On this day in 1798, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. James Wilson was one of only six men who signed both the Declaration and the United States Constitution.
But why have so few heard of James Wilson? Theodore Roosevelt’s Attorney General called it “one of the mysteries of history, which I have not been able to solve, why [Wilson’s] fame has not kept pace with his service.”
Indeed, Wilson was considered one of the leading political and legal thinkers of his day—“the closest the Founding had to an Aristotle,” as one historian concludes. Wilson litigated several important cases during the Revolutionary War years, including one in which he served as defense counsel for Quakers who had been charged with treason.
It didn’t exactly make him popular at the time.
Wilson also served in the Continental and Confederation Congresses, and he was later appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Nevertheless, his most important contribution may have occurred during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Wilson served as a delegate from Pennsylvania.
“Scholars of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 have long recognized the importance of James Wilson to the framing of the Constitution,” Professor William Ewald writes. “He is generally acknowledged to have been one of its principal architects, second in importance only to [James] Madison.”
Wilson has been called “the driving force on the Committee on Detail” that summer. The committee filled in important gaps that had been left undecided on the main convention floor.
After the Convention, the newly proposed Constitution faced charges from anti-Federalists who worried about that document’s lack of a Bill of Rights (among other issues). Wilson was among the first to respond. On October 6, 1787, he delivered a speech at the State House in Philadelphia. The “State House Speech” was printed and distributed throughout the colonies.
In his speech, Wilson noted that a Bill of Rights was not needed because the federal government has only those powers specifically delegated to it by the Constitution.
If the Constitution doesn’t specifically give the federal government power over a free press, then why would we need an amendment protecting the free press from the federal government? “[T]hat very declaration,” Wilson noted, “might have been construed to imply that some degree of power was given, since we undertook to define its extent.”
Wilson’s State House Speech played an important role in ensuring that our Constitution was ratified, despite its initial lack of a Bill of Rights.
Wilson’s legacy has perhaps been lost because of his ignominious end. He’d made some bad investments, and he landed in debtor’s prison—twice! Wilson is thus our only United States Supreme Court Justice to sit in prison while he also sat on the Court. He died, destitute, in 1798.
It was a sad end to an accomplished life, and Wilson surely deserves better. He was one of 55 men to gather in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The assembled delegates were students of history—and they had no partisan bias because political parties hadn’t been created yet. Instead, they spent the summer involved in a deep, philosophical debate. How can a diverse nation composed of both large and small states govern itself, even as it treats minority groups fairly? How can the tyranny of the majority be prevented, even as important principles of self-governance are protected?
Those men hammered out the parameters of the new American government, a unique experiment in self-governance that has endured for more than 230 years.
And Wilson was an important part of that.
Ashes of Great Patriot Reinterred with Honors: Impressive Services Mark the Reception of the Body of James Wilson, one of the Pennsylvania Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Reading Times; Nov 23, 1906) (Page 3)
James Wilson, State House Speech (Oct. 6, 1787)
Jon Levitan, Forgotten Founder: William Ewald on Justice James Wilson, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (SCOTUSblog; Dec. 7, 2017)
Joseph Tartakovsky, The Lives of the Constitution: Ten Exceptional Minds that Shaped America’s Supreme Law (2018)
Nicholas Mosvick, Forgotten Founders: James Wilson, craftsman of the Constitution (National Constitution Center; July 13, 2020)
Notes of Major William Pierce (Georgia) in the Federal Convention of 1787 (reprinted HERE)
William Ewald, James Wilson and the Drafting of the Constitution (Journal of Constitutional Law; 2008)