James Wilson was born in Scotland in 1742. He attended a surprising number of Universities there, and never attained a degree. He emigrated to America in 1766, carrying a number of valuable letters of Introduction with him. Through these connections he began tutoring and then teaching at the Philadelphia College. He petitioned there for a degree and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts several months later.
The most popular 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.
In 1774 Wilson attended a provincial meeting, as a representative of Carlisle, and was elected a member of the local Committee of Correspondence. He wrote a pamphlet titled “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” In it, he argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the colonies. It was published, and later found its way to the Continental Congress, where it was widely read and commented on. In 1775 he was elected to the Continental Congress, where he assumed a position with the most radical members-a demand for separation from Britain. James Wilson’s powers of oration, the passion of his delivery and the logic he employed in debate, were commented on favorably by many members of the Congress. He was; however, in a bind. Pennsylvania was divided on the issue of separation, and Wilson refused to vote against the will of his constituents. Many members felt that it was hypocritical to have argued so forcefully and so long for Independence, only to vote against it when the occasion came. Wilson, with the support of three other members who were sympathetic to his position, managed a delay of three weeks, so that he could consult with people back home. When the vote came, he was able to affirm Pennsylvania’s wish for Independence.
Following the Declaration, Wilson’s attention turned back to his state, where a new constitution was proposed. He was strongly opposed to its form, and argued against it at every opportunity. This placed his office in jeopardy. He was recalled from Congress for about two weeks in 1777 but no one would take his place, so he was restored until the end of his term. Wilson did not return home following his term. He stayed in Annapolis through the winter, settled in Philadelphia. He resumed some of his former law practice there, only now he consulted to corporations. He was a leader in the Democratic-republican party. He also resumed his activities in speculation, including profiteering. He borrowed heavily and gambled aggressively. These activities eventually caught up with him in two ways. First, he acquired a great deal of debt & for this he was very nearly arrested on several occasions. Second, he was repeatedly accused of “engrossing,” the practice of hoarding goods against the public need in order to drive up prices. During a food shortage in 1779, he and his property were attacked during riots in Philadelphia. He was rescued by a law enforcement troop, but had to hide for some time.
In 1779 Wilson was appointed by France to serve as its US advocate general for maritime & commercial enterprises. He was elected to Congress again in 1782, where he worked closely with Robert Morris on financial matters of state. In 1781, Wilson was appointed a director of the original Bank of North America. In 1884, he was appointed to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Following ratification of the new Constitution, he searched for an appointment to the Federal government. He appealed directly to Washington, and was appointed an Associate Justice in 1789.
The remainder of his life was miserable. His wife had died in 1786. In 1792 he returned again to speculation in land New York and Pennsylvania. His finances were completely destroyed within a short time & he spent some time in a debtors prison (while still serving on the Supreme Court!). By 1798 Wilson was destroyed as a man as well. He complained of great mental fatigue and an inability to work any longer. He died while visiting a friend in North Carolina that same year.