January 01, 2015

James Wilson: A Founding Father Lost Along the Way

By Judge A. Robinson Hassell

(To Dickinson, and to Adams): I’m different from you, John. I’m different from most of the men here. I don’t want to be remembered.

—James Wilson (Penn.), 1776, scene 71

July 4, 1788, was one of the brightest days in the history of the City of Philadelphia and for one of its most influential citizens. A vast and excited crowd of some 17,000 had gathered in its streets to both commemorate the founding of the American Republic and to celebrate the young nation’s newly ratified, governing Constitution. Overhead, beginning at dawn, a carillon of bells pealed from the steeple of Christ Church, for years the highest structure in the entire coastal span of the former Colonies. It also served as a signal to commence a parade, a grand processional of public figures led by the occasion’s featured speaker, James Wilson.2

Wilson, as a lesser-known member from the Colony of Pennsylvania, had cast his delegation’s deciding vote for independence 11 years earlier at the convening of the Continental Congress a mere three blocks away from the same church in this, his adopted City of Philadelphia. Wilson had come to be regarded by his peers as a preeminent scholar of political theory and government,3 and as a principal contributor of the five-member Committee of Detail at the 1787 Constitutional Convention the previous year (also in Philadelphia), he had given voice and form to much of the founding words and principles that still provide much of the structural underpinnings of our nation. These include a preamble that begins “We the People”; a bicameral legislature with selection in one chamber by proportional representation; the “necessary and proper” clause for legislative authority; the Electoral College process for selection of the executive; and the Supremacy Clause for judicial authority and its exercise of interpretation and construction, among others.4

Wilson, as architect and primary advocate for the tandem theories of federalism and the sovereignty of the people, was instrumental in both the adoption and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.5 Wilson, as an earlier lecturer in classics and English at The College of Philadelphia, was, by the time of the processional, only the nation’s second law professor,6 whose plenary lecture series are traced as the genesis of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Law. Wilson, as one of the original associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court he had helped to design, had also become recognized as a longtime champion for separation of powers and judicial independence.7

And yet, a mere decade later, Wilson perished while literally on the run from his creditors, far from those pealing bells of home, impoverished, and facing near-certain impeachment and renewed imprisonment.8 As author Charles Page Smith observed,

There were no testimonials, eulogies, funeral orations for Wilson. His death had been a pathetic one. . . . He lay in quiet obscurity besides the waters of Albemarle Sound, far from the scenes of his great triumphs. His forgotten bones, mouldering in the little graveyard beneath the cypress, symbolized the eclipse of his fame.9

Premium Content For:
  • Lawyers Conference
  • National Conference of Specialized Court Judges
  • National Conference of State Trial Judges
  • National Conference of the Administrative Law Judiciary
  • ABA Licensing Partners
  • National Conference of Federal Trial Judges
  • Appellate Judges Conference
Join - Now