July 2 Congress would return from its refuge in York. During the British occupation, many Tories in Philadelphia had freely voiced their sympathies, and were now being har­assed and even murdered by patriots. Wilson, along with George Ross and William Lewis, took on their defense. He ar­gued that capricious charges of treason constituted one of the primary weapons of tyrants wishing to silence political dissent. He championed the position that treason be provable only by testimony from two witnesses to the same overt act, a clarifica­tion of treason law that was eventually incorporated in the Con­stitution. His defense of these Tories had infuriated militant patriots and a resounding cry echoed throughout the city: “Get Wilson!”

On October 4, 1779, patriots circulated a handbill in Philadel­phia calling for a militia to “drive off from the city all disaffected persons and those who supported them:’ When the Pennsylva­nia Assembly proved powerless to restrain the radicals, Wilson and about twenty middle-aged, overweight, and bespectacled friends joined to form a small militia of their own. They garri­soned themselves at Wilson’s house at Third and Walnut streets, after Rachel and the children were bundled off to safety. As they watched from the upper windows of “Fort Wilson,” they saw a vengeful mob surge into Walnut and approach Third Street. Captain Campbell, an invalid Continental Army officer, called from a window and ordered the crowd to disperse. He was an­swered with a musket shot that killed him instantly. Meanwhile, surly militiamen were battering down the back door of the house. Col. Stephen Chambers took a position on the back stairs and fired into the crowd, wounding one. Before he could reload, however, he was dragged from the stairs and bayoneted. Finally, Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, arrived with the City Troop of Light Horse to quell the disturbance. Four militiamen, and a young Black child who had joined them, were killed. Fourteen were wounded. Of the Fort Wilson garrison, only Captain Campbell was killed. Colonel Chambers survived his bayonet wound. For sometime afterward the city was unsafe for Wilson. He went into hiding, and would return only after most Philadelphians had become embarrassed by, and weary of, the whole unhappy affair.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was the central event of James Wilson’s career. Unfortunately, he was not able to share the prestige and intellectual excitement wi.th his wife, who died on April 14, 1786, at the age of thirty-nine. The following autumn Wilson moved his children to a house on Chestnut Street be­tween Fourth and Fifth streets, one block from the State House (now Independence HaU), where the historic Convention would begin its work in May 1787.

Wilson arrived at the State House with no illusions about “revising” the Articles of Confederation, with which the Conven­tion was ostensibly charged. He would team with James Madi­son to sway the Convention toward a new and truly national government, one vigorous enough to carry through its own resolves without being undermined by the individual states. Wilson argued the principle of popular sovereignty more force­fully than any other delegate. He would use his “pyramid” meta­phor time and again to illustrate his idea of a strong central authority founded on the widest possible base. During the Con­stitutional Convention, the delegate who had fought so vehe­mently against the radical Democrats of western Pennsylvania would ironically reveal a greater willingness than any other to trust the people to govern themselves.

With respect to the first house of government (House of Rep­resentatives), Wilson pressed for direct election by the people. So too for the election of senators. When the question of electing the executive arose, Wilson was once again on his feet arguing for direct popular election. (It was not until 1913, with the adop­tion of the Seventeenth Amendment, that the Senate would be a popularly chosen body.) In the Convention, even Madison could not support Wilson on direct election of the president; the mo­tion became part of the Constitution orly after Wilson proposed a system of electors to be used in choosing an executive.

Many delegates believed that a single executive was no differ­ent from a monarch. Wilson argued that a collective executive was not only less decisive and less representative of the people as a whole, but was also no less susceptible to becoming a tyr­anny. Time and time again, Wilson educated fellow delegates in matters of history and jurisprudence. Large countries, he would note, required the clarity of monarchical rule. The trick was to preserve this valuable principle in a country whose manners were as thoroughly republican as the United States. A single executive, elected directly by the people, in Wilson’s view, would fit the case perfectly.

Many delegates feared that the steadily growing western states would soon dominate the government. To this Wilson replied that “all men, wherever placed, have equal rights and are equally entitled to confidence … the majority of people wherever found ought in all questions to govern the minority.” The ques­tion of admitting foreigners as citizens or as members of Con­gress irked James Wilson, who remarked that it would be wrong to deprive the government of the “talents, virtue and abilities of such foreigners as might choose to remove to this country.”

Despite his treatment by western Pennsylvanians and by patriots during the Fort Wilson battle, Wilson maintained faith in the people. Undoubtedly, he, as well as many of the founding fathers who were also land speculators, had a selfish interest in a strong central government. His ambitions were great, surpassed only by his debts. But he consistently argued – directly against those who claimed government was intended for the protection of property – that the happiness of the governed and the culti­vation of the human mind were the most noble objects of government.

James Wilson’s struggle did not end with the close of the Convention in September 1787. Without reservation or hesita­tion, he entered the fray for ratification in Pennsylvania. When Pennsylvania’s Federalists needed an orator they chose Wilson. Speaking before a public meeting in the State House on October 6, 1787, he reviewed the whole concept of the new gov­ernment and offered detailed explanations. The speech was so important in clearly refuting objections to the Constitution that George Washington himself played a role in promoting both its printing and wide distribution.

Wilson continued his oratorical warfare for ratification in the Pennsylvania Convention – which met from November 21 to December 12 – and western Democrats opposed him at every turn. But the persuasive, learned delegate was shrewd. He suc­ceeded in steering the new government toward ratification in an all-important state and won himself a personal triumph. After­wards, Dr. Benjamin Rush would describe Wilson’s mind as “one blaze of light.”

With Pennsylvania’s endorsement of the Federal Constitution, Wilson knew the Commonwealth would be responsive to review­ing the Pennsylvania State Constitution of 1776. By now an old hand at the drafting of such documents, he took the lead in the development of a new state government. By August 1790, the Commonwealth had a “new roof” for itself, and James Wilson, the Scotsman, was known as the chief architect.

In ensuing years, while lecturing on law at the College of Philadelphia, Wilson continued gambling on risky investments. His precarious situation was becoming well known. Although George Washington would appoint him one of the first associate justices of the Supreme Court, he passed over Wilson for the position of Chief Justice, undoubtedly because he feared Wilson’s finances were teetering at the edge of disaster and dis­grace. And it was not long before the president’s worst fears materialized.

When the Bank of England began to limit its discounts, the United States economy sank into a deep depression. Wilson’s creditors began to press so hard for their money that he lived in fear of leaving his home. In June 1797, while on circuit court duty, an angry creditor had him arrested and jailed in Burling­ton, New jersey. Bailed out by his son, Bird, Wilson fled to Eden­ton, North Carolina, which offered no sanctuary. Pierce Butler, to whom Wilson owed nearly two hundred thousand dollars, had him thrown in jail once again. Wilson’s second wife, Hannah, journeyed to Edenton as soon as she heard the news. She found her husband, listless and haggard, at a dilapidated tavern where he was rooming after a friend had secured his release from jail.

Following a bout with malaria, Wilson suffered a severe stroke in July 1798. Hannah nursed him in the hot, dusty little room, calming his ravings about bad debts and jail cells as best she could. But he would never see his home and children again. On August 21, 1798, James Wilson died in the shabby room of the cheerless tavern. He was buried nearby in the plot of a friend’s family.

For James Wilson, there were no grand testimonials or funeral orations. No processions. No national outpouring of grief or sympathy. His death may only have released his fellow justices from further embarrassment and former colleagues from pity. In 1906, his remains were moved to the burial ground at Christ Church, a few blocks from Independence Hall. It would take biographers until the mid-twentieth century – when historical subjects, despite their impurities and blemishes, could emerge – to “discover” Wilson. But his name remained locked in obscurity.

James Wilson had been an awkward, unattractive, arrogant, and ambitious individual. He had been a defender of Tories, allied with financiers, and hated, for much of his life, by radical Democrats. How could historians even attempt to reconcile these qualities with the James Wilson who worked closely with the nation’s most beloved leaders, but could also stand out among them? To be fully understood and appreciated, Wilson’s legacy of brilliant scholarship and deft diplomacy must be first enjoyed and cherished by Pennsylvanians and Americans alike. Only then can James Wilson be honored as a prophet in his own land.


For Further Reading

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle in Philadelphia. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1986.

Collier, Christopher, and James Lincoln Collier. Decision in Philadel­phia. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

Seed, Geoffrey. James Wilson: Scottish Intellectual and American Statesman. New York: KTO Press, 1978.

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


Wayne L. Trotta, Mechanicsburg, is a licensed psychologist. He received his master’s degree from Millersville University of Pennsylvania and practices with the Jinn of Riegler, Sheinvold and Associates in Harris­burg. In addition to practicing independently in Carlisle, Cumberland County, he is also a part-time teacher of psychology al Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC). His articles have appeared in Modern Bride, The Humanist, Marriage and Family Living, and Pennsyl­vania Psychologist, among others.